He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the father.
I envision this article to be the third in a series* March ended with Holy Week, including the one of the most significant days for Christians: Good Friday. The article for that month explored our understanding of Christ’s redeeming death for us on the Cross. Since April 1st was Easter Sunday, I devoted the April newsletter to the larger topic of Christ’s Resurrection. Following this pattern, because May includes the celebration of Ascension Day, this article links to the others to make clear that, in the scheme of salvation, Christ’s Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension are individual parts which taken together form a single redemptive whole.
Comprehending Christ’s ascension into heaven involves special problems beyond those of his death and resurrection. Any adult should be able to comprehend physical death-even when it is a cruel execution and by no means a natural event. What is significant about the Crucifixion is its import and meaning for Christians: we see it as a self-sacrifice of the man Jesus, as well as the redemptive act of the Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That he was resurrected on the third day and returned to life is a mystery, to be sure, but one that is attested by his disciples who experienced the risen Christ in person. Their testimony forms the basis of the proclamation of the gospel. Because they encountered the risen Christ, they were able to move from hiding and passive discipleship into the active role of apostles to the world.
But the Ascension of Christ cannot be easily comprehended by modern minds. Struggling as everyone does to find words to match or describe the event, we realize how difficult is the task of explication what the Ascension is or what it means. We do not live in a three-tier world where one stands on the ground and looks up into heaven as a place to which we can be transported if only we had the right elevator. Instead, we need to come to terms with an event which the disciples reportedly witnessed, but which is inexplicable in purely physical terms. That Christ rose from the dead is essential to our understanding of ourselves as “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11) Thus, Paul links the lives of the faithful to Christ’s own death and Resurrection.
But the same resurrected Jesus does not walk the earth in bodily from today, nor is he found in any sepulcher or other burial place; instead, we affirm that he lives and has returned with his mortal body to that place or state where he dwelt prior to the Incarnation. Before his death, Jesus predicted that he would be exalted into heaven after his Resurrection. For example, speaking to and of the Father, Jesus says,
I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory that I ha in your presence before the world existed. (John 17:4-5)
For Christ was not resurrected in order to live and move in a limited locality such as Galilee or Judea. Nor was he given life in order to die again-his humanity was made complete in his suffering and Crucifixion. Christ has proven his full mortal status. As Paul writes,
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. (Romans 6:9-10)
By this point, the work he began with his Incarnation and birth has been completed, and the risen Christ needs to return to be with the Creator. There Christ can attain to the full glory of his heavenly being ad be proclaimed King of all creation by angels and archangels and all those who worship him. This was affirmed early on in the ancient Church hymn which Paul quotes:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth, and under the earth
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Gather. (Philippians 2:9-11)
The other truth of Jesus’ departure in his Ascension is that it sets the stage for the coming of the Holy Spirit to be the new guide for the apostles. Jesus’ last promises to his disciples include notice that he will send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate, the Paraclete to stay with the disciples in his place.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
His words indicate that it is necessary for him to go away so that the Holy Spirit may descend and dwell with us in his place. His removal form them-classically designated his Ascension to heaven-is both historically and theologically necessary. If Christ does not complete his return to the heavenly places, the Holy Spirit cannot begin its work by being present, nor can this age proceed to its appointed end when Christ will return as promised.
This is what the Church from earliest times has proclaimed. Christ has completed the cycle from heavenly being entirely part of the Godhead, to incarnate Word of God dwelling among us as one of us, to the Crucified One who actually died and was buried, to resurrected Christ bearing the sings of his passion and death as he returns to dwell with the Father. there he is enthroned “at the right hand of God.” For this exalted state, Christ lives and is the object of our prayers. But his is not removed form us. Though apparently absent from this world, the enduring Christ lives in all of us who have committed ourselves to him, even as he has transformed the gathering of his followers into the body of Christ on earth.
