Thursday, June 02, 2011

To Hell and Back: The Ascension of Our Lord (Easter, Day 40)

So, my hopes and dreams for writing a blog post everyday for forty days between Easter and Ascension didn't exactly work out as planned. I kept a weekly blog for a few years and then I quit for a couple years, so trying to get back into by blogging by doing it daily was a bit of an overcommitment! Oh well. Let me at least bring this series to a close with a Day 40 reflection on the Ascension.

The Apostles' Creed has a nice symmetry to it with regard to the death and resurrection of Jesus:
He ... was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven.
The pivotal event in the story of Jesus -- and therefore the pivotal event in the story of God with us -- is his death and resurrection. This pivotal event is a genuine event, i.e., a movement, a history, a happening. Hence it is twofold in structure: first he died, then he rose.

Furthermore, each of these two moments in the story of Jesus is itself a movement, a history, a happening. Hence each has its own twofold structure: he died and so descended into hell, then he rose and so ascended into heaven. The death and resurrection of Jesus both involve a movement with a direction. His death is aimed toward hell. And his resurrection is aimed toward heaven.

The point of this line of thought is that Christ's ascension relates to his resurrection as his descent into hell relates to his crucifixion.

crucifixion : descent :: resurrection : ascension

So, then, let's ask how this analogous relationship might illuminate the event of ascension.

At its most straightforward level, the descent and the ascent of Christ both answer a spatial question. Where did Christ "go" after his death? Well, wherever dead people usually go, i.e., Sheol, the dead, hades, hell, etc. And where did Christ "go" after his resurrection? Well, wherever one goes to be in living fellowship with God, since that's the point of resurrection. Hence it fits that the descent and ascent of Christ each involve spatial terms in the creed: He descended into hell; he ascended into heaven.

However, we must acknowledge that hell and heaven are not "places" the way my office and my house are places, i.e., they cannot be located on a map. This is not to deny that they are real spaces, but to affirm the unique character of their spatial reality. "Hell" and "heaven" name the two final forms of creaturely relation to God. "Hell" names a final relation to God as one who is absent, one who has abandoned us. "Heaven" names a final relation to God as one who is present, one who has welcomed us into living fellowship with him.

Note well: these are final forms of relating to God, not just ways of relating to God in general. Certainly one can speak of hellish and heavenly forms of everyday existence by way of analogy. But it is insufficient to say that hell and heaven only name ways of being in the present without any reference to our final destiny before God.

Why does this affirmation matter? Because Christ's ascension into heaven is not about absence but presence! We all too often regard the ascension as initiating a time of Christ's absence. But absence and abandonment is the meaning of hell, not heaven. Treating the ascension as simply the removal of Jesus is to put him back into hell. The point of Christ's ascension is not his absence from us but his presence with God. And since he's one of us, he shares with us his fellowship with God. We are welcome at the great banquet of God because the one who eats with sinners now sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty. The ascension does not mean Christ has abandoned us to go hang out with his Father alone. Christ's ascension means that he has come home to his Father's house and that we have been invited to join the party rather than pout in the field.

So, the next time you partake in the means of Christ's promised presence (the preaching of the Word, the breaking of bread, fellowship with believers, serving the poor and persecuted, etc.), do not think of these means as substitutes for an absent Lord. See and hear in them the promise of the risen and ascended Christ: "Lo, I am with you always."

Any thoughts?