Easter Wings: An Ascension Homily

All the other Distance
He hath traversed first –
No new mile remaineth –
Far as Paradise –

 His sure foot preceding –
Tender Pioneer –
Base must be the Coward
Dare not venture – now –

 –– Emily Dickinson, “Life is what we make it”

 

“He ascended into heaven. . .” We say this every time we recite the Creed. But what does it mean? Why do we say it, and what are we being asked to believe? Is it an embarrassing myth, a problematic metaphor, or an inexplicable fact? Many Christians would prefer to hurry past the doctrine of the Ascension, as if it were not something we should examine too closely. Nothing to see here, folks, just keep moving.

But maybe wondering what we do with the story isn’t the right question. What we really need to ask is: What is the story going to do with us?  Where does it want to take us? How might it change us?

John Calvin, the great Reformation theologian, called the Ascension “one of the chiefest points of our faith.”[i] Really? Compared to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Savior’s disappearance into a cloud seems a relatively minor part of the story. How much does it matter for Christian faith and practice?

Let’s begin with three things that the Ascension is not. First of all, it is not the end of Jesus’ presence in the finite and temporal world, the world of human experience. In the sixth-century Ascension hymn by Romanos, the disciples express their anxiety about being abandoned:

Are you leaving us, O Compassionate?
Parting from those who love you?
You speak to us like someone going on a journey. . .
Do not take yourself far away from those who love you. [ii]

We know that feeling. In a secular age, sometimes is seems that all divinity has just up and left this world without a trace. But if the Ascension was the end of one kind of presence, it was the beginning of another. Jesus is still here, but in a different way.

Secondly, the Ascension is not the Incarnation in reverse, as though God was briefly one of us, and now he’s not. A human life is finite, vulnerable, dependent and particular. It’s radically different than being the infinite God of power and might. But when, as the Bible puts it, Jesus ascended to “the right hand of the Father,” he didn’t leave his humanity behind. He took it with him into the heart of God.

Finally, the Ascension is not just about Jesus.
It’s about us as well.
If we are in Christ, then wherever Jesus goes, we go too.

Let’s look at each of these themes more closely. First, the question of presence and absence. The unique particularity of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jewish male who lived and died like one of us, could only be experienced the way every finite existence is experienced: in its own place and time. If it’s here, it can’t be there. If it’s then, it can’t be now. Once Jesus was laid in the tomb, he could no longer be one object alongside all the other objects in the world. That physical walking-around-the-neighborhood Jesus was gone for good.

When Jesus rose from the dead, his identity and presence were no longer bound by the rules of time and space. His risen body could be both here and there. And the reason the resurrection stories lack the chronological realism of the Passion narratives is because they occur outside historical time. Encounters with the risen Christ were not additional chapters in the life and times of the earthly Jesus. They took place outside of history, at the border between our spatiotemporal world and whatever lies beyond it.

If Easter is not a historical narrative following the rules of space and time, then Ascension was not the next thing that happened after the resurrection appearances, because things don’t happen in sequence outside of time. So instead of thinking of the Ascension as another event in time, think of it as another dimension of resurrection. In his Easter appearances, the risen Jesus assured his friends that he would be with them always. In the Ascension, however, he made it clear that his presence would now have to be experienced in new ways and different forms. First there is Jesus. Then there is no Jesus. Then there is.

Ever since the resurrection,
seeing Jesus has required an act of recognition,
a moment in which we ask, “Jesus, it that you?”

Discerning the myriad forms of Christ’s presence is a fundamental practice for God’s friends in these latter days. We find Christ in sacrament and community, prayer and Scripture. We find Christ through forgiveness and reconciliation, compassion and service, justicemaking and peacemaking. Christ meets us in our neighbor and in the stranger; in solitude and solidarity; in church and on the street. Christ hangs on every cross, and returns in every resurrection.

As Jesus said before he left,
“I am with you always, even to the end of time” (Matt. 28:20).

But if Christ now tends to appear incognito, quietly “as One unknown,”[iii] what do we make of the Ascension’s theology of exaltation, celebrating the Christ “whose glory fills the skies?”

