And then Ascension Day comes along during Eastertide, and with this Day comes a truth that is strong enough to strip us of our flawed assumption that we really are just ‘crude matter.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” The disciples had spent significant amounts of time with Jesus of Nazareth, and knew him to be truly human. They saw him eat, and sleep, and laugh and weep. They saw him die, truly dead upon that cross. They saw him resurrected, and even in his gloriously resurrected body, he still had the physical wounds of his crucifixion. Even more curious, after his resurrection, they saw him eat roasted fish on the sea shore. The resurrected one, the glorified one, still ate just like the rest of them. And then, though they might have wished him to stay, they saw this very man, with his physical body, taken up into heaven, and they heard the promise that he would come back in the same way. He physically ascended and he would physically return. But it’s not his going up or coming down that presently interests me. It’s what is happening in between.
“Even at this moment,” St. Gregory of Nazianzus says, “he is, as man, making representation for my salvation, until he makes me divine by the power of his incarnate manhood. ‘As a man’ I say, because he still has with him the body he assumed, though he is no longer ‘regarded as flesh’—meaning the bodily experiences which are ours and his…Whoever says his flesh has now been discarded and his Godhead [divorced] of body, but denies that he exists along with what he assumed and will come with it, will not see the [glory of his return.] When I first encountered this passage from St. Gregory, it was mind-blowing. I had never given much thought to what happened to the Jesus’ body after the Ascension. Perhaps it's because we tend to focus so much on spiritually experiencing his grace, or only reading about his historical acts, that we tend to think less about his body now, and focus only on what happened to his body when it walked the earth. But suddenly, reading St. Gregory, it became a bit clearer.
Before the Incarnation, the Son of God existed apart from and independent of human flesh and experience. But now, even at this very moment, through the miracles of Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension, the Son of God has become so mingled, so blended with humanity that when he returned to the Godhead, and was seated at the right hand of the Father, he brought with him his body, his experiences, his wounds…all of it, all of his humanity became such an intrinsic part of him that he could not abandon it even as he returned to the Father from whom he was sent.
The Ascension is such a profound belief, in that we proclaim that the One who intercedes for us, the One who has redeemed us, does so on our behalf as one who has shared, and still shares, in our human experiences. The One who fights for us, struggles for us, prays for us, and loves us is truly one of our own. Jesus is not just a living spirit, residing in Heaven upon a cloud. He is the Truly Human One, who from his very human experiences knows precisely the burdens we face as embodied people, and thereby knows how best to interceded for us and work for our continual growth in grace and virtue. To quote again St. Gregory of Nazianzus: “Christ condescends to his fellow servants, nay, to his servants, and takes upon him a strange form, bearing all me and mine in himself, that in himself he may exhaust the bad, as fire does wax, or as the sun does the mists of the earth; and that I partake of his nature by the blending.” The Ascension, the revelation that Jesus is the Reigning Lord of All yet still truly Human, challenges us to see that the process of redeeming and sanctifying humanity is still ongoing, being brought to fruition by the Truly Human One, the Son of God, in both his humanity and divinity, sitting at the right hand of the Father.
The unfortunate thing about doctrine, once enshrined in things like the Nicene Creed, is that it can easily become just an article of belief, something we say on a Sunday morning without giving it too much thought. But for me, belief in Jesus’ bodily ascension is a game changer. Because if the flesh of Jesus is so valuable, so connected to who he was and still is that he couldn’t return to the Father without it, then it means there is something intrinsically valuable and beautiful about our bodies, the very things we often refer to as ‘crude matter’. To flip Yoda’s phrase on its head, “Embodied beings are we, not just this indwelling light.”
It’s a true miracle, sometimes hard to believe even, that the very stuff we are made of, this flesh and blood, now resides at the right hand of the Father. The very stuff we are made of, our embodied humanness, ascended to Heaven and is found within the Godhead itself. It may be a bit heady to think about, a bit mind-warping to think about flesh becoming a part of the Godhead. But nevertheless, what it boils down to is that the stuff we often think of as ‘crude’ or having no grand significance in the drama of salvation is actually the very stuff that was transformed in the Resurrection and found to have a rightful place at the right hand of the Father. And that should, at the very least, challenge us to think a bit differently about our bodies, and about the bodies of others…to think much more positively about what it means to be human beings, embodied, enfleshed…and to think much more creatively about how our bodies themselves are part of our ‘spirituality’, if you will.
We aren’t just souls inside a dying husk waiting to be released. We are creatures made in the image of God, whose flesh was united to God through the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension, sharing in the enfleshed humanity of Jesus that was taken into Heaven and will come again physically. We see that our bodies are capable of sharing in the glory of the Godhead in far more significant ways than we often give them credit for. “Embodied beings are we, not just this indwelling light.”
*A sermon preached on the Feast of the Ascension 2016 at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM. The texts were Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, and Luke 24:44-53.