Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Solemnity of the Ascension: 2016 updated

A cloud took him from their sight

One the principal reasons for the Incarnation was to make our Creator, the divine Origin of the world, visible to us as a human being. Visible. ‘He who has seen me’, says our Lord to Philip, ‘has seen the Father’ "No man has ever seen God but the Only-begotten Son has made him known".

But St. Luke tells us that at the Ascension: "a cloud took him from their sight" Because the Incarnate Son of God did not come simply to reveal to us the Creator but as the Redeemer.  He became flesh not only so we could see but that we might be. 

 St. Augustine makes this point: “He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven.”  Our confusion is enshrined in one of our favorite hymns, At the name of Jesus, where we are told that Christ was humbled for a season. The line is often and rightly changed to humbled for a reason.

We imagine that the Son of God, made flesh, become man, was a temporary episode. He was made flesh, made man for a while, then he went back to being just plain old God. What the Church teaches is  that the Son of God united human nature to himself for ever and ever for a reason and not for a season. What happens at the Incarnation is that our human nature is united to the divine nature. In St. Athanasius’ famous and shocking words: “the Son of God became man that we might that we might become God.” What the Son of God is by nature we are by adoption:  When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

The significance of the Ascension is that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, takes our human nature to the right hand of the Father. St. Augustine adds although he ascended alone, we also ascend with him" No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: he is the Son of Man by his union with us, and we by our union with him are the sons of God”. The body ascends when the head ascends. Now our humanity is seated at the right hand of the Father.

In Christian art in depictions of the Ascension often the only thing we see of Jesus is his feet, the feet dirty with the dust of the back streets of Palestine, the feet washed with human tears, the feet pierced by the nails. When he ascends with our human nature, heaven is domesticated, accommodated to human frailty. 

Since the Ascension it is easier for us to imagine heaven as a desirable goal. Try as we will the idea of heaven alludes us. We may be suspicious of the romantic and fantastic language of Holy Scripture about heaven: the pearly gates and the streets of gold. For the folks who do not like going to church  endless praise is not all that appealing. More likely we are attracted by the absence of trouble and the meeting of those we love.

But really there is nothing better than the words of St. Paul: “to depart and be with Christ”. We are not concerned to go somewhere to be in this or that state but only with what we have always been concerned about: to find him. So much and so little we know about the ascended Christ.

A cloud took him from their sight

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