I was having a conversation a few days ago on a subject that I’ll bet you weren’t even remotely thinking about. It was about Jesus’ descent into hell. Someone was telling me that when he was a young boy he asked his priest what sense it made to talk about Jesus going to hell. The priest seems to have taken the question seriously but whatever answer he gave didn’t come near satisfying the boy’s curiosity. I remember a time when an adult parishioner asked me a similar question. “What is Jesus’ ascension and how is it different from his resurrection?” I don’t know that my matter-of-fact answer was any more satisfying although it was a textbook answer. I said that the resurrection refers to Jesus’ rising from the dead and the ascension refers to his ascending to the Father. Not necessarily wrong, but many times those are the stopping places for such questions and such discussions.
|Icon of the Ascension|
The problem with both of these things is that the very terms “descent” and “ascension,” carry with them spatial pictures—down and up. They reinforce the idea that hell is “down there” somewhere and heaven is “up yonder” somewhere. I was in my hometown this week for a funeral. Conway, South Carolina, is about as flat as pancake. Yet even in that flat stretch of coastal plain there is in Conway a section that is historically known as “the hill.” Driving up the street on which I grew up, I could see in the distance the land rise. I vividly remember that when somebody told me at about age 3 that the devil lived in hell and that hell was below the ground, I imagined that “the hill” must be the place where the devil was coming up out of the ground to snatch people away, and a sign that he was getting close.
Spatial descriptions work for the untrained, concrete mind. But in a few years we learn that if you travel down through the crust of the earth, you don’t ever run into a literal hell, and if you travel out into space, you can go forever without running into a literal heaven. So, if you’re thinking about the ascension at all, I invite you to loose yourself from any idea that it is about Jesus going “up there” some place. It is a metaphor, not a map. It is an experience, not a geography lesson. And it is about a truth, not a worn-out fairy tale.
|Typical image of the Ascension. |
Can you relate?
What, then, to make of the ascension, if it has nothing to do with going up? A good place to begin is with today’s gospel. What is interesting is that this gospel has nothing to do with an ascension narrative as such. It comes out of that long passage in the Fourth Gospel that the writer sets in the context of the night preceding Jesus’ crucifixion. It is in the form of a long prayer that Jesus is praying for his community as he is about to be killed. He is going to leave them. Known as “the high priestly prayer,” Jesus is interceding for his community. Packed into the passage shaped like a prayer is a mine full of insights about the nature of God, the purpose of Christ’s community, and the relationship that Jesus has with both. To grasp the “ascension” of Jesus we have to let the essential idea of this passage sink in. And that idea is oneness.
Yet there is a troublesome word that we could well misinterpret and thereby miss the main point. That word is “world,” or, in the Greek, κοσμος. The key to understanding what “world” is driving at is to realize that the entire message of Jesus is a clarion call to live a kind of life different from the life that human societies and organizations and governments and cultures frequently construct and promote in this world. It is a life that Jesus called the kingdom of God. Nearly all his parables and pronouncements were about this different kind of living, marked by generosity instead of greed; justice in place of domination; radical inclusiveness in place of religious, racial, gender and ethnic exclusivity. In short, life in the kingdom is what you pray for if you take seriously the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. It is not about trying to get God to love you. Nor is it about working to get yourself ready for an afterlife. And it certainly is not about appeasing an angry God who creates you one way and expects you to live another. There is a sense in which the systems of the world, dominated by power and control, indeed hate anyone who dares defy them. If you have ever been a whistleblower, you perhaps know that firsthand. Any time the systems of human societies are threatened, they will go into overdrive to assert themselves.
It is critical to note that not all systems of the world are corrupt, though all are corruptible. It’s important to distinguish between purpose and performance. It’s also important to understand that not everything in the world of human affairs is counter to the purposes of God. When religious communities have taken stands against art, suppressed humor, forgotten how to play, identified bodily pleasure with evil, the result has been disastrous in nearly every way, and in the end such renunciation of many things in this world that make life wonderful to live has led to making it a sour, boring enterprise. Such renunciation is about as far away from the joy of Jesus that he continues to say he wants his community to know completely as anything we could come up with.
|Another image of Ascension. Where is the Body?|
Have we digressed from the ascension? It might seem so, but all of this is actually to get at what the ascension truly is about. It is about a joyful, caring, generous, accepting God whose very nature is love, inviting all creation to share the very divine nature. And that means oneness. Jesus is one with the Father. We are one with Jesus. Therefore we are one with the Father. And because we are one, “we” include every single person on the planet. “That they may be one even as we are one” does not stop at the twelve disciples, nor at the thousand, nor at the edge of this, that, or the other church. It is a re-writing of the old Covenant first made with Abraham—that the community of God might include as many people as the stars in the universe and the sand on the seashore or in the desert. Jesus “leaves” his community only in the sense that he is no longer physically present. His mission is fulfilled when the divine life that he manifests is the life that the entire human species recognizes in itself.
C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that we are to be “little Christs.” As one of the great Fathers of the Church, St. Maximus the Confessor, put it, “What he is by nature, we become by grace.” The Ascension is actually about our discovering that instead of the physical presence of Jesus of Nazareth, the physical presence of God is in us. We become the sacrament of God: the outward, visible signs of the divine life, one word for which is “grace.”
|The Body of the Ascended Christ|
But we aren’t quite through with the ascension story. We’ve left out an important question from the discussion so far. Why is this necessary in the first place? What’s the matter with human beings that we need to go through all this in order simply to be what we are created to be—namely to be these visible, tangible manifestations of the divine life? No other species seems to have that problem. We never meet a dog that spends hours trying not to be a dog. Or a cow that is in therapy because she can’t quite come to terms with being a cow. We don’t see trees or shrubs or flowers or anything else on the planet that has a hard time being what they are, or with a need to be transformed into something else. Not even the species that are “wild” and become by human beings’ efforts “tame” or domesticated fit the same paradigm that humans do. I think you know the answer. It is because the way our own peculiar consciousness has evolved. The very things that enable us to work wonderful feats and to accomplish marvelous things—think of the great literature, art, and life-saving abilities humans have developed—those things come out of the same consciousness that has turned the world into a living hell, trashed the planet, committed unspeakable atrocities among our own on a scale that shamefully outstrips anything any other species has done. Civilization, for all its faults, has been at its best when it has worked to tame the savageness of humanity. Many traditions put it in different language, but the Christian vocabulary simply says that God’s project for human beings is “that they may be one,” sharing the divine life in their very flesh.
Perhaps, in the end, the old metaphor of “going up” is not so bad after all, if by it we mean that Christ has lifted us up from the bogs in which we’ve been stuck to a higher, more beautifully joyful life than we’ve ever been able to construct on our own.
A sermon for the Ascension of Christ based on John 17:6-19
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018