13 May 2015

I go to Prepare a Place for You: Ascension and the Imagery of Jewish Marriage

So much of what Jesus says about the event we call "Ascension" is meant to remind us of the Jewish theology of marriage. It is meant to remind us that the Church, those called and sent in the name of Jesus, is the Bride of Christ --- both betrothed and awaiting the consummation of this marriage. This Friday's Gospel passage from 16 John prepares the disciples for Jesus' "leaving" and the Church wants us to hear it now in terms of the Ascension rather than the crucifixion. Thus, it focuses on the "in-between" time of grief-at-separation, waiting, and bittersweet joy.

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:

This image of the dual stages in Jewish marriage is an appropriate metaphor of what is accomplished in the two "stages" in salvation history referred to as descent and ascent. When we think of Jesus as mediator or revealer --- or even as Bridegroom --- we are looking at a theology of salvation (soteriology)  in which God first goes out of himself in search of a counterpart. This God  'empties himself' of divine prerogatives --- not least that of remaining in solitary omnipotent splendor --- and in a continuing act of self-emptying creates the cosmos still in search of that counterpart. For this reason the entire process is known as one of descent or kenosis. Over eons of time and through many intermediaries (including prophets, the Law, and several covenants) he continues to go out of himself to summon the "other" into existence, and eventually chooses a People who will reveal  him (that is, make him known and real) to the nations. Finally and definitively in Jesus he is enabled to turn a human face to his chosen People. As God has done in partial and fragmentary ways before, in Christ as Mediator he reveals himself definitively as a jealous and fierce lover, one who will allow nothing, not even sin and godless death (which he actually takes into himself!)** to separate him from his beloved or prevent him from bringing her home with him when the time comes.

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!


Mediation (or revelation) occurs in two directions in Christ. Christ IS the gateway between heaven and earth, the "place" where these two realities meet and kiss, the new Temple where sacred and profane come together and are transfigured into a single reality. Jesus as mediator implicates God into our world and all of its moments and moods up to and including sin and godless death. But Jesus as mediator also allows human life, and eventually all of creation to be implicated in and assume a place in God's own life. When this double movement comes to its conclusion, when it is accomplished in fullness and Jesus' commission to reconciliation is entirely accomplished, when, that is, the Bridegroom comes forth once again to finally bring his bride home for the consummation of their marriage, there will be a new heaven and earth where God is all in all; in this parousia both God and creation achieve the will of God together as it was always meant to be.
** 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.