15 May 2010

On the Feast of the Ascension, Continuing the Scandal of the Incarnation in the Very Heart of God

A couple of years ago I wrote about a passage taken from one of the Offices (Vigils) on the Feast of the Ascension. In that passage we hear the remarkable statement that, [[It is he who gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers in roles of service for the faithful to build up the body of Christ, till we become one in faith and in the knowledge of God's Son, AND FORM THE PERFECT MAN WHO IS CHRIST COME TO FULL STATURE.]] It is an image that has intrigued me since, and of course, one that I hear and reflect on again each Ascension Day. Imagine that it is we-as-church who quite literally make up the body of Christ and who one day will be taken up into the very life of God just as Christ was --- and that in this way, Christ will have "come to full stature." He will live in us and we in him, and all of us in God as God too becomes all in all. (Sounds very Johannine doesn't it?)

When I was an undergraduate in Theology (and through a lot of my graduate work as well), the Ascension never made much sense to me. It was often mainly treated as a Lukan construction which added little to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and if my professors and those they had us reading felt this way, I didn't press the issue --- nor, at least as an undergraduate, did I have the wherewithal TO press the issue theologically. It didn't help any that the notion of Jesus' bodily ascension into "heaven" was more incomprehensible (and unbelieveable) than resurrection, or that I understood it as a kind of dissolving away of Jesus bodiliness rather than a confirmation of it and continuation of the Incarnation. (The notion that a docetist Jesus had just been "slumming" for thirty-three years, as one writer objects to putting the matter, and that Ascension was the act by which he shook the dust of humanity from his sandals when his work was done, was probably not far from my mind here.)

Finally therefore, it was really difficult to deal with the notion that Christ, who had been so close to us as to appear in his glorified body with which he walked through walls, ate fish, allowed his marks as the crucified one to be examined, etc, was now going to some remote place far distant from us and would be replaced by some intangible and abstract spiritual reality. Of course, I had it all wrong. Completely. Totally. Absolutely wrong in almost every particular. Unfortunately, I have no doubt that most Christians have it wrong in all the same ways. And yet, it is the passage from Ephesians which is one key to getting it all right, and to rejoicing in the promise and challenge that Jesus' Ascension represents for us.

What actually happens in the Ascension? What about reality changes? What does it mean to say that Christ ascends to the right hand of God or "opens the gates of heaven"? The notion that Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension changes reality is novel for many people. They may think of redemption as a matter of changing God's mind about us, for instance, appeasing divine wrath, but not really changing objective reality. Yet, on the cross and through his descent into the very depths of Godlessness (sin and godless or sinful death), as I have written before, Jesus, through his own obedience (openness, and responsiveness) opens this realm to God; he implicates God into this realm in definitive ways. God's presence in all of our world's moments and moods is, in light of the Christ Event, personal and intimate, not impersonal and remote. And with God implicated in the very reality from which he has, by definition, been excluded, that reality is transformed. It is no longer literally godless, but instead becomes a kind of sacrament of his presence, the place where we may see him face to face in fact --- and the place where being now triumphs over non-being, life triumphs over death, love triumphs over all that opposes it, and meaning overcomes absurdity. This is one part or side of Jesus' mediatory function: the making God real and present in ways and where before he was not. It is the climax of God's own self-emptying, his own "descent" which began with creation and continues with redemption and new creation; it is the climax of God first creating that which is other so that he might share himself, and then entering into every moment and mood of creation.

But there is another aspect or side to Christ's mediatory activity, and this is made most clear in the Ascension. The language used is not descent, but ascent, not journeying to a far place, but returning home and preparing a place for those who will follow. (Yes, we SHOULD hear echoes of the parable of the prodigal Son/ merciful Father here with Christ as the prodigal Son journeying to a far place.) If in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, the world is opened to God, in Jesus' ascension, God's own life is opened definitively to the world. In Jesus' ascension, the new creation, of which Jesus is the first born and head, is taken up BODILY into God, dwells within him in communion with him. In Jesus we meet our future in the promise that this will happen to us and all of creation in him.

When Paul speaks of God becoming all in all he is looking at the culmination of this double process of mediation: first, God entering the world more profoundly, extensively and, above all, personally in Christ, and second, the world being taken up into God's own life. When he speaks of Christ coming to full stature, he is speaking of the same process, the same culmination. When theologians speak of the interpenetration of heaven and earth, or the creation of a new heaven and a new earth they are speaking again of this process with an eye towards its culmination at the end of time. The Ascension marks the beginning of this "End Time."

It is important to remember a couple of things in trying to understand this view of ascension. First, God is not A BEING, not even the biggest and best, holiest, most powerful, etc. God is being itself, the ground of being and meaning out of which everything that has being and meaning stands (ex-istere, i.e., "out of - to stand"). Secondly, therefore, heaven is not merely some place where God resides along with lots of other beings (including, one day, ourselves) --- even if he is the center of attention and adoration. Heaven is God's own being, the very life of God himself shared with others. (Remember that often the term heaven was used by Jews to avoid using God's name, thus, the Kingdom or Reign of Heaven is the Sovereignty of God) Finally, as wonderful as this creation we are part of is, it is meant for more. It is meant to exist in and of God in a final and definitive way. Some form of panentheism is the goal of reality, both human and divine. Jesus' ascension is the first instance of created existence being taken up into God's own life (heaven). It is the culmination of one part of the Christ event (mediation seen mainly in terms of descent and creation/redemption), and the beginning of another (mediation seen in terms of recreation/glorification and ascent).

When the process is completed and God is all in all, so too can we say that the God-Man Christ will have "come to full stature," or, as another translation of today's lection from Ephesians reads: [[. . .in accord with the exercise of his great might: which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.]]

For those who have difficulty in accepting God's assumption of human flesh and revelation of himself exhaustively in a human life -- most especially in the weakness and fragility of such a life, Jesus' ascension offers no relaxing of the tension or scandal of the incarnation. Instead it heightens it. With Jesus' ascension the Godhead NOW has taken created reality and bodily existence within itself as a very part of God's own life. This is what we are meant for, the reason we were created. It is what God willed "from the beginning". If, in the Christ event human life is defined as a covenantal reality, that is, if our lives are dialogical realities with God as an integral and constitutive part, so too does the Christ Event define God similarly, not simply as Trinitarian and in some sort of conversation with us, but as One who actively makes room within himself for us and all he cherishes --- and who, in this sense, is incomplete without us.

Human being --- created, redeemed, recreated and glorified --- assumes its rightful and full stature in Christ. In the acts of creation, redemption, and glorification, Divinity empties itself of certain prerogatives in Christ as well, but at the same time Divinity assumes its full stature in Christ, a stature we could never have imagined because it includes us in itself in an integral or fundamental way. Whether this is expressed in the language and reality of descent, kenosis (self-emptying), and asthenia (weakness), or of ascent, pleroma (fullness), and power, Christianity affirms the scandal of the incarnation as revelatory of God's very nature. We should stand open-mouthed and astounded in awe at the dignity accorded us and the future with which we, and all of creation is "endowed" on the "day" of Christ's Ascension.