For conservatives going through a fit of the blues over the political events of the past days, today couldn’t come at a better time. What’s today? It’s the ascension of our Lord, 40 days after Easter.
Like the Day of Epiphany (January 6) and Holy Week days (Maundy Thursday and now even Good Friday), the Ascension of Our Lord is one of those non-Sunday holidays that easily falls prey to the realities of modern life in America—that is, public schools and sports leagues not caring a wit about church life, a populace drifting away from church in the first place, and a citizenry more interested in =entertainment than in the state of their souls.
This is unfortunate. Especially for those bummed out about where our politics are going, today’s feast day of Ascension offers comfort. It is, after all, Christ’s ascension to his heavenly throne. Read Psalm 146, the basic premise of which is you can’t trust earthly politics, that in the end it’s the Lord who feeds the poor, takes care of the sick, and provides justice. “Do not put your trust in princes, Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help.”
Beyond that, Ascension Day is loaded with good theology. As one Ascension hymn goes, “He has raised our human nature On the clouds to God’s right hand; There we sit in heav’nly place, there with Him in glory stand.” Christ’s ascension is the reentry of a son of man—a son of Adam—into that which was once barred, Paradise, paving that way for the rest of us. The angel puts down his flaming sword and attends Christ to his throne, the rightful place of man at the helm of creation.
All the children of Adam fell under the curse of sin, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Jesus, the Son of God, defeated this curse with a perfect life, but more than that, died for our sins; and more than that, made available to us sacramentally the very body and blood which now sits at God’s right hand, so that, as another hymn says, “For where the head is, there as well, I know His members are to dwell.”
The Objective Reality of Christ for You
A few years ago some Christians began referring to themselves as “followers of Jesus.” They typically understand this in the American evangelical sense that has defined American Christianity going back to the Puritans. Every new generation of evangelicals claims to rebel against the sins of their fathers and be the “real Christians.”
They mean this, of course, morally. The idea is, “You old Christians are hypocrites, going through the motions of your faith, but we young ones are the authentic Christians; you call yourself a ‘born-again Christian,’ but we actually follow Christ and obey what he says.”
There’s a lurking liberalism here that explains why evangelical movement tends toward unitarian liberalism. Isn’t Jesus all about love and acceptance? Don’t just say you believe in him, show it by what you do and how much you love. And don’t get caught up in names, doctrines, and “head knowledge,” but make your faith a “heart knowledge” all about action. In fact, why even worry about the name “Jesus.” As long as you love, that’s all that matters.
This is has been the terminus of evangelical theology which, allegedly by the Holy Spirit, drifts away from tangibles and the concrete—even the Body of Christ and the Word of God—into abstractions and do-gooder platitudes. It’s why Puritanism evolved into Transcendentalism, the great revivals evolved into progressivism, and fundamentalism evolved into the Emergent Church. They have no anchor in the Body of Christ, precisely because they get the ascension wrong. As someone from an evangelical tradition told me the day after Easter, “When Jesus ascended, His earthly flesh sort of dissipated and now He’s a pure spirit being.”
Anchoring Faith in Objective, Physical Reality
Far from it. Keep in mind that the apostolic testimony wasn’t complete until they saw their Lord ascend bodily into the heavens. The apostolicity of the church derives from the very physicality separating Christianity from all its Gnostic counterparts: the apostles bore witness to actual, physical stuff, and that means everything for our faith.
No hearts and minds drifting here and there, but anchored on actual words, language, and physical things like scriptural texts, water, bread, and wine. Thus it was necessary for the apostles to witness the fullness of events defining the Christian faith, because they needed to bear witness to what following Jesus truly meant, in a physical, not moral, sense.
Following Jesus isn’t some moral injunction to be loving. It means, quite literally, follow this person framed by the contours of an actual body, with a name, “Jesus.” Follow him in his birth, being born of water and blood; follow him through death; follow him through resurrection; and follow him sitting at God’s right hand. Behold, there is his body, sitting at God’s right. The apostles witness and proclaim what they have seen, inviting us to share that same life path. That’s what it means to follow Jesus.
The Holy Spirit Works Through Physical Means
Of course, it’s all by faith, not by sight. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus said would not be sent out until he returned to the Father. The Holy Spirit works through the church’s liturgy, which puts physical and verbal form to the physical and verbal articles of faith.
Even as Christ—made perfect (Hebrews 5: 9) through his baptism into death—ascends to sit at God’s right hand amidst the angels, so also do we follow, first perfected through invocation and baptism (absolution), entering into the holy place (introit), amidst the angels (“Gloria in Excelsis” and “Sanctus”). The communion is the climax of a testament that we are one with Christ on his throne.
Christ’s sitting at God’s right hand is the foundation for the gift of the Holy Spirit, who gives us the gift of forgiveness. While the cross effected atonement, and the resurrection sealed the deal, Christ’s ascension completed our full reconciliation with the Father. A human body, after all, now sits next to the Father and has his ear! That is the foundation of our right to call God “Our Father” and with Christ have his ear. It’s the Trinitarian basis of the church’s worship.
Christ’s sitting at God’s right hand is the foundation for a Christian’s patterns of thought. As Saint Paul writes, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” Our treasure is in heaven, and our thoughts are called upward. This helps us weather the foolishness of this world—like a clown running against a felon for the most powerful position on earth.
Count It All Joy
Finally, Christ’s ascension fills out what is called the Theology of the Cross, that is, the bitter truth of Christianity that the Lord works through our hardships—through suffering and death—to perfect our faith. Without the ascension, the Theology of the Cross just becomes a blues song, making people feel good about pain.
No, as St. Paul writes, “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.” In Christ is both the depths of our sin, despair, and suffering—him having borne it all—but also his ultimate triumph over it all. Through the most unholy and ugly of sights on earth or in our own lives, we are given to see Christ, and through Christ, see the ultimate holiness and beauty, the beauty of his ascension.
Christ rules over all things for the good of the church. Yes, he is even ruling over political events in America. Not in a deterministic way, as if Jesus himself set up Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in his providential wisdom to manipulate some scheme we cannot understand. Rather, in the complete unraveling of events—like those leading up to his own crucifixion—God works ultimate good.
In the ultimate cosmic irony, God works through peoples’ sinful choices to undo sin. This means that through even the most corrupt and chaotic events of our day, those with faith are given to see the cross, and through the cross an open tomb and path to God’s right hand. Yes, even in Trump’s gleaming orange hair, or in that shrieking pterodactyl clawing the chalkboard (otherwise known as Hillary Clinton), we can see the sacred at work. Just don’t tell them that.
As Jesus said to his disciples the day before his death, “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”
That’s what ascension means: our Lord going to prepare a place for us. It might be time for Christians to return to church and reacquaint themselves with this beautiful feast day. Really, what else do we have?