Though it stands as a holy day of obligation for Catholics and a primary Feast of Christ for Lutherans and other non-Catholic Christians, few, I think, actually attend the Ascension service, let alone understand its significance. In fact, up until a few years ago, I did not fully grasp the significance of the Ascension of Jesus Christ either. What fueled my understanding (or lack thereof) was the liturgical practice of snuffing out the paschal candle during the reading of the Holy Gospel, particularly at the words: “he was taken up into heaven.” Very simply, I understood the Ascension as a going away of Christ, rather than his coming near to us; I saw it through Calvin’s eyes, not Luther’s.
Admittedly, however, there is an upward movement, both literally and figuratively, within the Ascension narrative. Jesus is taken up into heaven (cf. Mk 16:15-20 and Lk 24:44-53, the Gospel readings from the USCCB lectionary and RCL, respectively) and, having shared in our humanity, our human nature is taken up as well. As Leo the Great once proclaimed: “With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up in Christ above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond those heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father” (Sermon 74.1). Moreover, nearly all of the patristic Fathers echo and highlight this same movement, which means that Calvin has support. Yet, on the other hand, it would seem that in the early church, the sacramental presence of Jesus’ corporeal humanity in the Eucharist – even after his Ascension – was not a primary point of contention. Today, however, in the wake of the Reformation and in a largely non-sacramental Protestant milieu, the emphasis of Jesus’ upward movement leaves a gap, precisely because we are here and he, though bearing our humanity in himself, is there.
Luther, however, may not be the robust answer we are looking for either and, in fact, his perspective may be as detrimental as Calvin’s. For Luther, though seeing Christ’s humanity as present in the world today (in opposition to Calvin, who saw the corporeal Christ in heaven with the Holy Spirit as the primary agent of divine action [cf. Institutes 4.17.10ff]), likewise saw that same Christological humanity as ubiquitous. Christ was everywhere, and he was everywhere with his humanity (cf. WA 26: 332, 333). Theologically, this is more helpful than Calvin, I think, but it is still not best. Taking Luther’s perspective, therefore, if everything bears Christ’s humanity, then nothing bears his humanity. In turn, a ubiquitous presence is not a presence that is for me, which means it ceases to be a Lutheran gift, as “for you” was and is the key to unlocking Luther’s Christology and, in many respects, the whole purpose of the Lutheran Reformation. (The third option is Aquinas, who locates Christ with the fullness of his humanity in the Eucharist, precisely because of the recitation of the verba, the words of the form [cf. Summa Theologiæ, part III, Q. 76, Art. 1].)
My world was turned upside down, however, when I returned to the seminary for my final year of pastoral formation. It was Ascension Thursday and, though I do not remember the principal celebrant that morning, I do remember him chanting the words of the proper preface, precisely because they were words that I had never heard before.
It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who after his resurrection appeared openly to all his disciples and in their sight was taken up to heaven that he might make us partakers of his divine nature. Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying…
Five words: “partakers of his divine nature,” and with them, I was hooked. Moreover, I finally realized what the Ascension was all about. It was not about Jesus going away, nor was it about his ubiquitous presence. In fact, there was a movement more primary than those. The movement of the Ascension was about Jesus Christ, with the fullness of his humanity and divinity, giving himself to us as a gift in the Eucharistic sacrifice and, in turn, making us, as St. Peter has said: theias koinōnoi phuseōs, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). In Christ Jesus and, particularly, through koinōnia with him (which, one would expect, comes most concretely in the Holy Communion), we are likewise given a koinōnia with his divine nature (cf. 1 Cor 11). And it is that participation with the divine nature which seems to be the key to unlocking the Ascension mystery.
Where Jesus has promised to be today, of course, is in the liturgy, most concretely in his Holy Eucharist. He has said: “This is my body; this is my blood.” He speaks realities precisely because when he speaks, it happens. Yet there is not a gnostic split between his humanity and his divinity. Any kenotic emptying that may have occurred with his condescension to us in Mary’s womb is no longer necessary. When he visits us from on high today, he brings the fullness of himself to the altars of our churches. Consequently, when we consume that Jesus – God and man, fully human and fully divine – we become as he is.
This is why I have been particularly fascinated by Mark’s account of the Ascension and, also, why I envy Catholic priests and deacons preaching this Thursday. Mark ends it this way: “And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with (sunergountos) them […].” Notice the movement. Not primarily up, up and away, but down and then out, permeating this creation with the embodied presence of Jesus Christ who is with us and in us. Why? Because that is how Jesus fully and finally closes the gaps between himself and this world. He does it through us, through us consuming him. As the 14th century Orthodox saint, Nicholas Cabasilas, so brilliantly said: “[W]hen he has led the initiate to the table and has given him his Body to eat he entirely changes him, and transforms him into his own state. […] It is impossible to conceive of anything more blessed than this […] (The Life of Christ, IV, 1-2).” Yes, it is impossible to conceive of a blessing greater than this divine participation, which finds its inner logic in the Ascension of Christ.
So, go ahead: snuff out your paschal candles if you would like. But when you do it, please remember the movement: down, to you; then out to the world. Jesus is here, of course, and he is for us and not against us. Moreover, he is using us as a means of grace – a sacramental, if you will – as a way of bringing all his children home again someday, especially those in most need of his mercy. That is what the Ascension is all about.
The Rev. Dr. Joshua Genig is Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta, Georgia, and has recently received his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.