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AND WE DANCE | Ascension Continued

The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord has traditionally been celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day after Easter.

Where the Head is, there is the Body.
Where I am, there is my Church.
We too are one; the Church is in me and I in her
and we two are your Beloved and your Lover.

Augustine of Hippo: Quoted in Deacon Keith Fournier’s homily “Ascending with the Lord,” (accessed July 15, 2018).

The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord has traditionally been celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day after Easter. But considering that the celebration is one of the twelve major feasts of the liturgical year, and because people are increasingly unlikely to attend a weekday church service, the observance has, in recent times and in many quarters, been moved to the seventh Sunday of Easter. In that way, more people might participate and find the joy on offer in its meaning. I myself am only now beginning to comprehend and explore the riches of this oft-underrated feast, and so I include a second chapter on the ascension to expand on the discussion from the previous chapter.

Ascension, 1305-06, Giotto
Ascension, 1305-06, Giotto

For most of my life, I haven’t appreciated why this day would be a major celebration in Christian worship, and I suspect most people don’t. How in the world does the ascension of Christ rank with Christmas or Easter?

When I was a child, Ascension Sunday hardly felt like a celebration at all. In fact, it felt quite the opposite. How could the departure of a dearly loved one be cause for celebration? What does this event mean for the millions and billions of us who never got to be with Jesus in person? I was envious of the people who knew his face and his touch. I imagined that they must have, at some level, been able to sense the faint echo of eternity in his voice and the depths of the cosmos in his eyes. Despite the bewildering swirl of new teachings and the astonishing events of his life, those who knew him must have felt the soothing ambience that surely emanated from his countenance.

But no… for me, Jesus’ ascension meant that the earth and history and myself in particular had suffered a profound loss. Even the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost was a disappointing consolation prize – at best, a second place. If you remember competitions you participated in as a child, receiving a consolation prize may have been better than nothing, but the prize was always a stinging reminder of a loss, not a win. The wry phrase “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” comes to mind.

But I’ve come to see things differently, mostly because I have begun to see Jesus’ ascension as being continuous with his earthly descent. In other words, these two seemingly separate events are really one motion, or gesture, of a profoundly loving God. But this truth cannot be fully appreciated unless erroneous theology is exposed.  

Whether through actual teaching or Sunday school songs or some other inexplicable misinformation, I grew up thinking that the incarnation, with all of its appealing drama of divine rescue, was at its core God’s “Plan B” after “Plan A” was spoiled by human sin. This assumption suggests that God was “pushed,” as it were, into unappeasable wrath until a radical transaction of horrific proportions would occur to satisfy a righteous rage.  

But what if this picture is inaccurate? What if, from all eternity, God’s plan had always been to unite, through incarnation, with his creation, drawing it into the mutuality and joy of his own triune being?

Indeed, if Jesus had come to earth to execute a legal transaction securing our salvation from a terrifyingly ticked-off God, then we may be happy for his descent. But his ascent is still a loss, and we are left without him. However, if the descent of God as Christ into our midst was meant to penetrate the fullness of our existence (including our death), and unite us to him, then indeed, his rising is our rising, his fellowship (Father, Son and Spirit) is our fellowship, and their joy is our joy.

Take a minute and let this idea sink in.

If this reasoning is true, then the opposite also holds. In his union with us, the suffering, redeeming Christ is still present on earth through his body, the Church. This is no pious sentiment, but an actuality we have failed to appreciate. Could it be that by the loving grace of God, we ourselves have become “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things to come”? (Hebrews 11:1). In a way that can only be a mystery, we already are what we long for.

In a wonderful homily preached on this great feast day, Augustine proclaimed, “Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him,” and

While in heaven He is also with us; and we, while on earth, are with Him… He did not leave heaven when He came down to us; nor did He withdraw from us when He went up again into heaven… He is the Son of Man by His union with us, and we by our union with Him are the sons [sic] of God. For in our baptism, we have been incorporated into the very body of Jesus.

Quoted in Fournier, “Ascending with the Lord.”

Therefore we return to Augustine’s words at the top of this reflection:

Where the Head is, there is the Body. Where I am, there is my Church. We too are one; the Church is in me and I in her and we two are your Beloved and your Lover.

Quoted in Fournier, “Ascending with the Lord.”

As mentioned in other books in this series, I understand the Christian narrative not as a tale of forensic rescue, but rather as a magnificent love story. Here, the image of beloved and lover is pertinent, and invites us to consider the full nature of human sexuality as a mutual indwelling of one with the other – a signpost of mutuality that issues forth new life. Theologian and author Charles Williams referred to this union as “co-inherence.”

All my life I have been desperately storming heaven in search of the ascended Jesus, as if the locus of salvation is somewhere above, not here on earth. But heaven is impenetrable. Perhaps, in relation to the divine, I am not to be a penetrator as much as I am to be one who receives. And perhaps it is not I who woos God, but God who woos me. Earth doesn’t infiltrate heaven – rather, heaven impregnates the earth, and the profound life that is born as a consequence of this fruitful union is… well… heavenly.

I’ll again leave you with a song. It speaks of Christ’s loving descent, which renders his ascension not the loss I thought it to be, but rather the cosmic marriage procession that it is.

music and lyrics by Steve Bell

You were within but I was without
You were with me, I skirted about
You called, you shouted your heart to my heart,
You flared, you blazed, you pierced through the dark
You lavished your fragrance on all that I passed
I noticed, I staggered, I stumbled on love
And I gasped

You, luminous heart of deer on the move
I, the dank forest your thrill courses through
I shudder at every dull thudding hoof
From canopy through to the deep hidden root
A mouldering longing awakens at last
I notice, I stagger, I stumble on love
And I laugh

We the tall stand of timorous trees
You, vital stir of breath on the breeze
You shimmering song bird that trembles the leaf
And trebles each trunk to the root of all being
’Til all is deep thrumming in Love on this path
We notice, we stagger, we stumble in love
And we dance

Appears on the 2016 CD release: Steve Bell / Where the Good Way Lies

1 Comment

  1. stephen

    Thanks Steve Bell – I too notice but seem to stagger and stumble more than laugh and dance. Sorta glad that love keeps getting in the way and that our partners in Christ are so lovingly patient. Still trying to get over that plan A & B nonsense.

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