See the Conqueror mounts in triumph; see the King in royal state…
Those are the opening phrases of a hymn often used for the seventh Sunday of Easter, when many churches hear about the Ascension of Jesus, the story of the risen Christ being lifted up and taken by a cloud into Heaven.
We used a revised version of that hymn at my parish yesterday morning, with words that portray the rising Jesus not as the one who conquers but the one who saves; and to offer our praise, not for the glory of vanquished foes but of tender hearts.
I am convinced, perhaps more than ever, that such differences make a difference in today’s world—especially among those of us who are eager to make Christian worship matter for a world in pain.
The older and more typical images for the Ascension—images of conquest and of the totalizing power of monarchy—reflect particular cultural assumptions. The original version of the hymn I just noted, for example, was written by Christopher Wordsworth, a nineteenth-century English Bishop, who was writing at the height of the British Empire. The triumph of the risen Jesus, in other words, is the global triumph of Western civilization.
This blending of divine and imperial power offers a cautionary tale about religion itself: it’s never merely benign or neutral. Even well-intentioned people can mingle religious institutions and cultural customs in harmful ways. More severely, religious symbols can be appropriated for nefarious and violent purposes.
Nearly every religious tradition has fallen prey to this kind of appropriation over the centuries. And it’s happening today, in this country and others, under the banner of “White Christian Nationalism.”
I am not referring to all forms of patriotic engagement with our civic institutions; I don’t mean “Christian” in the way all churches worship and serve; and I certainly don’t mean to imply that white people are inherently bad.
“White Christian Nationalism” describes a particular cultural movement rooted in authoritarian impulses, divisive and hateful rhetoric, and is increasingly violent. I urged my own parish yesterday morning to take up the vital work of resisting this burgeoning cultural movement, to denounce it, and then bear witness to the transformative love and healing grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
While it seems like a wild stretch to go from the first-century ascension of Jesus to twenty-first century nationalism, religious symbols have always been vulnerable to that kind of political manipulation.
It’s worth noting here some key features of symbols. Many years ago, when I first started to learn about metaphorical and symbolic speech in Christian theology, it troubled me. I worried that theological symbols made the world of Christian faith less “real” somehow—as many people often say, Oh, that’s just a symbol.
What I have realized about symbols since then is precisely the opposite. Symbolic speech points to a reality so real that our ordinary, everyday language fails us. Whatever we may be trying to consider, perhaps its intimacy is just too close, or the joy too ecstatic, or the grief just too unraveling—in any case, we cannot speak of it directly; we need a symbol.
Gospel writers do this frequently. Many churches heard from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles yesterday morning, for example, when the closest friends of Jesus encounter Easter itself embodied; the risen Jesus is standing before them, and they have no idea what to say (Acts 1:6-11).
All they can manage to do is to look backward, to what they knew in a time gone by—what glory used to be, what fullness of life felt like so long ago, and what happiness might yet be once again.
“So,” they ask Jesus, “is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
That question sounds like such a wild non-sequitur it’s almost funny! But this is exactly the kind of question most of us would ask in a moment like that. Human beings always interpret and understand the world based on our past experiences and expectations. That’s really all we have to go on. Especially in disorienting moments of divine encounter we naturally revert to old patterns and familiar rhythms.
So while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the question these disciples ask the risen Jesus, it just sets the bar far too low for Easter.
When we finally realize that Easter has ushered in a new world, already unfolding before us, with a wider horizon than we could have imagined, a dawn lighted with a brighter sun, we suddenly need a symbol for this, a way to talk about what we cannot possibly comprehend—and so Luke gives us the Ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God in Heaven.
It’s a beautiful symbol and it makes perfect sense to frame it with triumph. But precisely because “triumphalism” presents a real and present danger in today’s cultural moment, we need alternative frameworks.
We might consider a wonderful line from poet Mary Oliver: “My work,” she says, “is loving the world.” And that means, as she describes it, “mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”
What might happen if we embraced the Ascension of Jesus, not with images of conquest and triumph, but with love and astonishment?
What if we were astounded not only by the spectacular pyro-technics usually associated with heavenly glory, but were also thoroughly amazed just by looking at each other, the nearly unspeakable glory of human faces? What if noticing iris blooming and dogs playing and babies taking their first steps actually took our breath away? Could we hear the wind in the springtime trees and the birds singing their own songs of praise in the early morning and the waves that come rolling up the ancient dunes along stunning shorelines and just stand still, astonished?
I don’t mean that we must choose between the heavenly glory of ascension and a down-to-earth God dwelling among us. To the contrary, the Ascension of Jesus invites us to embrace both and especially how they are inseparably intertwined. Right there is the good news of Luke’s dramatic symbol, of Jesus joining Heaven and Earth, revealing their intimate union.
Heaven is not far off, and Earth is not lost. They are joined, united, woven together in an unimaginable tapestry of divine beauty.
We must live into that vision of union and communion, or we risk abandoning Earth to those whose only desire is to “divide and conquer.”
God calls the Church to live as witnesses to flourishing life and gracious healing and the transformations that come only from love and laughter and all the things we can’t even dare yet to hope for—because Heaven and Earth are one.
And that’s what it means to live as Easter people, people who are loving and astonished.