He Ascended Into The Kingdom of Heaven

When You had fulfilled the dispensation for our sake, and united earth to heaven: You ascended in glory, O Christ our God, not being parted from those who love You, but remaining with them and crying: “I am with you and no one will be against you!” (Kontakion for the Ascension).

Strange as it might seem, before his ascension Jesus told his disciples that he would always be with them, even to the end of time: “lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20b RSV). How can this be true if Jesus apparently left the earth in his ascension?  Is not the ascension the story of Jesus’ entrance into heaven, when he flew up into sky, leaving the earthly sphere, and therefore, all of his disciples behind?

Theologically, as the Kontakion for the Feast indicates, the ascension is the means by which Jesus gives us his presence throughout time. Jesus does not leave us, but rather, he comes to us in a new mode of being. What lies behind his apparent exit from the world is Jesus’ profound integration with it.

The incarnation is not merely about the restoration of fallen humanity to a sinless state. Its main purpose is for the completion of God’s intention for his creation. God established the universe, gave it room to be its own integral entity, but also desired to share the fullness of himself with his creation so that the kingdom of heaven could be one with earthly creation. The kingdom of heaven must be understood as the greater, transcendent reality which also lies immanent within all creation, covered as it were with a cocoon of suffering as a result of sin. The earth represents the material universe; God created it in order to share with it all his love. Heaven and earth are called to be together as one, the kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven; the kingdom of God is pure, and that purity is intended for the whole of creation. And so, St. Maximus the Confessor wrote:

Thus, He Himself, being moved to draw near to us in the lower world, truly became perfect man consistent with all the positive marks of humanity, without in any way moving outside of Himself, or experiencing any limitation to a particular place; and He completely divinized us, without in any way violating or essentially altering our nature, for having totally given the whole of Himself, and assuming the whole of an, in an ineffable and perfect union, He in no way suffered any diminishment of His perfection.[1]

Sinless purity, perfection, is possible for us because at the heart of the human condition, the essence of what makes us who we are, is the image and likeness of God. The image might be obscured, it might be tarnished, but it is never destroyed. We remain good in our core, and so long as we authentically and naturally live out what is found buried deep within us, we will not only do what is good, but we will portray the beauty of God throughout all of creation, making the world a better place in the process. We are able to do this because of the grace given to us in our creation, which gives us innate goodness, and the grace given to us by Jesus, who is able to lift us out of the cocoon of sin and realize the kingdom of God within ourselves. While he is the God-man, and so acts as both God and man, we must always keep in mind that Jesus’ humanity demonstrates for all what human perfection is about; he was in himself the most human of us all, because he reflected the heart of humanity, the innate goodness, without any corruption. In his life, he shows us what it means to be human; in his ascension to heaven, he shows us that we are called to a glory beyond ourselves, to be deified as we fully unite ourselves to God in a bond of love. Then, having been cleanse from all the defilements which obscure the kingdom of God within us, having been lifted up into union with God, we will be able to see and experience all things in God, seeing how the kingdom of God is in all things even as all things are in God.

Jesus, in the resurrection, demonstrated what the unity between the kingdom of heaven and of earth implies for the earthly condition. Or body will remain but its modality of existence will be different: it will be, as some would say, spiritualized, not because the body become immaterial, but because it will integrate the spiritual reality of the kingdom of God within it. It is spiritualized, no longer limited by our normal understanding of space and time, but yet remains material, as can be seen in the way Jesus, after his resurrection, often seemed to act like a spirit and yet remained material in nature, capable of being touched:

As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace to you!”.  But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit.  And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts?  See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.”  And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”  They gave him a piece of broiled fish,  and he took it and ate before them. (Lk. 24:36-43 RSV).

In his resurrection Jesus affirmed the victory of life over death, of the kingdom of God over sin. But then, to the surprise of his disciples, he ascended, as it were, taking his whole being and all that is united to it into the kingdom of heaven. It is very important to restate that he did not raise himself above the earth in order to leave it behind, but rather, he fully integrated himself into it, taking his resurrected presence throughout the whole of creation, showing the kingdom of God is everywhere. He did not leave us, but rather, he came even closer to us, entering into the very heart of our being with his resurrected glory. His ascent was his universal entrance into the kingdom, and therefore, even into the heart of humanity, so that he can complete his deifying work within each and every one of us. It was his way to join together the kingdom of heaven and the earth, taking all that is within creation and establishing its place within the kingdom of God. In this fashion, St. Maximus the Confessor explained how Jesus removed all division between earth and heaven, between the earth and paradise:

Then, having sanctified our inhabited world by the dignity of His conduct as man, He proceeded unhindered to paradise after His death, just as He truly promised to the thief, saying, Today, you shall be with me in paradise. Consequently, since there was for Him no difference between paradise and our inhabited world. He appeared on it, and spent time together with His disciples after His resurrection from the dead, demonstrating that the earth is one and not divided against itself, for it preserves the principle of its existence free of any difference caused by division. Then, by His ascension into heaven, it is obvious that He united heaven and earth, for He entered heaven with His earthly body, which is of the same nature and consubstantial with ours, and showed that, according to its more universal principle, all sensible nature is one, and thus He obscured in Himself the property of division that had cut it in two.  Then, in addition to this, having passed with His soul and body, that is, with the whole of our nature, through all the divine and intelligible orders of heaven, He united sensible things with intelligible things, displaying in Himself the fact that the convergence of the entire creation toward unity was absolutely indivisible and beyond all fracture, in accordance with its most primal and most universal principle.[2]

Jesus truly is the mediator between heaven and earth because he has made them one. In the world and through it, God’s presence is to be found, and so the kingdom of God is able to be experienced not just in some transcendent immaterial existence after death, but now, in our life, as the glory of God shines upon all creation. The ascension is a part of this mediation, for through it, Jesus makes himself present to all in his own unique way.

 

[Image=By Хомелка [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons]


 

[1] St. Maximos the Confessor, Amb. 31 in On Difficulties in the Church Fathers. The Ambigua. Volume II. Trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 49.

[2] St. Maximos the Confessor, Amb. 41 in On Difficulties in the Church Fathers. The Ambigua. Volume II. Trans. Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 111-3.

 

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