He ASCENDED into Heaven
What does this phrase mean – He ascended into heaven? This statement from the Creed we repeat every Sunday. Well, it implies certainly a going up – ascending is the opposite of descending. But this implies a three layered construction of the Universe, heaven above us, hell below and Earth in the middle, which we no longer accept. Yuri Gagarin the first man to circle the earth in space, announced to the atheistic Soviets he had not found God out there. But then, Space denotes emptiness, after all.
In German this is even worse. Himmel means both Heaven and sky. Ciel in French does the same. Heaven and Sky are the same word. Up in the sky there is a God. ‘There’s a friend for little children, above the bright blue sky’ we used to sing in Sunday School. Well, no, there’s not. Not up there, there’s not. So where is He? In my parish church of the Ascension in Romford, the stain-glass window portrayed two feet disappearing out of the picture, going up. So what is this Feast of the Glorious Ascension all about?
I think the answer is in the phrase ‘the Body of Christ’. Jesus was born male. Jesus was circumcised as a Jew. He had a real body with aches and pains just like you and me. After all, the Word became Flesh – how else could it dwell among us?
Jesus’s body is like no other body. There is no male involved in his conception, remember. It is indeed a miracle that XX chromosomes can issue solely from an XY mother alone. Does it seem a little dangerous for me to talk like this? If it seems a little disrespectful, it shouldn’t. The Word was made flesh and there are implications with flesh. And the metaphor of the Body of Christ is essential for an understanding of who we are as Christians. The relationship between the Body of Jesus and the body of Christ happens because of the Ascension.
When you think about it, Jesus’s body does amazing things. Before his death, It walks on water, it multiplies material to feed 5000. It heals by touch. It weeps at the death of Lazarus. But then it begins to become less solid. It transfigures on the mountain before witnesses. At the Eucharistic supper, the Last Supper, it changes substance. Jesus’s Body becomes bread. ‘This is my body,’ Jesus says of the bread he is offering his Church. In a sense, he hands himself over to the Church at this point, gives His body to you and me. And we respond: ’We break this bread to share in the body of Christ.’ This means Jesus can extend His Body and reach other bodies, who will absorb Him and become extensions of His body. Through the offering of the Eucharist, The Body of Jesus reaches out, no longer bound by self and space.
Jesus dies like all who have a body die and is laid in a tomb. After three days this incredible body is raised by God to life again. But it is no longer a recognisable body. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus are with it for hours, talking and sharing. It is only when Jesus breaks the Bread they recognise Him. Mary in the Garden does not recognise her Lord she knew so well. The disciples out fishing do not recognise Him, until they had obeyed his instruction to fish. Then, and only then, Peter says: ‘It is the Lord’, and rushes towards Him through the sea. Before the Resurrection, the gospel accounts follow Christ’s body wherever it went. Now, during these 40 days after Easter, Jesus is not fully present in the way He used to be. It is more like there are a series of visions, or appearances.
These appearances depend on people telling others what they have seen. The Presence of Jesus therefore depends on Communication, because communication confers communion and creates community. We have seen Him, He is here, say the Disciples. I haven’t, says Thomas – He is not here! Appearance and disappearance for 40 days.
Then we get to The Ascension – the grand finale of Jesus’s Body. After the Ascension, as Paul writes in Colossians: ‘The Church is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.’ After the Ascension, it is the Church which becomes the Body of Christ, broken like bread, to be food dispersed throughout the world. There will be no more Resurrection appearances.
But Jesus’s departing words concerning the Holy Spirit tell us He will come again, Jesus will return. We know with hindsight, the Holy Spirit of God comes upon the Church at Pentecost. In a sense, there is now a gap of a few days between Ascension and Pentecost, as there was between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It’s almost as if there is something going on behind the scenes. After the Ascension, the Church is caught between memory and anticipation, between what we thought we knew and what we do not yet know. Jesus is gone, but Christ will come again. This is always the place of the Church – to be in an eternal present, caught between the past and the future. Perhaps, sometimes we find the past a more comfortable place to live.
The point is: after the Ascension, after Pentecost, it is us, the Church, that is now the Body of Christ. Jesus identifies himself completely with his church. On the road to Damascus, where Saul is going to persecute the young Church, Jesus asks him:
Saul why are you persecuting me?
Jesus had told the disciples:
Abide in me and I will abide in you. I will come and live with you – and remain with you.
So the Church abides in Christ, who through His Spirit abides, remains, in the Church, wherever two or three are gathered in His name.
After the Ascension, The Body of Jesus, the male Jew, has expanded to embrace the whole of Creation, male and female. St Gregory wrote: ‘He who sees the Church looks directly at Christ…the establishment of the Church is the re-creation of the world. But it is only in the union of all the members that the beauty of Christ’s Body is complete.’ We are the Body of Christ.
After the Ascension, after today, we live in an ambiguous tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ – but we are not left as orphans to face an unknown, uncertain future. Because living among us, abiding, remaining, if we take Jesus words seriously, is the same Lord Jesus who tells us:
Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the world.
But he is no longer bound by time and space, but is with us here as Spirit, to be worshipped, as John tells us, in Spirit and Truth.