Thursday, 9 May 2013

He Ascended into Heaven

Today is Ascension Day (or the Feast of the Ascension), when we remind ourselves of something affirmed in the Creeds and made explicit in the Thirty-nine Articles:
Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day. (Article IV)
For some, of course, this is a piece of nonsense. “You don’t mean to say Jesus went up like a rocket into the sky, until he disappeared? There’s nothing up there — only space.”
And no, we don’t mean to say that (although one of the shrines at Walsingham dedicated to this festival does have an impressive and amusing pair of feet disappearing into the ceiling). For a start, I’ve long taken it that the cloud that hid Jesus from the sight of his disciples (Acts 16:9) had more to do with the glory of God (cf Dan 7:11) than the meteorology of Israel.
But in any case, the point being acted out before the disciples has more to do with the issue raised in our Articles than with the geography of the universe (though let’s face it, we still think of heaven as somehow ‘out’ or ‘up’ there — it is simply natural to us, like thinking of the sun ‘rising’).
Look again at Article IV. “Christ did truly rise from death”. I think it would be fair to say virtually all Christians agree he ‘rose from death’. The Article pins down what this means — how he ‘truly’ rose, and that is in his body of flesh and bones. It was, as we say, a ‘physical’ resurrection. Notions of a ‘spiritual’ resurrection are excluded by this, as they are by the resurrection accounts themselves.
But the Article also seems to be making another, and fundamentally important point, namely that these things — his flesh and bones — are included in those “appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature”.
Now this immediately goes against the grain of a lot of people’s thinking. ‘Flesh and bones’ we easily regard as secondary to the true ‘nature’ of humanity, or even as an impediment to spirituality.
The notion of Christ’s ‘flesh and bones’ ascending to the heavens is in danger of being derided as a ‘primitive’ understanding, unworthy of a ‘higher’ spirituality. It was not what he meant, but it comes close to what a former Bishop of Durham sounded like he was saying when he referred to a ‘conjuring trick with bones’. Careless talk costs souls.
But it is precisely for this reason that the Ascension confronts us with its uncompromising physicality, reminding us that human nature is embodied. We are not souls ‘in’ bodies, we are “ourselves, our souls and bodies”.
The Ascension, in short, is an affirmation of physicality — of the fact that God made a world of ‘stuff’. Where there was ‘formless void’ (Gen 1:2), he introduced substance and ‘shape’. And that was a good thing — a very good thing (Gen 2:31)!
Our nature is to be ‘embodied’. A ‘disembodied’ person might exist, but they would be incomplete — in biblical terms ‘imperfect’ (which can mean not ‘defective’ but ‘unfinished’, cf Heb 2:10).
Of course our flesh is frail and fallible, but as I indicated elsewhere, this perhaps ought to be given more recognition in terms of the interconnectedness of the physical and spiritual that we find in Scripture.
Meanwhile, on this Ascension Day, rejoice at the value God puts on your body:
13 “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”—but God will destroy them both. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. (1 Cor 6:13-14)
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  1. I notice you put te word "physical" in inverted comms John. Tom Wright uses transphysical...but I still wonder if these words still dont suggest something more akin to a resuscitated corpse, or "something" still subject to space /time. Jesus rose "bodily" and the tomb was empty ..I believe an orthodox christian must affirm that...but the nature of the risen body was definitely mysterious..esp as Paul ( later) was clear he had seen the risen Lord in the same way as the apostles. The "risen body" is certainly mysterious eg the eating of fish...and the intriguing question was the risen Jesus "clothed". i did my NT under Jimmy Dunn at Nottingham and it is interesting to read his jesus Remembered on the resurrection...and how his thinking has moved on since his lectures I heard 33 yrs ago..a critical scholar,yet a devout one.
    Perry Butler Canterbury

  2. Thank you for your remarks, Perry. I would point out I also put 'spiritual' in inverted commas. From my point of view, don't read too much into that.