ascension: the union of heaven and earth

(fr Cyprian)


I always like to see this feast as part of a greater trajectory, the trajectory that is Jesus’ whole life. Really we have to start way back at the incarnation, with the mere astounding fact that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, the audacious claim of Christianity that Jesus is a full and perfect embodiment of the creative principle and divine wisdom, primal reason. And then following on that to remember that Jesus’ public ministry was not just about telling people that everything was going to be alright in heaven; his ministry was all about healing people and releasing them from demons. Jesus rebuilt people from the ground up. In other words, their creaturely-ness, even their fleshly-ness was important and worthy to be dignified and saved. And then I always put four events together: the transfiguration, the resurrection, this ascension, and then Pentecost itself (which I will leave to next week’s preacher). The transfiguration in which the very flesh of Jesus is transformed by this indwelling power of the divine coursing through Jesus’ veins… As far as the resurrection is concerned, I have spoken many times to non-Christian and skeptical Christian audiences and I always like to say to them, “It does not matter to me if you believe that these events took place exactly historically scientifically as they are recorded in the gospels. Please don’t miss the point of the story, the moral of the myth!” The point of it seems to be that Jesus’ body––not just his spirit, not just his presence, but his body itself was in some marvelous way beyond our comprehension not annihilated by the death experience but somehow changed into a glorious body. And then comes this event, when in that same glorified body Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father in glory.

Actually we could easily get distracted by this image of Jesus “ascending.” I think it’s more important to keep in mind that according to the Acts of the Apostles he enters into the cloud.[1] What is this cloud? Haven’t we seen it somewhere before? Is it the same pillar of cloud that led the Israelites by day that we hear about in the Book of Exodus?[2] Is it the cloud that covers the mercy seat in the sanctuary of the tabernacle in the desert in the Book of Numbers,[3] the cloud and the thick darkness that covered the mountain where Moses met God?[4] I think it is, and also the same cloud that appears over Jesus at his transfiguration, especially in the Gospel of Luke where we hear that Jesus and his disciples enter the cloud.[5] In the Bible this cloud is often the symbol of God’s power and God’s mysterious otherness, and yet a powerful mysterious otherness that is somehow so close to us, and into which we can enter, like Moses entered, as Jesus entered. I think that’s the cloud that took him out of sight––the cloud of God’s mysterious powerful otherness that is also a presence, a parousia.

Everything I understand about this feast I get from Frenchman! The first image I want to add to that is what the French liturgist Jean Corbon calls the “continual ascension.” “There is but a single Passover or Passage,” he writes, “but its mighty energy is displayed in a continual ascension…”[6] This ascension of Jesus, his entry body and soul into the mysterious presence of God is a dynamic event; it’s not static, it’s ongoing, the first movement of a progressive event, as Paul says in that amazing reading from the Letter to the Ephesians that we heard (Eph 4:1-13) until all of us come to the unity of the faith, until all of us come to the knowledge of the Son of God and to maturity, until all of us come to the measure of the full stature of Christ.[7] This movement of the ascension will only be complete when all the members of the Body of Christ have been drawn into right relationship with the Divine. We need to take the metaphor of the body that St. Paul uses so frequently and vehemently much more literally. Paul says God has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, and so the head of the body is there, but for all time Jesus will be bringing the rest of the body behind him, to follow him, to be with him, into this right relationship with the mysterious presence of God, because the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

It is not that Jesus has ever been out of right relationship with the Father. That is somehow the point of his whole life, that everything he did and said (as he himself said so many times, especially in the Gospel of John) is only what the Father has willed for him to do and say. But human nature has not been in right relationship with God for some reason that all of our traditions stumble around trying to explain. Call it the Fall, call it samsara or avidya. But now the fact that Jesus enters into this cloud with his glorified humanity is very significant. My second Frenchman: Lucien Deiss calls this the “triumph of humanity in Jesus,” not just the triumph of Jesus’ humanity, but the triumph of humanity in general. I hope you won’t think it’s silly, but I’m thinking of Neil Armstrong here: one small step of a man; one giant leap for humanity. Armstrong understood something very significant when he took that first step on the moon. He wasn’t just Neil Armstrong; he was humankind. And so much more for Jesus. Our very humanity, humanity itself is brought to the throne of God, to the right hand of the Father. Human nature itself has been brought to the right hand of the throne of God. Now in case you think this is a bunch of New Age hooey, the prayers at Mass today all reflect that. The prayer after communion is “…we pray that Christian hope may draw us onward to where our nature is united with you.” Because of this event of Christ, our nature––human nature––is already united with God. We need to try to catch up with our own nature! The opening prayer was amazing: “… the Ascension of the Lord is our exaltation, and where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.”

