In the Ascension of Christ, what is raised?
We know rather straightforwardly that it is the Son of God who ascends to the Father, but that answers the question of “who” not “what.”
We know the Son first descended, and he did so to accomplish something transformative of humanity. To do so, he became incarnate: “the Word (in the original Greek, Logos) took flesh and dwelt among us.” So, when he returned to the Father, it was the transformative and transformed Word that ascended. It is important to understand that by “transformed” we don’t mean fundamentally altered. That is, the substance didn’t change, the form did, but that is nonetheless a newness introduced into eternity that is quite startling. To the eternal perfection of God, which requires nothing, something is added, and that addition is us, humanity (so, I suppose we’re back to it being a “who”). The addition does not deprive of us our identity, we are not caught up into God, absorbed or otherwise mingled in with the divine, but enjoy the company of God in being made fit to commune with Him. To quote Maximus the Confessor, who painstakingly laid out this central teaching of the Church,
“If the divine Logos of God the Father became son of man and man so that He might make men gods and the sons of God, let us believe that we shall reach the realm where Christ Himself now is, for He is the head of the whole body, and endued with our humanity has gone to the Father as forerunner on our behalf.” – “On Theology 2: 67.” Philokalia
This is why we don’t simply celebrate the Resurrection, nor dwell exclusively on the Paschal sacrifice; the Ascension is part and parcel of the faith upon which our hopes are founded. The Apostles’ Creed doesn’t stop at “he rose again from the dead,” but continues, “and ascended into Heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” The Resurrection in which we will all participate in the fullness of time is not a coming back to this life we know, but to life fully in the presence of God, ourselves made divine and eternal. As Thomas Aquinas echoed Maximus centuries later when he wrote, “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” (see Catechism, 460). Among Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, this is a process of divinization that is referred to as theosis.
Becoming “gods” might sound to a modern person like a regression to something pagan, but that would be mistaken. Nor is such a notion the innovation of modern New Age spirituality. Pagans held to a strict divide between the transcendent and eternal and what is imminent and mortal, us. That is the lament of the pagan, as I suppose it is of the modern person who has no sense of religious truth: we have our time within which to enjoy our existence and then it ends and so then do we vanish as if never having been; time continues, and the perpetual processes of life and death continue to turn and churn in a never-ending cycle heedless of us either as individuals or species.
In the Ascension, however, we see the timebound, material and perishable joined to the eternal, spiritual and incorruptible. Each partakes of the other, and so the divine is no longer alien to the worldly, nor is flesh incompatible with spirit. They belong together. And this is not an accident, but the fulfilment of God’s design. That when he drew Creation out of chaos, that it was not simply a little project to occupy the Father, but to do something truly remarkable and miraculous. To imbue that which He had made with Himself but nonetheless preserve the independence of His creation: we are free to respond to His grace and to seek Him, or not.
You and I can, for example, make something like a chair or a pot or a painting; and by that give to it something of ourselves in terms of our imagination and skill, we cannot be truly part of it nor it a part of us in any real sense. There can be pride in our handiwork, and emotional attachment to it, but that is immaterial. Indeed, we can pass from this world, and the garden shed put up one summer will remain in the garden for years yet. Only in some romantic notion is that shed a part of its builder; and the builder, again only in a romantic sense, continuing to live through it. And, of course, one day that shed will collapse to the ground or be taken down by a new homeowner who fancies something different. Besides this, what is worthy to be so imbued with one’s very essence? Not a mere thing, but something capable of recognizing this affinity, like a child who recognizes his parents.
How that affects us today is important. We are apt to encounter more and more the sensibility that we are mere “stuff.” And that all we are is what has been made; and that can lead to the sad resignation that “this is the way I am.” This is particularly dangerous to those with mental health issues arising from the abuse or neglect of dysfunctional relationships, or simply the accidents of genetics and the mysteries of neurobiology. One ought never yield to the idea of being broken in some fundamental way that then defines oneself according to the affliction.
One’s core identity is not as a depressed person or a bipolar person, etc. I’ve spoken of my own battles with depression throughout my life that started in adolescence and continue to today. The realization that I am made for something more, that while I may start from a place of obvious imperfection, sin and self-absorption, I am by grace able to overcome my particular limitations to attain Heaven and its perfection. The problems don’t necessarily go away, there will be sad and grey days ahead for me, but this image of ascension helps me to reframe what is going on in my life and make of it something more than a few score of years of coping. My destiny is not an uneasy truce with my condition wherein I excuse my behaviour, and particularly my sin by rationalizing that, “well, I suffer from depression.” Rather, all this will be overcome by God, and through God starting from the moment I surrender myself to Him as Christ did. My suffering joins with Christ’s and what will be taken up and glorified will be, as with Jesus, a body and soul that displays its wounds, but not as marks of failure or signs of brokenness, but as badges of honour and symbols of victory.
Theosis is a process we are called to; and we do so both as individuals and as communities. With respect to humanity as a whole, it started long before we were born, long before there was town of Dundas or a parish of St. Augustine—it began with creation, followed by corruption and then by restoration. Theosis takes created humanity, which has been corrupted, and sees it not only restored, but brought into God, which is something we see anticipated in the ascension of Jesus, divine Logos and Son of Man into Heaven.
If one ever doubts the possibility of theosis, of one’s own ascension, I would refer the sceptic to the simple human phenomenon of music. I would argue that it differs crucially from birdsong or the haunting underwater calls of whales: this proves that animals have vocal behaviours and auditory perception, but not the capacity to communicate complex ideas or subtle emotion, let alone to combine these things as we find in the art of opera or the composition of hymns. Human beings appear unique in possessing such a faculty: to sing praise with words that speak of glory, and yet by tones and harmonies also convey the longing for that everlasting communion with the God being lauded in song. We can through music blend joy and melancholy and produce something both soulful and intelligible, visceral and spiritual. By this we send something outward, upward, to the realms of glory beyond the dome of the sky, rising even higher than the smoke of any incense or burnt sacrifice, an instinctive reach of the spirit that exceeds the grasp of our flesh. It is Christ who ascended in the flesh who can offer a hand, and by our taking of it allow Him to lift us up, our ascending made possible by His Ascension.