God is gone up

02 November 2006

THERE IS an unusual image in the Shrine Church at Walsingham which recalls for me the doctrine and mystery of the ascension of our Lord.

But it is not the ceiling there that shows Jesus’s feet disappearing: it is a painting of St Cyril of Alexandria, whose teaching about the person of Christ is the foundation of what the Church declared to be her doctrine on this point at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

In a letter written to a Palestinian monk, Tiberius, Cyril drew out the two fundamental points about the ascension: first, that Jesus did not discard his humanity when he returned to the Father; and, second, that his humanity was not absorbed into the Godhead so as to lose its distinctive reality.

The Ascension is the feast that points us towards the glorified life of the risen Christ in heaven, and so to our own hope of risen life through our incorporation into him, to be made, as St Peter writes, “partakers of the divine nature”.

The Prayer Book collect for Ascension Day prays that, as Christ has ascended into heaven, “so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell”. Our participation in the mystery of the ascension begins now — it does not wait until the coming of Christ in glory.

The great medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas wrote that the ascension benefits Christians by increasing in us the three great theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. It teaches us faith, because Christ is now unseen, and so we participate in the Lord’s promise: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

It calls us to hope; for, in his ascension, Christ our head exalts his human nature to a place of immortality and incorruption, and so gives us the prospect of a similar resurrection life. And it teaches us love, because it directs us to seek the things that are above, which the gift of the Holy Spirit fulfils, who is the bond of love between the Father and the Son.

John Henry Newman began one of his Anglican sermons on the ascension by drawing attention to the ancient phrase in the liturgy: “Lift up your hearts,” to where Christ is risen, ascended, and glorified. Our participation in the exalted life of the risen Christ is particularly evident in the eucharist.

St Luke is, of course, the great Evangelist of the ascension, and it is not for nothing that he precedes his account of it with the story of Christ’s walk to Emmaus with two of his disciples. Here he teaches them that they will now recognise him on earth in the two principal actions of the liturgy: the reading of the scriptures and breaking of the bread.

Our sharing in the body and blood of Christ at the eucharist is a real participation in the virtue of the ascension, an anticipation of the glory of heaven so tangible that St Alphonsus de Liguori, the Italian John Wesley, could dare to write in one of his hymns: “For how can he deny me heaven, who here on earth himself hath given?”

The Revd Dr Robin Ward is Vicar of St John the Baptist’s, Sevenoaks, and Honorary Canon Theologian of Rochester Cathedral.

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