At this time of year, the Christian church celebrates the Ascension of Christ, and it’s a season that always takes me back. In this particular environment, I hardly need remind you of the importance of good teaching. Those who teach are in particular positions of authority. We rely on our teachers both to be able to pass on genuine knowledge, and to stimulate interest in the application of that knowledge. Unreliable teaching is a very dangerous thing. Those of you studying history would be surprised to be told in a tutorial that the English Civil War was basically a dispute between people who disagreed about fashion. Medics would be rightly suspicious of a lecturer who told them not about hormones, but about humours. And so on.
Theological teaching might wrongly be thought to be above reproach. Certainly, if you study theology in this college, your teachers are unimpeachable. Or at least, I am. But when I was studying for the priesthood, I was bemused to discover at my theological college the following annual practice: each year on Ascension Day the pews would be removed from the chapel. We would have to sit on the floor, or cushions, or whatever, for the rest of term. And this was done to remind us of – and I quote – “the goneness of Christ”.
Now first of all, that is absolutely daft. But far more dangerously, it is also absolutely wrong, because the doctrine of the Ascension of Christ is not about absence, it is about presence. Jesus has “gone” only in one very limited sense, that is that the flesh and blood of the human being Jesus of Nazareth are no longer walking around this earth in the way that you are and I am. But that is the case precisely because the presence of Jesus has been transformed into something which cannot be contained. What Christians call the Ascension takes Jesus not from here to there, but from here to everywhere.
Even the transformed presence of Christ is not enough, however. Where Westcott House went so profoundly wrong in its understanding of the Ascension was firstly in its assumption that the doctrine teaches the absence of Christ, rather than his presence: but also in its failure to understand that there is another presence central to the Ascension, at that is the presence of humanity at the right hand of God. It is not so much Christ who has gone, as we, because humanity is changed decisively by being drawn into the perfect life of the Trinity.
What does this really mean? Well, something like this. Christianity teaches that the reality of God is what we call the Trinity, the perfect self giving of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is nothing in the life of God, which is not always and eternally being given in love. Human beings are created in the image of God, they are created with this capacity, the selfless love, but all too often they fail to realise it. We recognize this in our own experience. However well we would like to do, the fact is that most of the time we human beings are not very good at being loving, but all too good at being selfish. But God’s will for us is so much more. The love of God which overflows in the life of the Trinity, pours itself out in the creation of the world, and will recreate that world. In what Christians call the doctrine of the incarnation, the taking on of human life by God himself God-made-man transforms humanity, because he lives on earth the life of God himself, a life of perfect self giving. This selfless love is, of course, not quite what we expect. It is challenging, unsettling, disconcerting. And so we try to do away with it, we condemn it to death, we remove it from our sight and shut it up in the cold sterility of the tomb. But Love will not be contained, and the life of God, which is love incarnate, bursts forth at Easter, bringing the new life of the resurrection to all. The doctrine of the Ascension forms part of this teaching. By uniting himself to humanity, God draws it up into his own life, so that the perfect offering of love which we are unable to make for ourselves, is made for us by Christ, who represents, who re-presents, human life in the life of God himself.
I am rather fond of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose remarkable sonnet beginning “As kingfishers catch fire”, contrasts the world of me, mine and self with the world of gift with which we are entrusted in creation. “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same, selves, goes itself, myself it speaks and spells, crying, what I do is me, for that I came.” Rather than this individualistic world, Hopkins sees another: “I say more. The just man justices, Keeps grace, that keeps all his goings graces, Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is – Christ.”
For Hopkins, as for Christian orthodoxy, creation and redemption are not to be held apart. I am redeemed because, in the incarnation, death, resurrection and – importantly- the ascension of the Lord, Christ has become my humanity, Christ has transformed my nature so that when God looks on me in my sin, what he sees is Christ in his love.
The ludicrous ignorance of my theological College might well be improved were it to read more Hopkins. Indeed, were it just to read more theology. For the Ascension of Christ is not about absence. It is about the presence of Christ in you and me and the presence of you and me in the worship of heaven itself. The just man, Hopkins writes, “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is”.
The doctrine of the Ascension teaches us that we – as human beings – are present and active in the worship of heaven because the perfect love of Christ has transformed humanity into something which can at last stand and live in the presence of God, because humanity has been, and is represented, re-presented, by Jesus Christ the Word made flesh. When God looks on you and me in our sin and our weakness what he sees is Christ in his selflessness and love “for Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / to the Father, by the features of men’s faces”.
Rev’d Dr. Peter Groves, St. Mary Magdalen, Oxford
16th May 2010