Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Saturday, June 04, 2011

Ascension: Keith Ward, Graham Ward, James Alison

- window at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles

I don't especially like the ascension. For one thing, the idea of Jesus floating off on a cloud is hard to square with science -- as Keith Ward writes in The Big Questions in Science and Religion (p. 107), Jesus ... "ascends" into heaven. We now know that, if he began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed).

And even worse, there's the idea of being left behind by Jesus when he goes away for the second time. There may be a feeling of exaltation in his ascension, but as Graham Ward mentions in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (p. 176), there's also a feeling of distance, emptiness, and bereavement in his absence.

Having said that, though, I do like what James Alison writes in Knowing Jesus about the ascension (p. 24) ...

[...] the crucified and risen Jesus was not only crucified as a human but rose as a crucified human.

It is I think important to hold on to this, since there is a tendency, helped by the apparent vagueness of the gospel texts when they deal with the resurrection, to imagine that Jesus may well have been human up until his death, but from the resurrection onwards, he reverted to being God, and eventually, like a helium balloon, couldn't be held to the earth any longer, and floated back to heaven where he belonged.

Well, this is not the case. When Jesus died, it was a fully human being who died completely, and when Jesus was raised from the dead, it was a human being who was given back to us. Given back as a crucified and living human being. I stress this for two reasons: first, and incidentally, because if we don;t hold on to this, we make a nonsense of the belief in the ascension .....

That is to say, the ascension was not Jesus beaming back up to Starship Enterprise when the Mission was accomplished, leaving the earthlings to play happily; it was the introduction of a novelty into heaven: human nature. Being human was from then on permanently and indissolubly involved in the presence of God .....

What is important is that the risen and crucified Jesus was no less human after his resurrection than before it. This not only says something about the presence of human nature in heaven, but something about the presence of God on earth. The divine life is indissolubly and permanently present as human. All divine dealings with humanity are on a human level .....


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