The Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin made the first manned spaceflight in 1961. He is often quoted as having said that when he left the Earth’s atmosphere, he looked around, and didn’t see God anywhere – the idea being that if God is in the heavens above the clouds, you should be able to see Him when you go up in a spacecraft. This is taken as an example of the crass and simplistic rejection of religion by Communist Russia.
Interestingly, it turns out that Gagarin never said those words. They were attributed to him by Nikita Krushchev. On the contrary, Gagarin was a practicing Christian, and according to a close friend of his, the astronaut later said, “An astronaut cannot be suspended in space and not have God in his mind and his heart.”
This can help us to understand the real meaning of today’s celebration. What we mean by the Ascension of the Lord is not that He took off and went shooting through the clouds to some place in outer space. Pope Benedict explains this beautifully in the second part of his work Jesus of Nazareth. He says, “When Jesus was taken from their sight by the cloud, this does not mean that he was transported to another cosmic location, but that He was taken up into God’s very being, participating in God’s presence in the world.” It means a “continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.” As Jesus says in the Gospel today, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
He explains how the reference to the cloud is theological language, indicating the power and presence of God, like the cloud that descended on the tent of the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, the cloud which surrounded Jesus during the Transfiguration, and similar events throughout the Scriptures. Here, it indicates that Jesus’ humanity is being taken into the mystery of God in a new way. Jesus has not gone to outer space; He has gone beyond space, participating in God’s “divine dominion over space”.
So, Jesus is no longer visible to us and physically constrained to a single location, as He was while He walked on Earth. Now, He is present everywhere. In the Pope’s words, the Lord’s “going away is in this sense a coming, a new form of closeness, of continuing presence, which … is linked with the ‘joy’” the disciples feel after the Ascension.
So, it comes as no surprise that neither Yuri Gagarin nor any other astronauts have seen God sitting on a throne out in space, with Jesus at His right hand, or anything of the sort. But neither is it a surprise that Gagarin and other astronauts have been moved to think of God during their journeys in space. On some occasions they have even been inspired to read the Bible out loud as they survey the wonders of God’s creation from a perspective that few human beings have ever seen.
Through His Ascension, Jesus has become even closer to us than before. Wherever we are, He is with us, not as a judgmental chaperone just waiting to accuse us of our faults, but as a loving Savior who comes to us with the Father and the Holy Spirit to strengthen us and guide us along the right path. Let us rejoice today as the first disciples did, and take to heart the Lord’s last commandment to spread the joy of Christianity to as many people as possible, “as we wait in joyful hope for the [final] coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”