13 May 2015
Thus too, especially with its imagery of labor and childbirth, it affirms that though Jesus must leave to prepare a place for us, the grief of his "leaving" (really a new kind of presence) will one day turn to unalloyed joy because with and in Christ something new is being brought to birth both in our own lives and in the very life of God. It is an unprecedented reality, an entirely New Life and too, a source of a joy which no one can take from us. Just as the bridegroom remains a real but bittersweet presence and promise in the life of his betrothed, so Jesus' presence in our own lives is a source of now-alloyed and bittersweet joy, both real and unmistakable but also not what it will be when the whole of creation reaches its fulfillment and the marriage between Christ and his Bride is consummated. The union of this consummation is thus the cosmic union of God-made all in all.
The following post reflects on another Johannine text, also preparing us for the Ascension. I wanted to reprise it here because the Gospel texts this week all seek to remind us of the unadulterated joy of Easter and the Parousia (the second-coming and fulfillment) as they prepare us for the bittersweet joy of the in-between time of Ascension and especially because they do so using the imagery of Jewish marriage. This Friday's childbirth imagery in John 16 presupposes and requires this be fresh in our minds.
The Two Stages of Jewish Marriage
The central image Jesus uses in [speaking of his leaving and eventual return] is that of marriage. His disciples are supposed to hear him speaking of the entire process of man and wife becoming one, of a union which represents that between God and mankind (and indeed, all of creation) which is so close that the two cannot be prised apart or even seen as entirely distinguishable realities. Remember that in Jewish marriages there were two steps: 1) the betrothal which was really marriage and which could only be ended by a divorce, and 2) the taking home and consummation stage in this marriage. After the bridegroom travels to his bride's home and the two are betrothed, the bridegroom returns home to build a place for his new bride in his family's home. It is always meant to be a better place than she had before. When this is finished (about a year later) the bridegroom travels back to his bride and with great ceremony (lighted lamps, accompanying friends, etc) brings her back to her new home where the marriage is consummated.
Descent and the Mediation of God's Reconciling Love:
Ascension and the Mediation of God's Reconciling Love:
With Jesus' ascension we are confronted with another dimension of Christ's role as mediator; we celebrate the return of the Bridegroom to his father's house --- that is to the very life of God. He goes there to prepare a place for us. As in the Jewish marriage practice, that Divine "household" (that Divine life) will change in a definitive way with the return of the Son (who has also changed and is now an embodied human being who has experienced death, etc.) just as the Son's coming into the world changed it in a definitive way. God is not yet all in all (that comes later) but in Christ humanity has both assumed and been promised a place in God's own life. As my major theology professor used to say to us, "God has taken death into himself and has not been destroyed by it." That is what heaven is all about, active participation and sharing by that which is other than God in the very life of God. Heaven is not like a huge sports arena where everyone who manages to get a ticket stares at the Jumbo Tron (God) and possibly plays harps or sing psalms to keep from getting too bored. With the Christ Event God changes the world and reconciles it to himself, but with that same event the very life of God himself is changed as well. The ascension signals this significant change as embodied humanity and all of human experience becomes a part of the life of the transcendent God who is eternal and incorporeal. Some "gods" would be destroyed by this, but not the God of Jesus Christ!
** Note: the Scriptures recognize two forms of death. The first is a kind of natural perishing. The second is linked to sin and to the idea that if we choose to live without God we choose to die without him. It is the consequence of sin. This second kind is called variously, sinful death, godless death, eternal death or the second death. This is the death Jesus "takes on" in taking on the reality and consequences of human sinfulness; it is the death he dies while (in his own sinlessness) remaining entirely vulnerable and open to God. It is the death his obedience (openness) allows God to penetrate and transform with his presence.
The resurrection is the event symbolizing the defeat of this death and the first sign that all death will one day fall to the life and love of God. Ascension is the event symbolizing God taking humanity into his own "house", his own life in Christ. We live in hope for the day the promise of Ascension will be true for the whole of God's creation, the day when God will be all in all.