Today is the Feast of the Ascension. In the Anglican church, following the general pattern of ancient custom, the church year revolves around seven principle celebrations, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and All Saints. Among these, Ascension probably gets the least press. In many respects, this makes sense, not least because the Ascension, falling as it does forty days after Easter, always ends up on a Thursday, hardly a day we plan on going to church. But what the feast points to also trips us up. When we remember Jesus, we think of his nativity, we think of his teaching, we think of his healing, we think most especially of his Cross and Resurrection. We think, in short, of very human, very bodily, and therefore readily imaginable things.
But his ascension to heaven, even when compared to so supernatural an event as Easter, is totally alien to normal human experience. We can imagine, if however vaguely, what it might be like to have a glorified immortal body. But going up to God through the clouds? Who does such a thing? And why would you want to?
This is a tragedy. The ascension of our Lord is a principle feature of his restoration of God’s rule over the world, and consequently of his ministry to us. Why this is so can be brought out by a simple examination of what his ascension represents:
First, the ascension represents the final and ultimate exaltation of Jesus. As eternal Son of God, Jesus has always been at the right hand of the Father and shared in his glory and sovereign rule. But now Jesus the Son of Man sits at the Father’s right hand and shares in his glory and sovereign rule as a man. There he exercises God’s rule over the entire cosmos as the head and representative of the human race.
Second, and related to the first point, the ascension of Jesus represents as it enacts the glorification of humanity. Having come down to take what was ours, the Son of God ascended back to heaven and took what was ours with him. Which is to say, having come to us, he has now brought us, replete in our very creatureliness, into the eternally glorious radiance of his Father. Humanity, in him, now has creaturely access to eternity. His Ascension, therefore, is also a pledge that we will someday be where he is, in the direct presence of God.
Third, his return to his proper place in heaven allows his humanity, which he retains, to minister to us in an eternal and boundless way it could not have done had he stayed with us on earth. The Anglican divine Richard Hooker talks about how Jesus’ humanity retains both its physical and temporal constraints which are proper to a human body. Yet as God, the very physicality of his humanity, mystically and ineffably, is present to all Christians everywhere because his Spirit fills all things.
Which finally brings us to fourth, our Lord’s ascent means the descent of his Spirit. Christ himself taught his disciples that his Spirit would only come after he physically departed. Just before he went up to heaven, he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for his Spirit to fall in power on them. Ten days later, the Spirit came, and the church, as the body of Christ yet in the world, was born and sent forth. Now when we speak of the church, and of our individual ministries within it, as the “body of Jesus,” this is not merely a pious metaphor. Because his Spirit dwells within us and unites us to him where he is in glory, we very much are his body in the world, the continuation of his earthly ministry begun in Galilee two thousand years ago when he surprised the guests of a friend’s wedding with excellent wine.
All of this together brings to bear the crucial teaching of the Ascension we must hold on to. The ascension affirms that our Lord’s incarnation did not end with his resurrection. Our Lord Jesus retains his human nature still. He still owns and operates his resurrected body just as you and I own and operate our own bodies, and will someday do so with resurrected bodies. It is important when we think of Jesus that we do not spiritualize away his humanity as if it is something he had once “back then.” In Jesus, to this day, God very much has a human face which is irreducibly proper to him. That is why Jesus can intercede for us. That is why he can truly represent us to his Father. That is why he can truly identity with us, even as we continue to suffer the assaults of a fallen world. Jesus Christ, eternal God and now truly man, is really, actually, and eternally our brother.
It is all the more meaningful then to pray this collect for Ascension:
Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Blessings in the name of our ascended Lord,
This Sunday, Following Christ the Anglican Way continues
Join us as after our Sunday service as we look at the Book of Common Prayer. Anglicans are unique among Protestants in the role our particular manner of worship takes in our self-understanding. Our worship has been defined for nearly half a millennium by the Book of Common Prayer, a liturgy that is both ancient and culturally adaptive in its orientation. We will be exploring the values which produced and sustained it, and look at its role in our current life. We will start PROMPTLY at 6:00 pm and conclude PROMPTLY at 7:00 pm.