Hail the day that sees him rise,
Glorious to his native skies;
Christ, awhile to mortals given,
Enters now the highest heaven. [iv]

Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn is one of many envisioning the enthronement of Christ as the governor of the world. And we all appreciate the theological irony: the humiliated and rejected one turns out to wear the crown. But such a dramatic reversal risks undoing the Incarnation, as though the finite and vulnerable humanity of Jesus were only a temporary thing, given back after Easter like a rented costume. But that’s not what happened. The Incarnate word came to stay.

Yes, divine and human are radically different. Infinite and finite are radically incommensurate. Creator and creature can never be confused. And yet, without God ceasing to be God or Jesus of Nazareth ceasing to be human, heaven and earth have been joined in holy union, never to be put asunder.

The understanding of Christ as the divine Word, the shaping power of love through whom all things are created and sustained in their being, is not a theological footnote. It is key to the story of redemption that our Savior not only has the whole universe at his back, but that his way, the sacrificial way of self-diffusive love, is the very truth of God, and therefore the truth of how things are meant to go in the world which God has made. To be in Christ is to conform to the most fundamental reality, and the Ascension imagery of divine enthronement celebrates this crucial fact. Christ is the way, the truth and the life. Self-diffusive love is the law of the universe.

However, too much of this and we risk highlighting the divine at the expense of the human in the story of Jesus, as if more of one means less of the other. If we fully embrace our humanity, is there less room for God? Or if we are to be more like God, must we diminish or abandon our humanity because it is essentially incapable of receiving and containing divinity?

Jesus answers these two questions with “no” and “no.” In the self-emptying act of becoming flesh, God lost nothing of the divine nature, for the essence of God is love: the ceaseless mutuality of giving and receiving that constitutes the Holy Trinity. As for human beings, whose very existence is dependent upon, and constituted by, the reception of God’s gifts of life and breath and Spirit, our creaturely nature was never more itself than when Jesus managed to receive divine fullness with an open heart.

In other words, God was never more like God than in the act of giving Godself away. And humanity was never more perfectly realized than when Jesus exercised his created capacity to receive that gift in a finite way. Communion with God does not obliterate our humanity. It fulfills it.

Irenaeus, one of the first great theologians, said in the second century that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”[v] And this fullness of creaturely life is attained, he said, not by “a casting away of the flesh, but by the imparting of the Spirit.”[vi] God loves us just the way God made us: finite, vulnerable, embedded in the absorbing and messy narratives  which comprise human be-ing. And what God desires is for us to live into our creaturely capacity to receive every gift, every blessing, and ascend into the divine communion which is our true and lasting home.

And this brings us to my final point. Ascension is not just about Jesus. It’s about us as well. As members of Christ’s body––with Christ and in Christ––we too are being drawn up to dwell in the vivifying presence of the Holy One––to enjoy God forever.

We call Jesus the Word made flesh because he showed, in the language of human flesh and earthly story, how the divine life could be translated into finite form as a life for others. From birth to death, Jesus was pro nobis: for us. And his Ascension was for us as well, to take us heavenward with him. Jesus did not abandon us. He went on ahead, as the “Tender Pioneer,”[vii] to prepare a place where we may join him.

John Calvin explained the Ascension’s shared, collective dimension in this way:

“Christ did not ascend to heaven in a private capacity, to dwell there alone, but rather that it might be the common inheritance of all the godly, and that in this He has also, by the power of the Holy Spirit, made it possible for us to share in the divine presence [viii]. . . . “Ascension follows resurrection: hence if we are members of Christ we must ascend into heaven.” [ix]

If we are members of Christ, we must ascend. This is the pattern of the Christian life: moving Godward. When I walked the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims encouraged one another with a wonderful word for this Godward movement: Ultreia!, which means Beyond! We are all pilgrims to the Beyond. Growth is our vocation. Transformation is our vocation.

But we can only advance with Christ and in Christ. No wings of our own can defy the gravity of our situation. The sins of the world weigh us down––all that heavy baggage that Thomas Merton called “the contagion of [our] own obsessions, aggressiveness, ego-centered ambitions and delusions.”[x] And in a time of pandemic, fear, illness and grief pile on their own crushing load.

