Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Theology of Ascension

There's a set of images that all golfers use--hook, slice, fat, thin--but the more colorful images of the game are indicative of a particular person, group, or club. To someone who hit the ball way left, one might say, "That's a Thurman Munson--a dead Yank." If you hit a bad shot but got a good kick and ended up in a decent place, you might describe as "an O.J." because you got away with it. As a kid, whenever my father or I hit a put that went rolling past the hole, he would say, "Come back, Shane!"

That's a reference to the 1953 film Shane. In the closing scenes, a young Brandon De Wilde appeals to Alan Ladd to stay with the family, but Ladd, who plays the title character, knows that he must go. It's a fabulous farewell. Shane keeps riding farther and father away while little Joey calls out to him with all the reasons he should stay. His voice echoes off the mountains in the distance. "Shane...come back!"

If you want to understand a theology of the Ascension of Jesus, watch that clip and ask yourself, "How else could Jesus have left?"

Today is Ascension Day--forty days after Jesus was raised from the dead. It marks the day when Jesus ascended into the heavens. It is a "principle feast" of the church, which means that it is one of the seven most important days in the church calendar. We recall this event explicitly in every BCP Eucharistic prayer except Rite II Prayers B & C, and, in those two examples, the Ascension is implicitly remembered with "we await his coming in glory" and "we await the day of his coming" respectively. In every way, it is central to our faith. By comparison, it takes a more important place in our observance than the Annunciation to Mary. It is more important that the Presentation in the Temple or the Transfiguration on the holy mount. It is more important than the celebration of any saint's life or death. Yet it remains the one observance about which I understand the least.

Other than a nice end to Jesus' time on earth, why do we have the Ascension? Sure, he can't ride off into the sunset like Shane, but why is his departure so important and not just as a departure but as an affirmation of something else? I think we know why he can't grow old and die, but why can't he disincorporate like Obi Wan? Going up is problematic. What happens when he runs out of oxygen? Where did he actually go? Is he hanging out on the Moon? Mars? Can you get to heaven by flying up into the heavens?

Again, I don't fully understand this topic, but I want to focus on one little line in the collect for Ascension Day as an invitation to consider what is gained from the traditional doctrine of the Ascension. Today, we pray, "Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things..." And I want to stop there. The rest of the collect is about our need for confidence in his abiding presence, which reflects a consequence not a cause. So why did Jesus ascend? That he might fill all things. But what does that mean?

The author of Ephesians uses that phrase twice. First, in the epistle lesson for today, he writes, "And [God] has put all things under [Christ's] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all." Later on, in 4:10, he writes, "He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things." That helps a little bit, but I want to look a little further ahead and see what the consequence of this filling all things really is. Here's the longer passage:
He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph. 4:10-14)
Look how much happens! Look what gets filled! Look what comes of that filling! By ascending into heaven, Jesus Christ takes his place as the head of the body and also filled out the rest of the body, the church. We are all united by the one who is the head, and the Ascension is an expression of that universality. Without the Ascension, we are all doing our own thing, following our own direction, as a discombobulated confederation. The Ascension is how Jesus fills everything up and out until it all comes together as one.

Jesus was taken up into heaven not because his story needed an end but because our story as the Body of Christ needed a beginning. Although the Ascension is a reflection of who Jesus is as the one who belongs at the right hand of the Father, it is equally an action that gives us an identity as members of his body. We are united to him in the incarnation. We are redeemed in his death. We are saved in his resurrection. We are filled in his ascension.

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