Magical Thinking

Luke 24:44-53 & Acts 1:1-11 – Ascension Day – for Sunday, May 12, 2013 (or May 9, 2013 for ascension sticklers)

“…he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven…” (Luke 24:51)

I felt compelled to write about Jesus’ ascension to heaven. And, as Fox Mulder fervently intoned on the classic “X Files” television show, “I want to believe.”Fox-Mulder-fox-mulder-25366898-500-375

I wanted to believe Luke and Acts were correct when they described Jesus rising from earth to the sky and then . . . out of sight. I want to believe Ephesians 4:8-10 (“…when he ascended far above the heavens…”) and I Timothy 3:16 (“taken up in glory…”) were additional factual, Biblical and faithful confirmations of Jesus’ divine flight.

This is what I told myself on the morning I read (again) about Jesus’ ascension and decided this time I’d approach it as true.

It happened!

But I couldn’t do it. Not for a thoughtful moment. Not for a faithful second.

I think the ascension is holy who-ha. Fanciful faith. It’s splashy and flashy but without a dash of historical veracity.

While I wonder about the contradictory and confounding resurrection stories, there’s an inexplicable core belief that something transcendent happened to, with and for Jesus at Easter. I can read, and agree with, critical scholars like Bert Ehrman or Marcus Borg (who have rigorously questioned the Biblical accounts of the resurrection) and yet their views don’t shake my Easter faith. Indeed, Ehrman, Borg and other progressive scholars have strengthened my faith.

I’m at work on a draft of a novel entitled “Christmas Joe.” It’s a coming-of-age story that takes place on a Christmas Eve. Though it may never get published, here’s one tag line I’d use to woo potential readers:  Everything about Christmas is true, including the parts that aren’t. My silly tease honors the novel’s plot, as a young man discovers—on the verge of Christmas—his family’s real and made-up history. But my tag line also underscores the giddy, stressful modern concoction called Christmas. Christmas’ tale is far more myth and metaphor than history. But I understand the truths of the story. Jesus was born. Powerless shepherds did understand him better than power-hungry politicians. Jesus would wrench his parents’ hearts. If a fellow twenty-first century follower of Christ argued that he or she believed every single word of Matthew and Luke’s birth accounts, I think—I think—I could understand why while not agreeing with him or her.

Easter is a transcendent mystery.

Christmas is faulty, but faithful mythology.

The ascension is who-ha.


Or not.

Since last year I’ve been on staff at a hospice. My responsibilities include leading grief support groups. As I try to help spouses struggling with the death of a beloved, I’ve searched for resources to help their—and my—understanding of what happens to those still alive and mourning. Joan Didion’s 2006 memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” is a book near the top of my must-read list.

A prolific writer, Didion won the National Book Award for “The Year of Magical Thinking.” And rightly so. The book was her attempt to comprehend her husband’s sudden death, a death she witnessed when he died across the dinner table from her in their New York apartment. She literally saw him die. But some part of her—in the throws of magical thinking, a way of viewing the world where a stunning loss overwhelmed her rational side—refused to believe her husband had died. In an interview on, Didion shared,

I couldn’t give away my husband’s shoes. I could give away other things, but the shoes—I don’t know what it was about the shoes, but a lot of people have mentioned to me that shoes took on more meaning than we generally think they do… their attachment to the ground, I don’t know—but that did have a real resonance for me.

I approach the ascension as magical thinking. I don’t believe it happened. For me there’s little transcendent or inspirational about Jesus’ flight beyond the clouds. It even seems, pardon my irreverence, a tad clichéd. (But, as I never say enough, I could be wrong. One person’s disbelief regarding a transcendent event is another’s leap into deeper faith.)

And yet, maybe it was an essential part of the story for those first century believers and grievers. Jesus, who was born, was gone. Jesus, in life and death and life again, would no longer physically accompany the disciples he knew and the disciples who would never met him. Jesus was no longer striding on his soles; no longer, as Didion mused, attached to the ground. He had become, rather, the Christ of souls.

Perhaps the ascension myth was necessary to help those grieving the old ways sense a new way of believing. No longer would it be Jesus stretching out a hand to heal, speaking words of compassion, or challenging the powerless to confront the powerful.

Instead it would be the earthbound disciples then and now striving to follow in his steps.


Image of Fox Mulder/David Duchovny from here.

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  1. I find your comments interesting, in a quirky sort of way. In some ways you seem to believe in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus but in others you do not, which bothers me; not for myself but for you! If you do not believe in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, what makes him any different than any other spiritual teacher? He would be “just another man” who was a great teacher. However, if you do believe in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, where did he go after he was resurrected? Where is he now? And if he is truly in heaven sitting at the right hand of God, how did he get there? Just my thoughts. Blessings to you!

    1. Lisa . . . thanks for reading!

      Me? Quirky? Hey, I could think of worse things to be called! I appreciate your questions about me. However! One of my goals as a writer openly reflecting about faith is to hope my words invite your questions about your faith.

      I would claim the cliche: I don’t take the Bible literally, but I take it seriously. Influenced by theologians like Marcus Borg, I tend to view the Bible through a metaphoric lens. For me, Jesus was not “just another man,” but neither is he the only way to have a path toward God.

      I resist–rightly or wrongly–thinking/believing about heaven as a specific locale and that Jesus (or anyone) has to go “up” (literally ascend) toward that place. My faith is more deeply challenged and nurtured when I view the ascension story as a metaphor for a living, dynamic faith rather than a factual account of historic details. But that’s my faith.

      With some of the questions you pose, I would answer, “I don’t know.” Where did Jesus “go” after the resurrection? I don’t know. But I believe that the Creator’s vast, unimaginable love is forever and beyond our comprehension. I’ll let God worry about heaven’s zip code and its “many mansions.” I believe, because of Jesus’ ministry and path, I am called to look at today and the place where I live . . . so that I can discern how I can serve/support my flesh-and-blood and here-and-now neighbors while deepening my relationship with God. On most days, I fail. But I keep trying to stumble along the path forged by Jesus.

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