An Orthodox priest was telling me today about a new translation of some beloved Greek hymns into contemporary English. His favorite adaptation had to do with today's feast, the Ascension, which, in an effort to make the language more accessible, was translated in the new hymnal as "Jesus' lift-off".
While we can obviously laugh at the notion that Jesus' Ascension to the right hand of the Father would be compared to a rocket launch, it is quite true that we often misinterpret obviously symbolic theological language. Now I am not saying that our faith consists solely of symbolic language or that certain teachings shouldn't be taken literally or that they are un-historic. Jesus, in fact, is quite good (as you would expect) at signalling when he is speaking in parable and when he is speaking literally. Furthermore, Christian belief is so profound precisely because Jesus is an actual, flesh-and-blood, historical figure and God. What I am saying is that when we engage in theology we are dealing with issues that necessarily transcend human language and categories and so we must often use terms that are insufficient to capture divine realities and only imperfectly represent concepts that go beyond the capacities of our finite intellects.
A great example of this is found in our feast of the Ascension. For powerful psychological and historical reasons we think of Heaven as being up. In a symbolic sense this is not inaccurate, talking about the heavens, the sky, and the stars conjures up images of realities that are beyond our understanding and participate in something larger than our every day earthly existence. It is therefore helpful to think of Jesus ascending to Heaven, bringing our human nature beyond mere earthly existence to something beyond, something greater. It does not follow, however, that heaven is somehow literally up there in the stratosphere or that Jesus' ascension references him physically floating through the sky. If we take this kind of language too literally it breaks down. Again, this is not to imply that the Ascension is not an historical event (of course it is) and it is not to say that heaven isn't a real place (where would Jesus' physical body have gone, otherwise?), but it is to say that it's important to recognize the limitations of our language and concepts to describe exactly what is going on in theology. We were endowed with formidable intellects and can go quite far in understanding and describing the realities of our Creed, but there is always infinite meaning beyond what mere words can express. The Ascension is more than Jesus floating through the sky, it is in reality an event that transcends human understanding and speaks of a blessedness and a destiny for each of us that goes beyond anything we can fully grasp in this life. Maybe lift-off isn't such a bad descriptor after all.