Recently, my daughter’s grade 12 philosophy class watched the groundbreaking 1999 movie The Matrix. I was not surprised that it was being shown as a philosophical movie – it is indeed filled with both philosophical and theological themes and references. I was a bit surprised that not that many of the students had seen the movie. (Admittedly, it was released before these students were born, but still, it was so fresh and groundbreaking that my wife Leanne and I went to see it three times in theatre, and have watched it a number of times since, including to ensure that our daughters were inducted into an appreciation of it.)
Like any rich text, The Matrix can be read in a number of different ways. For me, one of those ways appears in the concluding frames with an image of an ascension. This ascension is an image of the power to reveal and distinguish fact from illusion, and so to bring transformation. As a result, I cannot help thinking of the ending of The Matrix when we come to the Feast of the Ascension.
The Feast of the Ascension is one of the seven Principal Feasts of the church. Ascension Day is a movable feast, observed on the fortieth day of the Easter season. This is in keeping with the tradition of Acts 1:3: the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples “over the course of forty days. . . speaking about the kingdom of God.”
In biblical terms, ‘forty days’ is used symbolically to indicate a particular time of challenge and preparation, usually culminating in a significant revelatory event or epiphany – such as Moses fasting on Mount Sinai leading to the gift of the Ten Commandments, or the Israelites wandering forty years in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, or Jesus being tempted forty days in the desert before returning to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14).
In the Ascension narrative of Acts 1, the ascension of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost are tied together. The disciples are interested in the kind of power that will “restore the kingdom to Israel” (1:6).
In other words: they are interested in political power. No doubt, political power is an important factor, and is indeed part of what the Ascension text addresses. N. T. Wright, in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003), notes that “any Roman reader of the time” would have read the story of Jesus’ ascension as having “an immediate counter-imperial impact” because of the Roman custom of declaring dead emperors divine on the evidence of “one or two witnesses who had glimpsed the soul of the dead emperor ascending toward the heavens” (Wright 2003, 656).
Those themes are echoed directly in the text of Acts 1. The Ascension is thus for the early Christians a kind of political theology. The crucified Christ is not only resurrected, but ascended “to the right hand of the Father” – an image of honour and power. And that means that the Emperor is not; Imperial power is subverted by the power of Christ. Christians are to follow the way of Christ first and foremost, before any other claim to power.
That is important for the church through the ages, though it has also been forgotten along the way. On the way out from Jerusalem, Jesus tells the disciples that they are to stay in Jerusalem “until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). In other words, they are not to expect that “the kingdom will be restored to Israel,” or, in our case — that Christendom will be resumed. Rather, they are simply to return to the city and await the power of the Holy Spirit, who will transform their understanding and send them out into all the world to live the good news of God’s kingdom at work. Christ is with them, but also away – leaving space for them to be and to do what Jesus had taught them to be and to do.
The Feast of Ascension is thus a day that starts with Christ, but points to the Church. “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” Go. Expect the power of God to be with you, but the power of God is the kind of power that turns us to see Christ at the heart of reality, and so transform and empower us in the unique way of Christ.
To that end, there is a lovely Collect included for the Feast of the Ascension in the Anglican Church of Canada’s collection of Alternative RCL Collects:
God unheld by word or wall:
lift us from dullness and cynical contempt;
make us ready for your Spirit of transforming power;
and turn our hearts to the mending of the world,
through Jesus Christ, the name above all names. Amen.
From Prayers for an Inclusive Church (2009) alt.