In the Netherlands Ascension Day has developed into a day for amusement parks and furniture stores like Ikea, and—if the weather is nice—for a drink on a terrace. We (my wife, a guest and myself) drove to the Gooi, an area south-east of Amsterdam. It took some effort to find a sunny terrace with a free table. Near a small stream (the Eem) we found a nice place with a spacious roof-terrace and a beautiful view over the surrounding green countryside. The coffee and the strawberry cake were excellent.
For most Dutch people Ascension Day is no longer a day with religious meaning. It is a holiday, and for many people it forms the introduction to a nice free long weekend. Why they should have this day off—forty days after Easter—is a mystery for the major part of the secularized Dutch population. I belong to the small minority of people who, yesterday, did give the meaning of this christian feast some thought.
Acts 1:9 tells us that on the fortieth day after his resurrection Jesus was together with his disciples. He spoke with them about the mission assignment that was awaiting them. ‘And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.’ Then two angels (’two men in white robes’) appeared, who assured the disciples that their Lord will one day in a similar way return to this earth. As the word ‘ascension’ indicates, christians believe that Jesus departed to heaven, where he now ‘lives’. Adventists stress, in particular, that currently he officiates as our heavenly high priest in his role as Mediator.
It leads us to wonder: ‘So, where is this heaven where Jesus has gone?’ When we think about heaven we automatically look ‘up’, for heaven is ‘above’ us! But twelve hours later, we should really point downward, for in those twelve hours the earth has turned and , in fact, we then look in the opposite direction when we look ‘up.’
Even the Hummel telescope has not discovered a place in the immense universe where God ‘lives’, with his millions of angels, and where he is preparing the eternal dwellings for those who will live for ever with him. Astronomers can scrutinize space over an distance of thousands of light years. Is heaven even beyond where they can see? And, if so, how did Jesus travel this enormous distance when he ascended?
Shoule we take the word ‘heaven’ literally, or does it rather represent some abstract concept? In his fascinating book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Joseph Ratzinger (the former pope Benedict XVI) suggests that we should not think about heaven in any spatial sense. Heaven, he says, means ‘being in Christ’. Any further meaning of ‘heaven’ cannot be expressed in human language.
It would, indeed, also seem to me that we reach a wall when we think about heaven in terms of time and space, as some concrete location, somewhere in the universe, where we will also spend time. But to say that ‘heaven’ is only a synonym for ‘being in Christ’ seems too meager to me. It is more than that. But because of our human limitations we cannot define this ‘more’, since we have no words to describe this extra divine dimension. And, therefore, we must be content with our human terms of time and space.
In our human smallness we will continue simply to look ‘up’ when we think of ‘heaven’. And, that is ok. For most of us need concrete images and must, in all simplicity, search for words that will mean something to us in all our limitations. But as soon as we use these words, and we say: ‘This is how it is’, we must add: ‘But, yet, it is different.’ It is much more than we can grasp. Sometime, in the future, when we live in that other dimension, we will understand what ‘heaven’ really is. Until then we may thank God that ‘somewhere above’ (whatever that means) he has something unbelievably beautiful for us in store.