Only the rising and ascending Christ can deliver us from so much gravity. Only Christ can give us what Anglican poet-priest George Herbert called “Easter Wings.” In his poem of that name, in which the words on the page are arranged in the shape of angels’ wings, he admits he can only fly “if I imp thy wing on mine.” He borrowed that peculiar term from falconry: to “imp” means “to engraft feathers in a wing to restore or improve its power of flight.”[xi] In other words, if we want to ascend, we need the help of Christ’s own feathers. If we’re going to fly, we need Easter wings.

As Herbert prays,

With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories.

If you’ve ever heard an English lark, ascending high into the sky as it utters its ecstatic song, you will appreciate the charm of Herbert’s metaphor. A century after Herbert, hymnwriter Isaac Watts wrote my favorite Ascension lyric.

Thence he arose, ascended high,
to show our feet the way.
Up to the Lord our souls shall rise,
on the great rising day. [xii]

Of course, heaven is not susceptible to prepositions: “above,” “beyond,” or even “within” do not tell us where heaven is, since anything beyond space and time has no spatial dimension, and therefore no location. Neither heaven nor God are a place on any map. Still, by God’s grace we may discover their nearness even so, and breathe their atmosphere, in both this world and the next.

For physical and directional beings like ourselves, the imagery of ascending into the sky feels true enough. “Seek the things that are above,” St. Paul tells us (Col. 3:1). “Lift up your hearts,” says the priest at every mass. We don’t have to deny astronomy to know what these things mean. We feel the upward pull.

It’s not a matter of leaving creation behind, or shedding our bodies to become immaterial beings. “Behold, I make all things new,” says the Holy One. All things––not just our souls. The whole creation is being drawn higher and higher, further and further, deeper and deeper into God. Let everything that has breath shout “Glory!”

 

Related posts:

Ascension Day: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Ascension Day “Charade”?––The Puzzling Exit of Jesus

 

[i] John Calvin, Commentary on Acts 1:9, cited in Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), K1249 (The Kindle edition has no page numbers, so I use the Kindle location numbers). Canlis’ rich and thoughtful book is a great read, and has increased my appreciation of Calvin immensely. My other invaluable sources for this essay were Christ the Heart of Creation (Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury 2018) and The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of Incarnation (Ian A. McFarland, WJK 2019).

[ii] Romanos, “Kontakion on the Ascension” in Kontakia: On the Life of Christ, trans. by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash (Harper Collins, 1962).

[iii] This phrase is from a famous passage by Albert Schweitzer: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.”

[iv] Charles Wesley, “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise” (1739). The prolific 18th century writer composed over 6000 hymns, at least 10 of which are on the Ascension. However, his brother John, who gave some 40,000 sermons, never preached on the topic.

[v] Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202), Adversus Haereses IV.20.7, cited in Canlis, K2246.

[vi] Adversus Haereses V.8.1, in Canlis, K1960.

[vii] Emily Dickinson, “Life – is what we make it.” I quote the last 2 stanzas in the epigraph.

[viii] Calvin, Commentary on John 14:2, in Canlis K1218.

[ix] Calvin, Commentary on Colossians 3:1, in Canlis K991.

[x] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 158, cited in Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 11.

[xi] Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 148 n.19.

[xii] Isaac Watts, “Why do we mourn departing friends” (1707). Set to a shape note tune by Timothy Swan in 1801, it is #163b in The Sacred Harp (Bremen, GA: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991). A powerful version from the 2nd Irish Shape Note Convention (2012) can be heard here: https://youtu.be/7mCFMKNJIAg

 

The Morning After: A Sermon for Christmas Day

Nativity (12th century), Cloister of St. Trophime, Arles, France. (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

On January 2, 1734, a Boston poet and distiller named Joseph Green wrote these words in a letter to a friend:

 “The last Day I shall mention is Christmas. And this, I believe, keeps many People in good Terms with Religion, who would otherwise be at variance with it. They taste Sweet on this day, unknown to them the whole Year beside. Many who are Proof against a Religious Argument, cannot withstand a Dish of Plumb Porridge, and it is past all doubt to me, that a Christmas Sermon makes fewer converts than a Christmas Pye.”

