"Christ ascended up on high and led captivity captive.”
"I go to prepare a place for you that where I am ye might be also.”
The Ascension of Jesus Christ is first a cause of pain, not joy.
Jesus warned his followers “Sorrow shall fill your hearts.” (John 16.20)
He promises “another Comforter,” (John 14.16) for the comfort of his own
corporeal presence has passed into heaven. As the Black Rubic has
it, “the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and
not here.” (BCP 1662) He is not here — the natural place of the resurrected
flesh of the Son of Man is not here — but in heaven. And so we who
are ‘risen with Christ” are urged “to seek those things which are above
where Christ is.” (Colossians 3.1) Indeed we pray that “we may in
heart and mind thither ascend and with him continually dwell.” Yet
this is surely a difficult and wholly unnatural attitude of heart and mind,
for heaven turns out to be the very reverse of our current circumstances.
The images of the life of the world to come represent it as a topsy-turvy
state of things. In it, lions will not eat lambs, but will lie down
with them. There will not be debates over whether to spend taxes
on guns or on social programmes, rather swords will become ploughshares.
The weak will not be crushed but will inherit the earth; the hungry will
be filled and the rich sent empty away. The last will be first, and
the first last. The foolish will be wise and the wise, foolish.
Everything will be instantly changed into the opposite of its natural character.
The mortal becomes immortal, the natural spiritual, the earthly heavenly,
the weak powerful, the dishonourable glorious, and man will be like God.
The theologians tell us that, as the way we see things follows from the
way they are, so our spiritual faculties will be reversed. Now we
know the body first and the spirit afterwards; then bodily vision will
follow spiritual knowledge. Now faith befriends our outward sense
to make our inward vision clear; then bodily vision will merely increase
the joy of spiritual sight. Now we know God through his creatures;
then we will know all else through our knowledge of God. In this
heavenly kingdom where everything stands on its head, our love will be
reversed also; so we will seek first the Kingdom of God and his right order
and all else will come after.
But this presents a great problem. If heaven is just the mirror
image of earth, if it is only the world put right, is it not then merely
the image of our desires, the projection of our fantasies? The life
of the world to come could consequently have no more substance than the
pitiful reality of this transitory world; indeed it would be nothing more
than its shadow. Faith turns for its answer to this dilemma to the
resurrected Jesus. Christ came to give life: life more abundant.
The world warred against his purpose with its ultimate weapon: death.
“The last enemy is death.” (1 Corinthians 15.26) Death, if it is
not destroyed, shows this world and its disorder to be the final reality;
all else is mere shadow. But death is swallowed up in victory.
The resurrection of Jesus accomplished his purpose. It established
the reality of life more abundant than the life we know. His resurrection
appearances displayed this more abundant life.
Space and time had no more hold on him. He came and went at will.
“At evening when the doors were shut ... there came Jesus and stood in
the midst.” (John 20.19) Clearly this is not the old life revived; he is
not a corpse resuscitated. But have we then only his spiritual part,
his soul? Is the resurrected Jesus a ghost? The terrified disciples
supposed they had seen a spirit but Jesus said:
Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself, handle
me and see. For a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have.
And he showed them his hands and his feet. (Luke 24.39)
On this account, the Christian Church believes heaven to be the fullness
of life. The Church first saw with its eyes, handled with its hands,
experienced, tested and only then proclaimed the fullness of life of the
The resurrected Jesus is not some part or shadow of the Jesus who died,
any more than it is Jesus revived only to die again. All of him,
the whole Jesus, has been transformed, made new, and glorified. Nothing
good has been lost; even the print of the nails and the wound in his side
are still there. Thomas came to believe because he had placed his
finger in the prints of the nails and had thrust his hand into the wounded
side. Nothing has been lost; it is all there except the sin he bore,
mankind’s falling away from God. The resurrection is body glorious
in spirit; nothing is left out. It is the full, complete and perfect
good. It is life more abundant. Heaven is the projection and
image not of our present distorted reality but of this fullness of life.
The proper home of the resurrected Jesus is his Father’s heavenly Kingdom.
Earth cannot hold Jesus’ fullness of life. The reality of the world
has been transcended. Therefore our Christian existence here and
now is dependent upon the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not the other
way around. In us the great reversal is already beginning.
By making the heavenly reversal the ruling basis of our present lives,
we show our faith in the resurrection of our Lord. We seek first
the Kingdom of Heaven and its right order knowing that all else follows
And so the Ascension becomes Celebration. By it man, the dust
of the earth bound by nature to return to earth, rises to sit enthroned
in heaven and to rule immortally over heaven and earth. By his Ascension,
Jesus goes to prepare a place for us. Man possesses that which by
nature he cannot have. He gives man the freedom of heaven.
Heaven becomes the place where our hearts and minds ascend and where we
continually dwell. There we are truly at home. Paradoxical
as it sounds, heaven becomes the foundation of our present lives.
Indeed the whole message of Jesus was and is that through him the rule
of heaven is coming in. And this is why we must practice heaven’s
ways and begin to become accustomed to its manners and strange modes.
How better to do this, than in this blessed sacrament of the bread of eternal
life and the cup of everlasting salvation? In it, by the power of
the great reversal, earthly food becomes the bread of heaven. How
better to acquire the taste for the life of the world to come than to eat
Angel’s food? You begin to know as heaven knows when you find the
bread and wine to be signs of resurrected body and blood. You begin
to love as heaven loves when you find yourself in communion with the love
which is in the life and moving spirit in all things. For then you
are beginning to know, first, the Father in his Son and Holy Spirit to
whom belongs all dominion now and in the ages of ages. Amen.