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Thursday, May 13, 2010
Ascension of the Lord: 2010
Today marks Ascension Thursday, the day on which Christian tradition tells us that Jesus Christ left this earth and ascended into heaven. Forty days after Easter, ten days after Pentecost, Jesus Christ took leave of the Apostles for the second and last time in his earthly existence. He had said good-bye to them once before, on Maundy Thursday, as he sat with them at the Last Supper; this was his second good bye, and this time it was for good.
He would return to earth to interact with believers on an individual basis, of course, and to appear to his followers in dreams and visions, as he did to St. Peter and to John the Beloved Disciple. And he would return in the form of the Eucharist, which every day He transforms into his body and blood. But no more, until the Last Day, would he return to this earth in public, large-scale appearances, and to walk and live among us. From now on, the church would be led by mere human beings, and we ourselves would have to figure out how to conduct ourselves in the world, with only the memory and example of the Lord to guide us.
We often don’t think about the importance of the Ascension- it’s hard for us to relate to the idea of Jesus Christ ascending into heaven, and we tend to forget this feast, coming as it does at a busy time of the year- when farmers are busy planting and weeding crops, and students are busy finishing up the spring semester. But the Church Fathers certainly thought it was important enough to be included in the Creeds. When you think about it, it’s amazing how little the Creeds tell us about Jesus. They don’t mention his teachings, his fasting and temptation, his healing miracles. They tell us only the bare minimum: and among those bare minima, one of the few things the early Church could agree was necessary that all Christians believe, was that ‘he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father’.
The Ascension marks the day that Jesus, the eternally existing Word, consubstantial with the Father, who had taken on a human body for the duration of his 33 years on earth, left our physical, natural and material world behind. He ascended into a realm which was supra-physical, supernatural, and supra-material. It’s important to note that that realm, the kingdom of heaven, is spiritual not in the sense of being unnatural, or extranatural, but being supernatural. It doesn’t exist outside the laws of nature, and of physics, so much as it transcends them. Jesus, as he is in heaven, as we will be someday, is not bound by the limits of his physical body, but nor is he separated from it. The kingdom of heaven is a place where the material is obedient and in perfect harmony with the spiritual, and where the spirit can take on different material and physical appearances as it pleases. Jesus appeared in a disguised form to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he then appeared in his real human body, and then vanished from their sight: “And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.” His risen, incorruptible body was ethereal enough to pass through walls and appear in the midst of a locked room: “Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut..…came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.” Yet it was also real enough, material enough, and physical enough to desire food, and to bear the marks of the crucifixion. It would be fair to call such a risen, glorified body, not insubstantial so much as supersubstantial. At every moment, it existed and displayed exactly those physical properties that Jesus called on it to display. It was matter, not in opposition to spirit, but in perfect obedience to it.
How could such a risen body, spiritual and yet physical, answering to the laws of physics and of nature at some times but not at others, leave us behind? That’s an almost impossible question to answer, because it is equivalent to asking: how can something that exists as part of the material world, become something supernatural and immaterial? How can something be material and spiritual at the same time? What sort of transition could take place between those two worlds, the worlds of the perceptible, the tangible, the world of solid stones, wet water, burning fire, and the world of the ethereal, the misty, the intangible? To have remained on earth forever would be to be unfaithful to Christ’s divine nature, for surely it was fitting that he who had existed for ever in heaven, begotten of the Father before all worlds were made, should return to the heaven that was his rightful place. Yet to simply disappear from heaven, to blot his material body out of existence and return to a purely spiritual form, would be to be unfaithful to His human nature, for as we expect the resurrection of our bodies some day, so should Christ, the prototype of our resurrections.
The glorified and incorruptible body into which he was resurrected solved part of this problem; for it left Christ spiritual first and foremost, but with a material body when he chose to have one. The Ascension solves the other part of this problem: it allowed Christ to gradually withdraw himself from this material world of ours, fading away smaller and smaller, until he was imperceptible to the eyes of his followers: yet never, at any distinct moment, failing to have a physical body. Who knows the exact moment at which He ceased any longer to be materially present in this world, and returned to heaven? It can’t be pinpointed, any more then we can pinpoint the exact moment in the Mass when the wine ceases to be wine and becomes the blood of God. All that matters is that when Christ vanished from the skies, he did so beyond the sight of the Apostles; no man would ever be able to say that they saw Christ disappear for good. And like all other things he did, it was for a reason. He didn’t want anyone to say that they had seen Christ leave this material world behind. For in truth, he hasn’t left it behind: he is present invisibly in the Eucharist, he is present as he speaks to us in our hours of prayer, our hours of pain, our hours of despair, and he is present watching over us, weeping with us in our suffering and sharing in our joys. Christ wanted the last image of him to be burned indelibly on the minds of those who had seen him leave: the image of him watching over them in the skies, lifted up on clouds, carried by the wings of angels, just like the angel’s wings with which Satan had tempted him when he stood on the pinnacle of Herod’s Temple.
The Ascension is the answer to how Christ can be absent from us and yet present with us. As he rose into the clouds, the apostles could see his presence, and could see that he still existed as part of this material world, incarnate as he had been made incarnate at Bethlehem: yet every second he was drawing further and further away from them. When does a curve reach its asymptote? The answer, of course, is never. This wasn’t true of Christ, for at some point he must have left this material world behind: if earth and the physical universe are distinct from heaven, and we have the assurance Christ is in heaven, then he can’t anymore be present on earth in the same sense he was present then. Yet at the same time he is present in a deeper sense; he retains the power to work through us, to appear to us, to make present his body and blood in the eucharist, when we ask for it, just as he retains the power to appear in physical form as he appeared to John as a slain lamb. He isn’t outside of nature, he is over and above it, and can enter it again when He chooses: and indeed, we have the assurance that he will enter it again at the end of all things, just before, through him, a new and better nature is given to us.
This is part of the meaning of the Ascension: that Our Lord withdrew himself gradually instead of vanishing, because he had such love for us that he wanted to make sure we remembered him slowly rising away from us, not simply leaving us behind: he wanted our last sight of him to be of a glorified body rising higher and higher, becoming smaller to our eyes even as he became greater and more glorious in reality. He savored every moment that he spent with his disciples, and rose up slowly into the clouds, rather then suddenly disappearing, because he longed to spend his last few moments in material form looking upon us, and because he couldn’t bear to quickly and suddenly leave his friends and disciples. As he was lifted upwards into the clouds, preparing to leave behind material form and enter heaven, his last sight was of the apostles looking up at him in praise and awe, and his first act, from heaven, was to send two angels to reassure the apostles, and to remind them that He would one day come again in glory. This was the last image that our Lord gave us to remember him by, and this Ascensiontide, let’s remember the way that our Lord chose to leave us: rising into the skies, wrapped in clouds, hovering over the Mount of Olives from which he had foretold the end of all things, looking down on the Garden of Gethsemane, with his eyes fixed upon those whom he had called friends, whom he would continue guiding and watching over, from his seat in heaven, for the rest of their lives.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.