The Ascension

On Good Friday we contemplated a Christ so helpless, so in thrall to the powers of this age, that we might easily have forgotten that God was in him and with him.  And therein lay danger of a serious misunderstanding: for if we had been so distracted by the pain of the crucifixion as to forget that it was God who in Christ consented to be there humiliated, then, from a Christian point of view, we should have robbed the thing of its chief significance.  If God were not in Christ on that first Good Friday, then Jesus’ cross is simply another of the world’s griefs: one more item in the tally of blood and violence that marks our history from the biblical murder of Abel, through Auschwitz and Hiroshima, to the latest act of inhumanity in our own time.  The cross of Jesus is different precisely because in a unique way God was involved in it.  Good Friday finally showed us what prophets and psalmist had always said: it showed us the pathos of God, who is afflicted in all our afflictions.

And now, as the climax of Easter, the church at Ascensiontide presents us with a picture of Jesus “exalted with triumph” and “ascended far above all heavens,” as the various Collects associated with the Ascension have it.  It is a picture so full of divine glory that we might be tempted to fall into the opposite error: we might be tempted to forget that amid this glory it is humanity, our humanity, which is in Jesus raised to the right hand of God.  If it were not our humanity that was here exalted, then the Ascension would be no more than a pleasing story of a god, and would have little to do with us.  As it is, Jesus’ exaltation is a promise, a sign, and a first-fruit of our own destiny.

To put it another way, Christ’s Ascension reminds us that the risen life that we are promised will have a purpose, just as this life has a purpose. That purpose is union with God, nothing less. We are, as Second Peter puts it, to be “partakers of the divine nature,” perfectly united with the ascended Christ and with each other, beholders of and sharers in the glory which was (according to the Fourth Evangelist) Christ’s before the foundation of the world.  Of course we do not yet know what that will mean.  Even to try to speak of it stretches the resources of language to breaking point.  I think that from time to time we do, indeed, catch glimpses of it—in the noblest human endeavors (which as often as not come from the humblest among us) and especially in acts of mercy, in the greatest of human art and performance, and (in another way) in the gospels’ accounts of the Transfiguration of Christ. And by all these we are assured of this: that there will be in that risen life, as Saint Paul says, a glory to which the sufferings of this present age are “not worth comparing.”  Perhaps First John puts it best of all, “My little children, already we are God’s children, and it is not yet manifest what we shall be.  But we do know this, that when he is manifested we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

It is in the light of that promise that we dare open our hearts to the Spirit of God, and dare try to live as Christians—attempting all those lunatic gestures to which the gospel invites us, such as forgiving our enemies, doing good to those who do evil to us, striving for justice rather than profit, and turning the other cheek.  We do not attempt this behavior because we think it leads to successful lives as the world counts success, or because we think it leads to clear consciences.  If we did, we should be very naïve.  Most likely such living leads to a cross, if we are good at it; or to a continuing sense of our own guilt and failure if, as is more usual, we are not: which is, incidentally, one reason why we need the church, that is, a community of fellow-believers who understand what we are trying to do and can help us cope with the daily pain of failing to do it.  No, we try to live like this not because it leads to worldly success or peace of mind but because God is like this, forgiving those who do evil, and causing gracious rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. And we try to be like God because as Christians we know that that is our destiny.