An apocryphal story is a story that probably did not happen. At the same time, an apocryphal story may tell us a ‘truth’ about the subject of that story. When I was in the Royal Navy, I heard the story of a steward who whilst waiting on officers, called out, ‘Hands up those who want soup!’ I heard this story so many times it felt like it had happened on every ship in the fleet. Perhaps it really did happen. Another story that began to do the rounds in the navy of the 1970s was of a rating who was brought before the captain on a disciplinary charge. At some point in the proceedings, the accused put his hand in his pocket, pulled out his ID card and in imitation of using a radio, put it to his ear and said, ‘Beam me up Scotty’. I heard this story a few times, always with a strong assurance that it was true. That particular line, ‘Beam me up Scotty’, from the Star Trek science fiction TV series does not exist. We might think it does, but it doesn’t; its’ apocryphal.
Each year, the Church celebrates Ascension Sunday as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. One cannot help feeling that this is another apocryphal, ‘Beam me up Scotty’ story. According to Acts while Jesus was still with the disciples, on Mount Olivet, forty days after the resurrection, ‘he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight’.
And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’ Acts 2:10-11 (RSV)
What are we to make of this? If a number of church goers were to stand on a hill watching their minister or spiritual leader disappear up in a cloud, they would be looking up into the sky or as Acts would have it: ‘gazing into heaven’. The inference is very clear, Jesus’ disciples were indeed looking up into the sky where heaven is; apparently. In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus said:
Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21) (KJV)
Nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you (Luke 17:21) (RSV)
The kingdom of God within, or kingdom of heaven within, is often interpreted as being a state of mind - a state of inner peace. Furthermore, the kingdom of God may be found in relationship between ourselves and others. That is, the kingdom is in ‘our midst’; or that it is ‘amongst us’. Paul, in his letter to the Romans makes this clear
For the kingdom of God is not food and drink; but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17) (RSV)
Over the years it appears that the celebration of Ascension Sunday has been quietly dropped in many churches, though in the past, on that day, some churches would haul a statue of Jesus up through the ceiling of the church until it disappeared from view. This would obviously make an impression on the congregation!
However, Luke who is the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, from which the story of The Ascension comes, is not a reliable witness to any of the events he wrote about. He simply wasn’t there. Nevertheless, Luke has no difficulty in relating the story of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus or of how Jesus ‘appeared’ amongst the eleven disciples on that same night, ate fish, and encouraged them to check to look at his hands and feet and to touch him as proof that he was physically present.
See my hands and feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; ‘for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have’ (Luke 24:39)
The problem we have with this story, apart from the notion of a physical resurrection is how a solid physical body can ascend in a cloud without the benefits of modern science or ‘Beam me up Scotty’ Star Trek technology. We are hardly likely to be convinced by the spectacle of a statue being hauled up through a church roof, no matter how ‘symbolic’ this is meant to be. In the rational mindset, we no longer live in a world where we are the centre of all creation, where God in heaven looks down upon us through the clouds, where miracles and magic are an accepted part of life:
When we find that there is no one ‘out there’, then we are left with our knowledge and our culture which become an end in themselves, and are therefore meaningless, since meaning can only exist in relation to something or someone else. When this Titan has succeeded in overthrowing the gods, he has no meaningful task left and so he must despair. (Machovec 1967).
Alternatively, the spiritual seeker may see that despair is merely a vacuum waiting to be filled. The apocryphal story succeeds because it has currency, the story is passed around because at some level it is true or perhaps there is just a longing for it to be true. The story of The Ascension addresses that longing. If like Joseph in the court of pharaoh we could only get past the dream and interpret the message.
William Barclay in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke took the view that Luke’s description of the Ascension was an attempt to put the indescribable into words. When the indescribable is put into words we get a story. Sometimes a story can become scripture, even poetic scripture. That indescribable story of creation as related in Genesis, stirs the imagination, coming to us in images that can be visualised and grasped in one way or another. We may ask why there should be any creation at all. We could say that it’s all meaningless and that indeed there’s no one ‘out there’. But if we were to say in modern parlance, that the DNA of the Universe actually runs through our very being then, we may sense the creative impulse that became the story of creation. Thomas Merton put it like this:
But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things; or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
(New Seeds of Contemplation)
The story the ascension really underlines the spiritual nature of our being. Again, in his commentary on the Ascension, William Barclay wrote:
There had to come a dividing when the Jesus of Earth had to become the Christ of Heaven. (The Daily Study Bible)
One day, each of us must leave this earth. There has to be a dividing. In the life of Jesus, we have been given an example, an alternative to despair, an example of the faith that can move mountains, faith instead of despair, the ‘joy of the cosmic dance’ of which we are a part and an assurance of the eternal, as portrayed in the story of the Ascension.