Sunday, June 1, 2014

Jesus ascended into what?


Brothers and Sisters in the Faith,

Most dioceses in the United States will celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of The Lord today, the celebration of the feast having been commuted from this last Thursday, which is its normal position in the liturgical calendar. And so today we are celebrating what our reading from Acts tells us, "When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight." And we profess this every time we recite the Creed, "He ascended into Heaven and is seated at right hand of God, the Father Almighty." But what, exactly, does that mean? I struggled for a long time to understand why it was a particular occasion to celebrate just because Jesus decided to perform an amazing feat by flying off into the sky and disappear. Is that what this is all about? Upon deeper reflection, I've come to understand that this is one of the most important and often misunderstood and underapreciated parts of our Faith, and that therefore this is one of the most important feasts of the year. I'd like to share with you two points of reflection about what make the Ascension of The Lord so important for us, here, in real life. The first is about Exitus et Reditus, a Latin phrase meaning, essentially, "going out and returning." The second is about the reality of Theosis, that is, our participation in God Himself.

Exitus et Reditus is a concept that spans the branches of philosophy and theology, and in a basic sense refers to the rhythm of existence itself: things are formed from the elements, they go back to the elements, things ultimately come from somewhere and they ultimately going back there. Especially in Plato's philosophy, all things were seen as coming down from their ideal forms and descending to their concrete, material forms of existence. Thus, when the Church Fathers applied this concept to the coming of the Son of God, they referred to the texts of the Old Testament which spoke of the Word of God (whom St. John identifies with Our Lord in the prologue of his gospel) being sent, descending and going forth from the Father to accomplish His Will on Earth. The prophet Isaiah tells us:

"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:10-11)

And so, The Eternal Word of the Father, about whom we also say in the Creed "Through Whom all things were made" and who is "Consubstantial with The Father" and who eternally existed with the Father and the Holy Spirit, descended from Heaven and took on our human existence. The Targums, which are ancient translations of the Hebrew Scriptures into Arimaic, point to the Word of God specifically as the original of the human race: "And the Word of the Lord created man in His likeness, in the likeness of the presence of the Lord He created him" (Targum of Palestine, Genesis 1:27) Just as the The Word of God came forth from the Father at the beginning in a creative act, so in His coming in the Flesh, Our Blessed Lord came forth from the presence of The Father to renew the original creation by his act of redemptive sacrifice. What we celebrate today, however, is His return to His origin, the Father. The Reditus of the Eternal Word is the accomplishment of the task for which He was sent into the world. Indeed, Isaiah tells us that the Word will "not return empty", and this is the time for Jesus to take his rightful place as King after having won the victory over sin and death. Now that's all very interesting theology, but what does it mean for you and I? It's great that Jesus accomplished his task and all, and that now it's time for him to return to the Father, but how does this affect us? How can we leave today with our lives changed by having liturgically witnessed this event?

The answer is Theosis. The Eternal Word came to Earth not only to redeem us from sin, but bring us into the very bosom of the Father from whence he came. The Word of God would not return empty, would not return alone, but would bring back all of creation and its crowning glory, the human race, to the very communion of the Blessed Trinity itself. Jesus said, with respect to his crucifixion, but also mystically with reference to his ascension, "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself." (John 12:32) In other words, The Word of God, through whom the world was made, did not consider it enough merely to restore us to our former happiness that we experienced in the Garden, but to elevate our very nature so that we might, as some theologians have put it, "become by grace what He is by nature." Think about that for a moment. This means that Christianity is not fundamentally about balancing our ledger sheet with God, it's not even ultimately about restoring natural justice that was broken by our sin, it is about God's desire to be, not only okay with us, but one with us. St. Athanasius said it plainly: "God became man so that man might become God."

This Ascension is not only the return of the Eternal Word to the Father, it is the return of the Word, in his human nature. This means that a flesh-and-blood man, a human being like you and I (albeit in a glorified state), now dwells in the presence of the Divine Trinity and is united eternally in the Son. This means that the Word came down from heaven, but returned to heaven in his human nature, and has therefore glorified and Deified all of human nature. Every human being is now capable of sharing in the same divine nature by participation in the glorified human nature of the Son. We are given this capability by our Baptism which makes us "sharers in the Divine nature." This gives us hope that we can not only be right with God, but be one with him. Because Jesus has ascended to the Father and taken our humanity with him, we can have Hope that we can follow after him and share in that same nature. The Church tells us to pray for this very thing today in the Collect of the Roman Missal: 
"where the Head has gone before us in glory,
the Body is called to follow in hope."
Because Jesus has ascended to the Father, we can now call the Eternal One as Jesus taught us, "Our Father." Jesus points to this in the gospel where he says, "Jesus said to her, "Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, 'I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'" (John 20:17) The Mass itself points to this as well. The placement of the Our Father in the liturgy is not an accident, it deliberately follows the elevation, the "raising up" of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We are meant to draw a cause and effect relationship between those things. Because Christ has been raised and has ascended to the Communion from whence he came, we are now grafted into that communion and can call God our Father. 

This is a call to Mission in the world as well. Because Christ has brought us into the intimate life of the Trinity by the power of his ascension and the instruments of the sacraments, he calls us to go out and do his will on Earth. In the Gospel for today we hear the great commission:    
All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Christ has truly Deified us by his ascension, and so he takes seriously his command that we become as God is, perfect. Just as the love within the Trinity of God spilled over into the world, so the newfound love that we receive from him in Theosis carries with it the expectation that it will spill over into the rest of the world. Good is diffusive of itself, St. Thomas tells us, and Jesus said in his ministry, "to whom much is given much will be expected." Thus, the inestimable gift of our adoption into the Blessed Trinity is not something we can keep to ourselves. This is why Our Lord precedes it with the great commission to spread the Gospel and to lead everyone we meet ultimately back to the baptismal font or to greater committment to the vows we've already made. I will close with a quote from C. S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity" that I think sums up this concept very adequately:

"The command “Be ye perfect” is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creatures, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to Him perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what he said." (Macmillan, 1952, p. 174)

Praised be Jesus Christ, Now And Forever!