Sunday after Ascension, May 28, 2017
Acts 20:16-18, 28-36; John 17:1-13
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
We have now left behind the time of continuous celebration of Christ’s resurrection and are now celebrating His ascension into heaven, a feast that falls on the fortieth day from Pascha. We will continue to celebrate this feast through this coming Friday. At nine days long, it is one of the longest festal celebrations of the Church year.
Yet we may be tempted to see the Ascension as merely the end of something. Christ rose from the dead, spent forty more days on this earth, and then left. And now we’re just sort of waiting around for ten days for Pentecost.
As an example of this, I once read pop theologian Rachel Held Evans say a few years ago on her blog that the Ascension brought up “abandonment issues” for her. She wrote that she wanted Jesus to stay around longer because then Christians might have avoided historical problems like the Crusades or the Great Schism. She even accuses Jesus of being “inefficient” for working through flawed human beings and that He always “insist[s] on using people before they’re ready.”
Honestly, I can’t quite understand how any Christian could basically tell Jesus that he or she knows better. But even that temerity aside, there are big theological problems with seeing the Ascension as about abandonment or even just about an ending of Jesus’ time on earth.
This is not a view of the Ascension that does any justice to what is actually happening. In fact, it is a view of Jesus that does not account for Who He actually is. This view wants Jesus to “stick around” so that He can keep doing things here “on the ground.” It is essentially Jesus as a kind of activist Who is somehow incapable of seeing His work through now that He’s ascended. It is also a view of Jesus as something other than the God-man.
How so? Let’s look at the Ascension to see what it says about Who He is.
In the Ascension, we see Jesus—yes, we see Him, which means that He is still human with a human body—we see Him lifted up into Heaven and carried out of sight. And the Scripture tells us that He sat down at the right hand of God the Father. So there is now a human body seated on the throne of God.
In the Ascension we see a completion of the Incarnation. If God really became man yet remained as God, then what we have is both a humanized (if you will) God and also a deified man—one Person Whose humanity and divinity interpenetrate each other. Thus, when God is glorified in Christ, a human man is shown to be God.
So if we have a problem with Him ascending into Heaven, we either don’t want Him to be man or don’t want Him to be God. An earthbound Jesus is not God. It is right that He should be seated at the right hand of the Father, because He is the Son of God. And it is right that His human body and soul should be there fully united to His divinity, because He is the Son of Mary.
This view of the Ascension also is a problem for human salvation. Why? Because if we are in Christ, then we are being deified. And if we are in Christ, then we are also seated at the right hand of the Father. If we are in Christ, we have an intimate union with the Holy Trinity in Christ. Without the Ascension, we are basically saying that the Incarnation is something just for on earth, that humanity really cannot be raised to the very heights of intimacy with God. Jesus becomes a kind of ambassador, but we’re not allowed to enter His country.
Finally, this view of the Ascension actually cuts off the work of Jesus. We may not want Him to ascend because we want Him to stay here and keep doing what He was doing. But He went into Heaven precisely to complete the work He began here on earth.
In Hebrews 4:14, Paul says that Jesus, our High Priest, has “passed through the heavens.” He says that this action of ascending is precisely a priestly act. He is not “leaving” us. After all, He said He would never leave us nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5). So He hasn’t left. He has ascended in order to do something, and Paul says that what He is doing is an action of His priesthood.
In Hebrews, Paul also mentions a veil (6:19, 9:3), and references to a veil in connection with the priesthood would have been immediately suggestive for a first-century Jew. Why? Because priests passed through the veil. They passed through a veil that divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. It was in that most sacred place that the High Priest offered the sacrifice.
So when Jesus passes through the veil of the heavens, He goes there precisely to offer up a sacrifice. The sacrifice is begun on Holy Friday, with His crucifixion and the sacrifice of Himself—His own flesh and blood. And now it is completed in the Ascension, with His own flesh and blood now brought fully into the presence of God. His humanity is now fully offered up to the Father.
And in that offering—if we participate—we are changed.
So this idea that the Ascension is some kind of mistake on Jesus’ part or that He is abandoning us does all kinds of violence to Jesus Himself and His mission. It destroys His character as the God-man. It denies intimacy between God and man on the throne of God. And it also denies the final and ultimate priestly act of our High Priest Jesus.
But there is one further ramification here. If we take apart this incarnational and priestly context for the Ascension, then we also have to remove our own participation in those things. We actually have to deny the royal priesthood of all believers. Why?
When you come to this holy place and pass through the veil that separates the world from this place of sacrifice and sanctification, you are exercising your priesthood. In many churches, entering into the church is a literal ascent, as many are built on hilltops or have steps that lead up to the church. And in the Temple where the priests celebrated in Jerusalem, there were many steps that led finally up to the Holy of Holies. It was a literal ascent.
When we come here, we are also ascending. And we are ascending in order to make an offering of ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). In 1 Peter 2:5, the prince of the Apostles says to us that we are “a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” That is our task.
If we do not also ascend, not just in imitation of Christ but actually joining ourselves to Him, then what becomes of our sacrifices? What good is our priesthood?
I can certainly understand that sometimes we might feel negative things about what the Scripture says or what the Church celebrates and teaches like the writer I mentioned did. But that should motivate us to seek understanding of what is really happening. We cannot simply remain ignorant and then just decide that our feelings about what we don’t understand are what’s most important. They’re not. What’s important is what God is revealing about what He’s doing.
So as you can see, far from being a feast about abandonment or even just waiting around until Pentecost comes, the Ascension is a rich feast of theology that tells us Who Jesus is, what being saved really means, what it is He is accomplishing as our High Priest, and how we exercise our royal priesthood in union with Him.
To the ascended Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.