That the cosmos was built like a three-layer cake was a given for much of the ancient, pre-Copernican, world. The thought-to-be flat earth was covered with the dome of the heavens (holding the lights of the sky) and sat on top of the underworld (abode of the dead, etc.). So any rendering of the cosmos had to work within this assumed structure to be understood, locating the Godhead above the earth (because God is bigger than people) and the dead below (I suppose because that’s where they got buried).
Of course, since the Copernican ‘scientific revolution’, it is now widely accepted that the earth is roughly a sphere, and that up and down only have meaning because of gravity. Even so, many people who believe in gravity and a three-dimensional universe still think of God’s metaphorical throne as ‘up’ and the direction of evil as ‘down’--stubborn images from imperialistic power hierarchies that pervade theologies of dominance born in empires.
[Note that the church also celebrates Nicolaus Copernicus on 24 May–interesting that these two cosmic observances happen around the same time.]
All that said, what then might it mean that Jesus Christ “was carried up into heaven” [Luke 24.51]? Overlooking for a moment the naive idea of flying into space, as if heaven were a literal location in physical space, is there anything left of this image for us?
The only sense that my limited imagination can make of this image is that the historical person of Jesus–the child of God awakened to belovedness–transcended the limits of his physical body and ascended into the eternal Christ–to identify with everything and to be present everywhere. That rings true to my experience, that the beloved is within all that is–you, me, the rock, the tree, the animals, and the sea–certainly not limited to Christians who have ‘Christ in their hearts’. This Cosmic Christ includes all, and that seems dangerous to some because it threatens all rankings of power, class, race, ability, identity, and insider-outsider-ism.
“Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’ When it says, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.” [NRSV Ephesians 4.7-10 – please excuse the excessive male pronouns from this fusion of the historically male Jesus of Nazareth with the eternal, nonbinary Christ]
According to this letter, Jesus’ ascent into the infinite only has meaning when balanced by Jesus’ descent into the finite, experiencing the full breadth and depth of mortal life on earth. Taking this text even further, the church has a controversial tradition of Jesus Christ ‘harrowing hell’--that is, destroying the mythical place of eternal exclusion to free all people marginalized by supposed separation, bringing heaven to earth with mercy and justice, and reconciling all things to God. The Cosmic Christ extends belovedness to the entire universe…an image worthy of lifelong contemplation, bearing the good fruit of Beloved Community.