In the past, when I’ve thought about the Ascension, I’ve wondered, “What’s the big deal about Christ floating up into the clouds?” I’ve felt that perhaps, the Ascension is slightly anti-climactic after the resurrection event. My imagination also has been stunted, since I can’t seem to picture the Ascension in any way that doesn’t seem ridiculous, whether flannel-graph-childish or Cape-Canaveral-Spaceship-launch.
But this year, meditating on the Ascension has brought me great joy because this statement has been singing through my mind: The Ascension means that Christ is our King and is also our Brother.
The Ascension is more than a miracle showing Jesus’ mastery over the physical world. It is Christ’s enthronement, when he is seated at the right hand of God as King and Priest. To be seated at God’s right hand is a frequent Biblical metaphor, especially noteworthy in Psalm 110, where a figure is foretold who unites the offices of King and Priest, with all things subjected under him. Hence, right before his Ascension, Christ could declare “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
Now, my imagination is being shaped more and more by the images I associate with coronation and kingship. I picture what the apostles saw of the Ascension as like a gathering with dear friends and advisors with the king before he is crowned. They are in the antechamber and he is proceeding through to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering. . .” (Hebrews 12:22-23). He is proceeding to enthronement at His Father’s right hand. What we know of the Ascension is the gathering before the glory.
And yet, the Ascension means more than that Christ is our priestly King, he is also our Brother. He is not distant royalty– glorious and beloved, but disconnected from our everyday lives. He forever shares our flesh and blood. Though Christ’s physical body was glorified in his resurrection, he still looks and feels like us– enough to be mistook for a gardener, unrecognized on the road to Emmaus, and touched by doubting Thomas. Christ was “made like his brothers in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17) and he “sympathizes with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). And, because we are “in Him,” he has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6).
He not only shares our flesh, but He has given us of His Spirit, that we might share his mission. Biblical scholars note the parallels between Luke’s account of Christ’s Ascension and when Elijah is taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, witnessed by Elisha who continues on “in the spirit of Elijah” (2 Kings 2:15). The disciples, too, witnessed Christ being taken up into heaven, and then, they wait for the promised Holy Spirit, who will empower them to be “little Christs” in the world. Christ shares in our flesh and we share in His work. Our Brother, the true man, empowers us by His Spirit to be like Him in the shape of our individual lives– for as Hopkins so notably writes, “Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
Truly, Jesus Christ is both our King and Brother. Unexpectedly, I find here at Ascension the realities that set my soul to singing. This is what I’ve always yearned for– the longing that came when I first read of Aslan and Aragorn and Arthur. This is what now can shape my imagination. The long-awaited one has come. He is at the Father’s right hand, with all things subjected under Him. Surrounded by glory and glorious in Himself, He shares my flesh, sympathizes with my weakness, and intercedes for me.
As Christopher Wordsworth hymns,
“Thou hast raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand:
There we sit in heavenly places,
There with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine ascension,
We by faith behold our own.”