Today is Ascension Day, which, although one of the great feasts of the Church calendar, is not something most Christians give much heed to. Perhaps that is because we don’t really know what to make of the ascension. We confess it in the Creed, to be sure, we believe it happened, to be sure, but we don’t really give much thought to how it happened, or to what on earth–or in heaven–it means. The former, perhaps, we can’t really know. But the latter we should know. Oliver O’Donovan offers some very thoughtful reflection on both in On the Thirty-Nine Articles (of which, apparently, a new edition is coming out in a few months!):
“For the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is that the renewal of creation has begun. In a body that represents ‘the perfection’ of man’s nature we see the first-fruits of a renewed mankind and a sign of the end to that ‘futility’ which characterizes all created nature in its ‘bondage to decay’ (Rom 8:19-21). There are two aspects to this renewal which have to be kept in a proper balance. On the one hand we must not understand the newness of the new creation as though it implied a repudiation of the old. The old creation is brought back into a condition of newness; it recovers its lost integrity and splendour. In the resurrection appearances of Jesus the disciples were offered a glimpse of what Adam was always meant to be: lord of the elements, free from the horror of death. On the other hand, restoration is not an end in itself. Adam’s ‘perfect’ humanity was made for a goal beyond the mere task of being human; it was made for an intimacy of communion with God. The last Adam, in restoring human nature, leads it to the goal which before it could not reach, brings it into the presence of God’s rule, where only the one who shared that rule could bring it. And so it is that the moment of triumph divides into two moments, a moment of recovery and a moment of advance. The resurrection must lead on to the ascension: ‘Do not hold me,’ said Jesus to Mary in the garden on the first Easter morning, ‘for I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ (Jn. 20:17). In the Western church we speak of God’s deed of ‘salvation,’ emphasising the aspect of recovery and deliverance from sin and death. In the Eastern church they speak more commonly of theosis or ‘divinisation’, emphasising the advance beyond simple restoration to communion with the divine nature. Both aspects are present; they are differentiated in the two steps of Christ’s exaltation.
Differentiated, but not therefore torn apart. We cannot overlook the fact that of the four Gospels one, St. Mark, has nothing to say about the ascension; two, St. Matthew and St. John, hint at it allusively, and only one, St. Luke, narrates it as an event. In the theology of the Pauline epistles it remains, more often than not, undifferentiated from the resurrection. The ascension, we must judge, does not stand over against the resurrection as the resurrection stands over against the crucifixion, it does not add a new element to the story which was not present before, but unfolds the implications of what is present already in the resurrection. Are we, then, to agree with Barth’s statement that ‘the empty tomb and the ascension are merely signs of the Easter event, just as the Virgin Birth is merely a sign of the nativity’? No. For, as Barth himself elsewhere wished to say, what the ascension shows us of the meaning of Christ’s triumph is distinct: It is the mark which defines one side of the resurrection, the elevation of Christ to the Father, and therefore stands in contrast to the landmark which defines the other side, the empty tomb. In between them, holding the two boundary-marks together into one triumphant happening, are the actual appearances of the risen Christ throughout the forty days.
This raises the question of how we are to understand the ascension as an event. Can the statement, ‘he ascended into heaven’, stand alongside the statements, ‘he was crucified, died and was buried’ and, ‘on the third day he rose again’? However problematic the statement of the resurrection may seem to be, the problems posed by the ascension are of a much more fundamental kind. For ‘heaven’, ‘God’s throne’ and ‘the right hand of the Father’ are not places that can be mapped topographically within space. The verb ‘ascended’, like the verb ‘came down’ in the creed, can refer to no spatial movement known to man.
Christians believe that God, in the person of his Son, has established communication between his being and our created space-time order. How else can we speak of this communication except ‘coming’ and ‘going’, as ‘up’ and ‘down’? We say that Christ ‘came down from Heaven’ and ‘ascended into Heaven’, yet do not think of the incarnation and ascension as journeys through space from one location to another, like a journey between the earth and the moon. As Athanasius said wittily: “When Christ sat on the right hand of the Father, he did not put the Father on his left.” These events are transitions between the universe of space and time that God has made and his being which is (in a sense that we can apprehend, but not comprehend) beyond it. Yet these transitions are ‘objective’ in the sense that they cannot be reduced to states, or occurrences, of Mind. The incarnation is not simply a mythic portrayal of the fellowship between men and God, nor the ascension of the triumph of the cross. Insofar as these transitions have one foot in our space and time, they are seen there as events — events which, however, have another end to them beyond the historical sequence of which, at this end, they form a part.
With this in mind let us think further about the ascension. Obviously, in one purely negative sense, it is an event in time: the resurrection appearances of Jesus came to an end. St. Luke makes it very clear that this is one important aspect of the ascension. It is the point at which Jesus is “taken from the disciples until he is restored to them at the end of time (Acts 1: 9,11). Even St Paul, who narrates his own vision of the risen Lord on the Damascus road as one of the resurrection appearances, acknowledges that it is ‘out of order’ (1 Cor. 15:8). But there is more that must be said about the event than that it was the cessation of the resurrection appearances. It is not only a ‘taking from’, it is a ‘taking up.’ It is a material event which involves the material body of Jesus; it leaves this spatio-temporal order to enter the immediate presence of the Creator…. This transition from the earth to Heaven is more than a reversal of the incarnation at which God ‘came down’; It is the elevation of man, physical spatio- temporal man, into an order that is greater than the physical and the spatio-temporal, and which is not his native habitat. What form does the human body take outside space and time as we know it? Obviously, that is the unanswerable question, the one which earns St. Paul’s withering response, ‘You fool!’. All we can say is that the transition has occurred, that there is a beaten path that lies before us, linking our physical existence to an existence in the presence of God which lies beyond its conditions We cannot see the path –the cloud which hid Jesus on the mountain-top is a veil for that which cannot be comprehended from below — but we know that the path has been taken and that we are to take it too.
In the same way that Jesus’s ascension means the elevation of humanity beyond the limits of ‘our’ space, it means also the elevation beyond the limits of ‘our’ time. Here we must guard against the suggestion in Article 4 [of the Thirty-Nine Articles] that Jesus is, as it were, killing time until his coming again: ‘he ascended . . . and there sitteth, until he return’. There is nothing wrong with these verbs; they represent, quite properly, the different points at which Christ’s triumph intersects with our time, past, present and future: he ascended, he sits, he shall return. But this time is our time; he is not bounded by it as we are, but is lord over it. We should not begin to ask what the ascended Lord is doing in the meantime, during the long wait before he must return.
What we see in the Epistle to the Hebrews is something very characteristic of the New Testament as a whole, the assertion that the Christ-event is the last thing in God’s plan for the world, and that with its completion the end of time has, in effect, already come. We are seen to have our existence, as it were, in the middle of the end, in between the last things and the last things. Still to come is the universal manifestation of Christ’s glory, but the time-lapse which separates that from the accomplishment of that glory in the ascension is of no significance. It serves the function of permitting the gospel to be preached to the end of the earth, but it does not add to, or subtract from, God’s saving deed. Thus we find, both in the Scriptures and in the creeds, that the ascension and the parousia (the return) of Christ are seen together, almost as one event. When Christ sits down at the right hand of God, that is a gesture not of a patient waiting but of triumph. The triumph is already achieved; it only remains for the triumph to be manifested universally. Christ ascended has reached the fulfilment of man’s destiny; he is already at the end of time. Mankind will follow him to that fulfilment. Time is thus not an iron cage within which all events are bound, but a dimension of history–and in the fulfilment of the purpose of history in Christ, we see that time, too, is fulfilled.”