Sunday, May 24, 2009

After the Ascension: The End of Jesus


The Ascension of Jesus, commemorated in these few days at the end of the Easter season, is a story that might seem to suggest only Jesus’ divinity. After a violent death, Jesus is seen again alive by his followers, who encounter him a number of times over a period of days or weeks - after which he goes to heaven.

The Gospels do not all describe this event, and some seem to assume it but leave it veiled. Luke's Gospel says just that “he left them, and was taken up into heaven” – which leaves room for some ambiguity or mystery about how - but Acts makes things more concrete: “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight”. This can appear in the mind’s eye in almost comical terms, as when the Ascension is sometimes depicted in Medieval art by means of a pair of feet and ankles projecting downwards from a cloud.

In fact the Ascension of Jesus is, I suggest, a sign of Christian belief in his real humanity.

The stories that are central to the Easter season certainly affirm Jesus' triumph over mortality and death. But we could almost wonder why and how it was necessary to end this period of triumphant return to life, after such a brief time. Could Jesus not simply have kept appearing through closed doors across the centuries, allowing inspiring glimpses of himself to the uncertain and offering pearls of theological wisdom to many generations?

The doctrine of the Ascension actually says that even Jesus has to end. Twentieth century theologian Norman Pittenger suggested Jesus as the person where “ultimate reality and finite reality” meet. Jesus is like us as finite, but unlike us as the person whose life uniquely shows the infinite possibility we call God.

Although he has conquered death, his humanity - in order to be real and not just an appearance - requires a finitude that would not be compatible with an open-ended Eastertide. For to be human, Jesus has to be circumscribed, defined, and particular. He has to be a first century male Jew, not an everlasting and hence a generic or abstract human being, who could be constantly acquiring experience with time, evolving an identity as we do all our lives, but with new choices to make and new reasons for joy and regret over millennia, rather than just months. In this sense he has to be like us; were he to drift benignly on forever, he might be divine, but hardly human.

Not only in stories that are inexplicable or unappealing to our sensibilities, but in others which are all too easy to understand, stories of suffering and love and openness to others, Jesus shows the reality of that infinite possibility which we call “God” being made known in the life of one finite person. This is not a secret, but it is a mystery.

So in the end we are right to want a human Jesus, one who is like us. For his to be a human life in which we can see the divine, he must be someone whose challenges and choices are like ours, but whose responses and decisions reveal that other, infinite possibility. For in following him, incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended, we are following the one who became like we are, so that we might become as he is.

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