We live in an age of images. For my generation, if someone says Kennedy’s assassination, flickering colour images of JFK and Jackie in an open topped black limo and her cradling her dying husband spring to mind; or when someone mentions 9/11, we remember the terrible image of the fires and collapsing buildings
Jesus used images constantly in his parables: a man went out to sow seed (The Parable of the Sower); a man was beaten up and left by the road side (The Good Samaritan); a rich man lived a lavish life while a poor man lay starving at his gate (Dives and Lazarus). He taught in concrete visual rather than abstract terms.
The author of Luke/Acts had to find similarly visual language to communicate to people that Jesus – after a time of being with his disciples after his resurrection – went away from his disciples to be with God, his Father. If he had left it in abstract or theological terms, he would have left his audience unmoved. Put visually, it made sense and was memorable.
So, Luke describes how Jesus took his disciples outside Jerusalem and said goodbye to them and Luke pictures Jesus as ‘ascending’, because in Luke’s time they believed that God was ‘up there’.
Such visual language has persisted in religious art. The East Window at my previous parish, Christ Church, Southgate had Jesus’ feet sticking out of a cloud. In the Shrine Church at Walsingham in Norfolk, little pink feet stick down from the ceiling. These images reflect the cosmology of Jesus’ time. Jesus’ contemporaries believed that human beings were down here on the earth and that God was up there in heaven.
This language is still in use. Adults often talk about God being “up there”, as do most children. They do this even though we have all seen pictures of the Earth taken from space and space probes have sent back signals and pictures form the remotest parts of the solar system. It is as though we have pushed back “heaven” from near space to the farthest reaches of outer space.
There is no harm in being so visual and literal. After all, so much of our individual and communal experience – like 9/11 and the twin towers – depends on images.
On the other hand, we need to remember that the images are only convenient handles to a more subtle reality. In the Gospels of Luke and John, the authors are explaining the abstract concepts that Jesus has moved from the world that we know to the dimension where God is. Thus, very early manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel make this very clear by simply saying that Jesus “withdrew from them [the disciples]”. In other words, he is no longer physically in this world. John’s Gospel also depicts Jesus’ withdrawal: Jesus contrasts his work “on earth” with that which he will do in his Father’s “presence”, which is where he had been “before the world existed.”