He was with them, and then he was gone.
Beyond all expectations, beyond even death, he was with them, and then he was gone.
His broken and renewed body was there, and then it wasn’t.
Where did he go? Up?
In a volume of theological essays called Radical Orthodoxy,1 there is an essay called, “The Displaced Body of Jesus, Christ” by Graham Ward (one of the co-editors of the book). In that essay he writes about the instability of Jesus’ Body.
That Jesus of Nazareth was human and had a human body. He ate, he drank, he suffered and he died. But it’s not quite that simple.
* In the Transfiguration, that same fully human body shines like a great light and is, in some sense, translucent, luminous, showing forth divine glory through it.
* At the last supper, he gives his body to us. As the Lord of all creation, he shows that his Body is not limited to place or time or material. His Body is flesh and blood and bread and wine.2
* In the crucifixion, we see his Body given over to us in another way, broken, torn, transgressed—an extreme and violent transformation of his body at the limits of experience that was still in continuity with the way he had given himself to us throughout his life.
* In the resurrection we see his Body transformed yet again. Not just alive again, not just reversing death, but pushing through death and transforming death in his dying, making even death serve God’s purpose. By going through death his Body is made new, able to walk through walls and locked doors, and yet still Body enough to be able to eat and to touch and be touched and bear the marks of crucifixion.
* And then the Ascension—what we celebrate today. His presence among them—his Body among them—displaced one last time.
He was with them, embodied, for forty days after Resurrection, and then he was gone.
St. Paul writes: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
This day, Ascension Day, the day that Christ was seated at God’s right hand, is a day of transition.
The nine days after Ascension Day (the first novena) are a time of waiting and praying for the disciples—a time just before the creation of the Church on Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter.
This day is the first day of an unstable time, a time of change, of something new emerging.
This day is the beginning of a period of instability—a time
* opened up between the Ascension and Pentecost;
* of being remade;
* of Christ’s Body finding a new place, a new form—reworking the disciples he left behind, forming and reforming them and us, as limbs, organs, tissue, flesh, blood in the Body of Christ.
The Ascension is not the retreat of Christ, the absence of his Body.
He has not left us. Not really. Instead, Christ is entering into us, becoming present to us (and through us to all of Creation) in a way more intimate and complete than ever before.
In the Ascension Jesus doesn’t just rise to heaven to take his throne and leave us behind, but instead he brings humanity into the presence of God by beginning to rework us into his Body.
The Body of Christ expands to encompass all within itself—ruling all things by becoming them and by remaking them into the pattern of Christ’s own life, and finally bringing them to reign with him and as him at the right hand of God.
And in this way Christ’s Body, unstable as ever, is no longer limited to that of a first century Palestinian Jewish man, but is now old and young, black, white, brown, red and yellow, rich and poor, weak and strong, multigendered—infinitely various in shape, size, temperament, and orientation.
Did Jesus’ Body rise up into heaven? Yes, but it also sank into the earth and it also moved in all directions, filling the whole of the universe, growing, changing, transforming, remaking itself into all of Creation and (more importantly), beginning the process of remaking all of Creation—including you and me—into Christ’s Body… “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
1 Graham Ward, “The Displaced Body of Jesus,” in Radical Orthodoxy, Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward editors (163ff). 2 Though not necessarily at the same time. This sentence is not meant to be an assertion of the doctrine of consubstantiation.