*To access archived copies of these and other of my pastoral reflections, please visit the website:
It is helpful if we see the whole process of Good Friday through Easter, usually referred to as the Tridumm, as one whole. The Church affirms that the death of Jesus is not separable from his Resurrection, nor is it possible to consider the Resurrection unless it’s in the context of his death by crucifixion. To appreciate this , we have to change our perspective away from the human perspective focused on the human drama of the human Christ. That drama is set against the competing political forces that serve as the backdrop of the narrative moving from Palm Sunday through the death and entombment, and then reversed on Easter morning with the empty tomb. The Church has always used this human perspective on these events to flesh out the liturgies of Holy Week. We embrace this rich human perspective on these highly emotionally charged events for they put us in touch with the humanity of Jesus. His human nature is also carried over into his Resurrection, where it is not just a spirit that walks among his followers but the bodily presence of Christ as well.
As an alternative, however, I’m suggestion here is to take a “cosmic” perspective, such as that expressed by this New Testament author:
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)
How can the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth possible fit the eternal nature the author of Hebrews presents?
First, we can try to understand afresh the mighty works of this Jesus–allowing himself to be betrayed and taken prisoner, accepting suffering at the hands of the Romans, and offering up his life willingly to the cruelest form of physical death on the Cross. These all constitute one movement, the final culmination of Jesus’ Incarnation. His willing acts of self-offering unite his conception, his birth , and his earthly life and ministry-all bearing fruit in his death. The same Jesus who died is then raised by the Father as a sigh of triumph over death and the forces of destruction. In Jesus’ Resurrection, God manifests the essence of God is found in life and the promise of eternal life. Jesus is restored to life so that his disciples and followers may be witnesses of God’s work, and that ultimately Christ may return freely to that heavenly place whence he came as the final seal of his authority and eternal nature.
We need to understand the events of Holy Week in Jerusalem in 29 or 30 CE are not simply historical developments that come about by a series of human processes, but that they must have been part of a divine plan. Neither the opposition of the Pharisees, nor the plotting of the Temple hierarchy, nor even the Roman power of execution actually brought about Jesus’ death. The Gospels tell us of these movements, but they are only the immediate, “efficient” reasons for Christ’s death. Seen as the ultimate acts of God’s plan of Salvation for us, the Road to the Cross has much longer course. If not from the beginning of our human history, the impetus toward Christ’s death came at least from the time when the Godhead knew humanity had become estranged and sought to return it to wholeness and life. In a word, God’s plan of salvation for our species represents the ancient desire of God to reconcile us. That is why John’s Gospel begins, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. ( John 1:1-4)
Within that timeless, cosmic framework, the purpose of God takes a definite form, leading to the Incarnation:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
The divine theological perspective declares the willingness of the Son to become human preceded the actual act of the Incarnation pronunciation of Mary. Before the Gospels were composed, Paul quoted what appears to be even to him an ancient hymn declaring how God was working through the “emptying” of the Son:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, thought he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a Cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
From this perspective, all that Jesus does on the earth is working towards God’s agenda and his task of redemption. God’s love is the ultimate sign of union with humans begins, and God is the ultimate mover behind the Passion and Crucifixion. Only through the ultimate resignation of all the glory of being God can Jesus become our Savior. The crowning glory of being God’s Anointed and King over us is found in miserable Cross. But we know that is not the end of the story, for God raised Christ, and in the mystery of Resurrection, concepts of human agency fail. Both in his humanity (such as showing the marks of the nails to Thomas) and in the spiritual nature of his Resurrection (entering through lock doors and appearing in various places in some supernatural way), Christ finally reveals to those who follow him who it is they have been following all along.
The last word of the story is not the disappearance of Christ but seeing his ascension as the seal of the ever-presence of Christ. Hence our proclamation of faith:
Christ Has died (past tense in the realm of history);
Christ has risen (continuing present tense having put off death forever);
Christ will come again (future tense)
We put our hope and trust in that last phrase and measure our own lives in the light of the risen Christ. From the “cosmic” perspective of understanding his Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, we can best understand who Jesus Christ is and his role in all of human history. He represents the continual will of the Eternal One, ever seeking to reconcile us to God by his most precious acts of self-giving love.