One of the great beauties of the Church is the liturgical calendar and the eternal rhythms to which one becomes attuned. One of the realities of writing with the Church’s calendar is that soon you have written on almost every feast day. It is a wonderful thing to turn one’s mind to writing about the Ascension of the Lord, but should one have something new to say about the Ascension every year, or can you rely on, if not exactly the eternal rhythms of the calendar, the tried and true cut and paste from last year’s musing on the Ascension, or perhaps the year prior to that? This is a combination of posts from the last three years, dating back to Ascension 2008, which I offer today because they reflect the eternal significance of the Ascension and, in some cases, current and recent concerns.
The Ascension is not a time to be gazing skyward or backward. St. Augustine gets to the ground of this reality in The City of God Book XVIII, Chapter 53, when he says of the Parousia, citing Acts 1:6f, “it is usual to ask at this point, ‘When will this happen?’ But this question is entirely inappropriate. For had it been of profit to us to know the answer to it, who better to tell us than the Master, God himself, when the disciples asked him? For they were not silent on this matter when they were with Him; on the contrary, they asked Him directly, saying, ‘Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ But He said, ‘It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father has put in His own power.’” Augustine goes on to say, “in vain, therefore, do we strive to compute and define the number of years that remain in this world”; it might be an intriguing past-time, but pulls us away from the many tasks of the Church at hand.
On the other hand, Augustine returns to this passage in Book XX, Chapter 30, on the last page of his massive tome, as he considers the reality of Christ’s return – without calculating dates! – as “prefiguring the eternal rest not only of the Spirit, but of the body also.” Augustine speaks specifically of our bodily reality, but it is true also of Jesus, “who will return in the same way.” This bodily reality of Jesus, which the disciples gaze at in the Ascension narrative at the beginning of Acts, prefigures the bodily return of Jesus.
There is a very real and continuing physicality of Jesus Christ. The ascension is the celebration of Jesus’ enthronement as Lord, but also a sign of his continuing existence in the flesh, albeit the resurrected body. It has also been, in many ways, a marginalized teaching of the Church, perhaps because of its very physicality which can tend to embarrass modern or postmodern sensibilities. Where is the Risen Lord? Luke reports that “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (1:9-11). Ephesians states that God has seated Christ “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” (1:20-21). The cosmology reported in these two New Testament writings is so very foreign to us, as Jesus seems to “float” into his home in the sky. On the other hand, the bodily existence of Jesus is real and so we cannot simply revert to the body-soul split of the ancient Greeks and even many modern thinkers.
How do we retain the core of our faith, the resurrection and the ascension of the Lord, while embedded in an ancient cosmology which we no longer share? It was Douglas Farrow’s book, Ascension and Ecclesia (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999), which made clear to me how significant the doctrine of the ascension was, not only within the New Testament, but to the Church today. While we may reject the ancient cosmologies which describe Jesus flying into the ether, if we reject the particularity of Jesus we lose not only his bodiliness, but our own and are prone to fall into the trap of Gnosticism. The ascension is essential for the Church. Farrow writes, “to take seriously the fact that Christ has ascended to the Father is not to say he is everywhere, or nowhere, or somewhere else, but that he is with us in this twofold way: He is there, in first-century Palestine, and there again, at the parousia. Because he is with the Father, he is before us and after us; only so is he with us. He is with us precisely as a question put to our very existence, so that we too must decide with Pilate – and under essentially the same circumstances – ‘What shall I do with Jesus, who is called the Christ?’” (Ascension and Ecclesia, 225).
We must focus on the particularity of the Risen Lord. This seems such a significant point to me, that we serve and await not a cosmic or universalized principle, but the Risen Lord, who is present to us in the Scriptures, the Church and the Eucharist. Our task as Christians seems that much more grounded in light of the Ascension. T.F. Torrance in Royal Priesthood writes, “to demythologize the ascension (which means of course that it must first of all be mythologised) is to dehumanize Christ, and to dehumanize Christ is to make the Gospel of no relevance to humanity, but to turn it into an inhospitable and inhuman abstraction” (cited in Ascension and Ecclesia, 265). Jesus is not an abstraction; he has ascended to the Lord, as Ephesians 1:17-23 stresses. Our task is here on earth, again as a passage from Ephesians, 4:12, notes: “for building up the body of Christ.” We work “with all humility and gentleness” (Ephes. 4:2), according to the gifts we have been given. We are a part of the body of Christ here on earth because he is, indeed, our heavenly Lord. But we await the return of Jesus and we know that he will return, the one who shared in our humanity in every way but sin, and who models for us the life in the glory of the resurrected body.
John W. Martens
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