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The Incarnation Continues: Recovering the Importance of the Ascension

It seems to me that people are no longer asking the question to which the ascension is the answer. For the Reformed tradition, the doctrine of God’s transcendence, God’s otherness, God’s glory, and God’s sovereignty are central, coupled with an awareness of God as our Creator, the one for whom we are made. Such an understanding of God raises the need for a mediator as our most profound existential question. When we understand God to be both radically other and also our life’s goal and deepest need, we cry out for someone to bridge the obvious gap between God and us, someone to bring us into God’s presence. No doubt it is because this desire for a mediator is naturally nourished by Reformed theology that the doctrine of the ascension has traditionally been central to our understanding of worship and sacrament.

However, the dominant conception of God in North American Protestant churches today is of one who is much like me (temporal, changeable, emotional, responsive, feeling my pain)—only bigger. That means there is little awareness of our need for a mediator. My study of the ascension prompts me to highlight the radical “otherness” of God so that the good news of Christ’s mediatorial work can be received as the good news that it is. The ascension cannot be properly preached apart from this context.

The Incarnation as a Present Reality

The ascension is simply not front and center for most contemporary North American Christians. Popular conversations about the incarnation tend to focus on the nativity stories and on the earthly life of Jesus, with the goal of helping us to affirm the value of the physical world and of our own bodies. But most teaching about the incarnation stops there, with the result that many think that the ascension really means the shedding of Jesus’ human nature, as if Jesus is now simply a spiritual presence who used to be human, someone whom we remember with affection rather than someone we expect to see face to face someday. A full-orbed understanding of the incarnation will also proclaim that the incarnation continues, that it is the incarnate Christ who has ascended. Jesus is our contemporary, not a historical figure from a dead past. He is living now, interacting with us now, and standing now in a human body in the presence of the Father. He is praying for us now, leading our worship now, feeling our pain now, sharing our humanity now. Any preaching or teaching about the incarnation that presents it only as a past event undermines our understanding of the ascension.

It is also true that in his ascension Jesus is no longer here with us in the world that we know, which means that our affirmation of the value of the world—so often inspired by the doctrine of the incarnation—is a relative affirmation only. Our minds and hearts are supposed to be fixed where he is, and he is not here.

This World Is Not Our Home

We need to think more about heaven than most of us are used to doing. We need to set our minds where Christ is (not here) and be willing to accept the “not yet” quality of our salvation as well as the “already” quality. We need to be willing to miss him, to long for him, to embrace the inherent loneliness of our lives until we see him face to face. In working on a book about unrequited love, I have had many conversations with people about marriage and singleness, conversations that point to this same imbalance: we’re so enamored of the creation order, in which marriage is central, that we miss the new creation order, in which marriage as we know it is replaced by the real relationship for which it was always just a pointer—the relationship between Christ and his church.

We often have this same imbalance in our understanding of the kingdom of God, an imbalance that a well-developed doctrine of the ascension can help to correct. On the one hand, the ascension helps us to affirm the value of the material world and of our own physical existence. On the other hand, the ascension helps us to remember that our present experience of materiality and physicality is not absolute. A robust doctrine of the ascension prompts us to long for the world to come, so that there’s a better balance between the “already” and the “not yet.” The ascension helps us to resist accommodation to our culture because this world is not our home. We are to fix our minds on Christ; we are at home only where he is.

Implications for Worship

We worship an ascended Lord. So when we pray and when we celebrate the sacraments, we must always be thinking of Christ Jesus as our mediator. In his incarnation, Jesus comes into our world, into our life to search for us, lost sinners that we are, wandering in the darkness of our sin and in the confusion of our finitude. In his ascension, Jesus blazes a path for us into the heart of the Godhead. Since our God is a consuming fire, we can only enter into relationship with him under the protection of Jesus, through our union with him in the power of the Spirit. Given that union—made possible by his continuing incarnation—we have access to the throne room of God. When we celebrate communion, we are lifted to this throne room. Even when we are not thinking about it, our humanity is there in the throne room of God, because Jesus is there, fully human as well as fully divine. As hymnwriter Christopher Wordsworth put it (in “See, the Conqueror”): “You have raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand; there we sit in heavenly places, there with you in glory stand.”

How often does our congregational prayer or sacramental practice convey the awe and wonder of this access to God’s presence? What would our worship look like if our entire congregation—or even all those involved in worship leadership—were convinced that in worship we are being led by Jesus Christ, our pioneer, into God’s very presence? Would we perhaps spend some portion of every service flat on our faces, prostrate before his glory?

Art by Elizabeth Steele Halstead, from Visual Arts for Worship (© 2005, Faith Alive Christian Resources. www.faithaliveresources.org; see also inside front cover).
Used by permisssion.

Excerpt
Practical Guidelines
  1. Preach the ascension of Christ in the context of God’s transcendent otherness. Only if God is understood as radically unlike us does the ongoing mediatorial work of Jesus take on its proper centrality.
  2. Address at least some of your prayers to the Trinity; don’t pray only to the Father, as if the Son and the Spirit are not fully God and so not worthy of our worship.
  3. Lead your congregation in studying the book of Hebrews. You may want to use N.T. Wright’s accessible and thoughtful guide Hebrews for Everyone (Westminster/John Knox). Online resources include details on a series of services held at Calvin College on Hebrews http://webapps.calvin.edu/worship/services/series/hebrews/.
  4. Never speak about the incarnation as a past event. The doctrine of the ascension should shape your Christmas preaching as much as your Eastertide preaching.
  5. Encourage your congregation to affirm the goodness of this world and also to live as citizens of heaven, eagerly expecting to see Jesus there. Sing some songs that express a longing for heaven. (One suggestion: visit www.sovereigngraceministries.org/music/projects/hymns/upward.html to see and hear “Before the Throne” by Charitie Lees Bancroft and Vikki Cook.)
  6. Be explicit in your practice of the sacrament of communion that in the Lord’s Supper we are lifted into the throne room of God through our union with the ascended Jesus.
  7. Cultivate a sense of awe and wonder at our reception into God’s presence. It is important to make people feel welcome and comfortable at church, but not at the price of losing this awe.