But alas, I have no pie, so a sermon will have to do. But what exactly can we say on the morning after, when we’re trying to remember what really happened during the strange and wondrous night at that little stable on the edge of town. Some of us are still sleeping it off. Some of us didn’t get any sleep at all, or maybe we were asleep the whole time, and it was all just a dream. It seems like that now.

There was a really bright star, and then the sky started singing: Gloria in excelsis Deo! It was angels, someone said. I don’t know about that, but it was so beautiful, as if music were being invented for the very first time.

And suddenly, we all started running, don’t ask me why, until we came to this cave––it was a stable with a cow and a couple of donkeys––and in the back there was a woman lying down on some hay, and a man kneeling by her. And between them there was a little baby, just a few hours old, I’d say. What a place to begin your life! They must have been pretty desperate to end up there. Maybe they were refugees. Or undocumented. I don’t know. But they didn’t look scared or out of place. They seemed to belong there. And you know, I had the feeling that I belonged there too. We all did.

I can’t really explain it, but I got this feeling that everything in my life before that had just been waiting around for this moment, as if after a long and pointless journey I had finally come home.

And I know it sounds weird, but I swear that little baby looked right at me, as if he knew who I was––or who I was going to be, because when I left that stable I knew––I knew!––that my life was never going to be the same. Pretty crazy, right? I kind of hope it was just a dream, because if it’s not, I’m not sure I’m ready for whatever’s next.

Thus spake one of the Bethlehem shepherds. And each of us will have our own version of last night’s peculiar doings. But I suspect that everyone who was there caught at least a glimpse of a possibility, a promise, maybe even a vision of what this world could be if the angels’ beautiful song were true. But on the morning after, with the dazzling darkness of the holy night already a receding memory, will its meanings survive the cold light of everyday reality?

Well, as it turns out, what happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem. It goes home with us, it gets in our blood, it becomes part of our story. Nothing in the world will ever be the same again. Nothing in our lives will ever be the same again.

And that is why, on the morning after, we listen to St. John’s grand prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Its cosmic perspective on the birth of Christ reminds us how vast and consequential was that humble birth in a lowly stable.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. . . And this divine Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:1-14)

In other words, God was not content to remain purely within the confines of the divine self. God desired to go beyond the inner life of the divine, to enter the realm of time and space and history, to become incarnate as the mortal subject of a human life and experience the human condition from the inside. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

But why? Why would God want to leave the peace and bliss of heaven to live and die as one of us? The doctrine of redemption says that God became incarnate to save us from the web of wrongness we have been powerless to escape on our own. That is no small thing, and we are oh so grateful for the gift of salvation. But was that the only reason for the Incarnation? The Christian imagination has suggested there may be more to make of this great mystery.

The nature of the trinitarian God is to be self-giving, and extending the eternal self-giving of divinity beyond the Godhead to include created beings is what God has chosen to do. In the language of the Fourth Gospel, God so loved the worldthat God gave the Only-Begotten to meet creation on its own ground. God loves us so much that God wants to be intimate with us, and not just love us at a distance.

So God didn’t just come because we needed saving. God came because God enjoys our company (though given our many faults, God only knows why!). But the Incarnation isn’t only a matter of God wanting to share our humanity, to make our humanness part of the divine experience. It is also God’s desire that we in turn become partakers of the divine nature.

St. John put it this way in his gospel:

To all who received the Incarnate Word, who believed in his name,” says the gospel, “the Word gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of human beings, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

In the centuries that followed, this theme of theosis, or deification––becoming God-like––has pushed the envelope of anthropology by setting a very high bar for the definition of human potential.

In the early church, Irenaeus said that “God became what we are, in order to make us what he is” Athanasius was even more explicit about the consequences of Incarnation, saying that “God became human so that humans might become God-like.” God-like! Imagine that after watching the evening news.

Martin Luther, perhaps surprisingly for someone so focused on the burden of human sin, said we were all called to be “little Christs,” and in a Christmas sermon he described the Incarnation as a two-way street: “Just as the word of God became flesh,” he said, “so it is certainly also necessary that the flesh may become word. . . [God] takes what is ours to himself in order to impart what is his to us.”