A point I want to emphasize further here is that I don’t think in this case the church which is his body just means baptized Christians. This means humanity in general, human flesh itself, which is somehow all one body, part of it baptized, part of it not. What Jesus has accomplished, human nature has accomplished. That is why this is a noonday, a high point in the evolution of consciousness. But it doesn’t end there either. Remember Paul’s mystical vision that all creation is groaning and in agony[8] while we work this out, this redemption of our bodies. So if Jesus is a first, decisive movement in re-establishing right relationship with the Divine, then we human beings are the priests of the rest of creation, giving voice to and summing up in our persons the whole of creation from mineral to chemical to life to plants and animals to homo sapiens. I didn’t get this from Ken Wilber. I get it from a 7th century Palestinian monk and mystic named Maximus the Confessor.

Christ, having completed for us his saving work and ascended to heaven with the body which he had taken to himself, accomplishes in his own self the union of heaven and earth, of material and spiritual beings, and thus demonstrates the unity of creation in the polarity of its parts.

That’s what this feast is, that’s the point of this story: the union of heaven and earth, the union of the material and spiritual, and the unity of creation in the polarity of its parts. This is a cosmic feast. And in another place Maximus says that in this ascension Christ

…unites created reality with uncreated reality… through grace the two become one. The whole world enters wholly into the whole of God and, by becoming all that God is … it receives in place of itself the whole God.

Can you get your head around that sentence? The whole world enters wholly into the whole of God and by becoming all that God is it receives in place of itself the whole of God! It’s an amazing vision of kenosis and pleroma, sunyata and purna, emptiness and fullness.

All of that makes me really love the words of the angel: Why are you looking in the sky? Go proclaim the good news! And what is the good news? My final Frenchman: this is Olivier Clement: “By the Ascension, the Body of Christ, woven of our flesh and of all earthly flesh, entered the realms of the Trinity. Henceforward the creation is in God.”[9] Creation is in God! We speak so often of the indwelling presence of God; I don’t think we speak enough about how we live and move and have our being in God, that we are swimming in the sea of God. That’s the Good News: the union of heaven and earth! The union of the material and spiritual! Why are you looking in the sky? You can see him in the bread and wine, just as you see him in the face of your neighbor and of the poor and even the face of your enemy. The Christ event is bringing about the unity of creation in the polarity of its parts; the Christ event unites heaven and earth. We don’t have to look in the sky to see the saving power of God: the cloud of God’s mysterious presence has settled upon the earth and permeates all of reality like the fog in Big Sur in June. Why are you looking in the sky? Go be the presence of Christ by healing the sick, chasing out demons, feeding the poor, speaking new languages, loving your enemy! Paul keeps it very grounded in the Letter to the Ephesians: be humble, be patient, bear with one another in love, preserve the unity through the bond of peace. What’s the good news? The good news is that we are the rest of the body of Christ, and with us all humanity and all creation is the rest of the body of Christ, the fullness of the one who fills all in all.

[1] Acts 1:9.

[2] Ex 13.

[3] Nm 9.

[4] Dt 5.

[5] Mt 17, Mk 9, Lk 9.

[6]Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, 35

[7] Eph 4:13.

[8] Rom 8:22.

[9] Olivier Clement, Roots of Christian Mysticism, 55.

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1 Comment

  1. thank you, I live in Malaysia, a muslim country, your words are like rays of sunshine, I rarely receive such profound thoughts on Christianity. language issues and politics have mostly inhibited the flow of such beauty and depth. thank you.

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