I have the thankless task of trying to make some sort of sense out of the Ascension in my sermon for Sunday morning worship services. I met with the other pastors briefly this week and the topic came up in our discussion. Needless to say, they were glad it was me and not them that had to tackle this particular passage of scripture. What to do with a story of a Jesus floating up into the air, like some first century Superman? Taking the story literally is not a theological option for me personally, nor would it go over particularly well with the congregation.
A couple of years ago, one of my professors from seminary, Stephen Patterson, wrote a book entitled Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. One focus in the text, which was news to me, concerned the mythic story of the descending/ascending redeemer, which existed prior to and outside of Jewish and Christian writings. His contention (as well as others, including Rudolph Bultmann) is that early followers of Jesus, in an attempt to make sense of their "Jesus experience," grafted this well-known mythical archetype onto the story of Christ. It was a way of helping others, perhaps those who had not encountered Jesus, to understand why he had such a profound effect on his followers. For them, he represented this mythical archetype they had heard spoken of so often. He came from God, redeemed the people, was destroyed by worldly powers, and then returned to God.
When studying Patterson's book a few years back with members of my congregation, there was some resistance to this notion that early followers of Christ, or perhaps the gospel writers, superimposed this mythical story onto the pre-existing Jesus story. To them, such an understanding removes some of Jesus' uniqueness. "What's the point," they would argue, "depicting Jesus ascending to heaven, if they believed others had already done it before him?" (They, perhaps, had forgotten the story of Elijah!).
Then a woman in the group, a literature professor, spoke up and said, "It is your modern worldview that values uniqueness. You think Jesus is important because you believe him to be unique. But in the ancient world, exactly the opposite would be true. To them, value was to be found in those things or people that in some way represented or lived out already cherished myths and truths. Jesus' value was to be found precisely in the fact that he represented not something new but rather was the embodiment of truths already known in the scriptures and in the myths and stories of their culture." All well and good, but will it preach? I would argue that it does to the extent that it encourages us to get past a literalism of the Ascension and to ask the really important question: "What does it mean? What did it mean for ancient Christians to tell this story? What does it mean for us today? "