In the 18th century, some of Charles Wesley’s great hymns were almost shockingly explicit about our capacity to contain divinity.

He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join,
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine.

Heavenly Adam, life divine,
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul,
Actuate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.

In the 20thcentury, whose atrocities left our confidence in human potential badly shaken, the Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton could still claim that we “exist solely for this, to be the place God has chosen for the divine Presence. The real value of our own self is the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.” [i]

And after his famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Merton said, “It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many mistakes: yet, with all that, [God’s own self] glorified in becoming a member of the human race.

“I have the immense joy of being [a human person],” he continued, “a member of a race in which [God’s own self] became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” [ii]

Is this all this talk about divinization going too far? Could we really be walking around shining like the sun? Or at least have the potential for such glory, even if we’re not there yet? If the Nativity in Bethlehem means what I think it does, then the answer has to be yes.

On that wondrous night in Bethlehem, our nature was lifted up as the place where God chooses to dwell. We may still be works in progress, but we are bound for glory. St. Paul believed this when he said that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

Another ancient theologian said, “As they who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness, so they who behold God are within God, partaking of God’s brightness.”

What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.

On the Winter Solstice about 25 years ago, I was flying across the San Fernando Valley into L.A.’s Burbank airport on a brilliant December day. The noonday sun was low enough in the southern sky to be reflecting its rays off the surface of swimming pools running along a line parallel to our flight path. There are so many pools in the Valley, and each one, as it was struck by the sun, exploded with an intense dazzle of white light. In rapid succession, tranquil blue surfaces were transformed into momentary images of the sun’s bright fire.

“They who behold the light are within the light and partake of its brightness.” Our pale mirrors are made to contain the most impossible brilliance. And though we have turned away from the Light, the Light seeks us out. No matter how shadowy the path we have taken, the Light will find us, and fill us with divine radiance. That is our destiny, says the Child in the manger.

We may not feel capable or worthy or prepared to receive the Word into the flesh of our own lives, but it is what we were made for. Paradoxical as it may sound, partaking of divinity is the only path to becoming fully human.

A month before he died, Edward Pusey, a 19thcentury English priest, wrote to a spiritual friend about our God-bearing capacity:

“God ripen you more and more,” he said. “Each day is a day of growth. God says to you, ‘Open thy mouth and I will fill it.’ Only long. . . The parched soil, by its cracks, opens itself for the rain from heaven and invites it. The parched soil cries out to the living God. O then long and long and long, and God will find thee. More love, more love, more love.”

Participating in divinity doesn’t mean having superpowers or being invulnerable. We won’t be throwing any lightning bolts. Just look at Jesus. His life tells you what “God-like” means. He was born in poverty and weakness, in a stable not a palace, and he lived a life of utter self-emptying and self-offering, giving himself away for the life of the world.

In a novel by the Anglican writer Charles Williams, a young woman goes to church with her aunt on Christmas morning. She is a seeker, not quite a believer, but as they are singing a carol about the mystery of the Incarnation, she leans over and whispers to her aunt, “Is it true?” Her aunt, one of those quiet saints who has spent her life submitting to Love divine, turns to her niece with a smile and says simply, “Try it, darling.”[iii]

So if you want to try it, if you want to complete your humanity by partaking of divinity, there are many ways to do that. Weep with those who weep and dance with those who dance,the Bible says. Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself. Welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, free the captive.There are plenty of to-do lists out there. I recently came across an excellent one from the Dalai Lama:

May I become at all times,
both now and forever:
A protector for all who are helpless.
A guide for all who have lost their way.
A ship for all who sail the oceans.
A bridge for all who cross over rivers.
A sanctuary for all who are in danger.
A lamp for all who are in darkness.
A place of refuge for all who lack shelter.
And a servant for all those who are in need.
May I find hope in the darkest of days,
and focus in the brightest.

No, Bethlehem is not a dream fading away into the past. It is the human future.
And this is not the morning after. It is the first day of the rest of our journey into God.

 

 

 

[i]q. in Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own(2004), 403.

[ii]Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966)

[iii]The novel is The Greater Trumps(1932)