A couple weeks ago I was reflecting on a much-neglected biblical teaching: the ascension of Christ. We may neglect it because there is a conundrum in the ascension: the puzzling, if not outright paradoxical, presence of Christ.
Ascension vs. Presence
The last scenes of Jesus’ earthly ministry are emphatic about two completely opposite things:
- Jesus promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:20)
- Jesus left, ascending into heaven. (Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51, and Acts 1:9)
Most of us, most of the time, don’t fret about that too much. Both sides seem true.
- We have some kind of sense that Christ is active within us or around us. That matches up with the promise in Matthew.
- We don’t actually see Jesus in person. That matches up with the Ascension.
If there is a paradox between those two points, we are pretty much over it.
Until we aren’t.
If you think about the Ascension, the absence of Christ may start to bug you. If Jesus went up to heaven, isn’t he just … gone?
Are we fooling ourselves when we think about Jesus being with us
- in our hearts
- in the Lord’s Supper
- or active in the world?
The writers of the Heidelberg Catechism (the much-loved Reformed summary of biblical theology I’ve been blogging about, off and on, since it’s 500th anniversary in 2013) comes right out and asks the question:
47 Q. But isn’t Christ with us until the end of the world
as he promised us?
A. Christ is true human and true God.
In his human nature Christ is not now on earth;
but in his divinity,
he is never absent from us.
It was an important point for Reformation-era Protestants, actually.
Lutheran vs. Reformed
At the Marburg Colloquy of 1520, when all the Protestants tried to come together, their differences came down to how they thought about the Lord’s Supper — and the Ascension.
- Martin Luther looked to the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “This IS my body,” and said that it was a promise: Jesus is really, physically present in the Eucharist.
- Ulrich Zwingli and others on the Reformed side looked at the Ascension and said Jesus’ body is in heaven. We can’t have him physically present, even at the Eucharist. We should listen instead to Jesus’ command: “Do this in REMEMBRANCE of me.”
The Heidelberg Catechism came more than a generation later, in 1563. The writers were walking a tightrope:
- They were trying to establish the Reformed understanding of the faith.
- They were in a territory legally obliged to follow Lutheran theology.
They didn’t want to fall all the way in either direction. Or better to say, like any tightrope walker they had to keep equal weight on both sides to stay steady.
So they looked at the incarnation in a way that was familiar to readers of John Calvin, and a bit controversial among Lutherans — though its roots go all the way back to the Greek theology of the ancient Alexandrian tradition.
The Incarnation of the Logos
Now hang in there with me…
In the early centuries, Greek-speaking theologians were delighted to see that John 1 said that “In the beginning was the Word” or “Logos.” The Logos, said John, actually was God, and through the Logos all creation came into being.
A reader of Greek philosophy would know that the LOGos was that thing that made creation orderly, rational — LOGigcal.
The Logos wasn’t just a simple word that was spoken. The Logos is what made all of creation make sense. The Logos kept it all hanging together.
Without the Logos, the whole universe would tumble into chaos and nothingness.
So what about when the Logos became human in Jesus? Jesus was the incarnation of the Logos. Does that mean that outside Jesus there was no Logos?
Ah… there’s the actual paradox. A much bigger paradox than the Ascension.
- Jesus, walking around in the flesh, was truly, and fully the Logos.
- But all the while, the Logos was maintaining the entire universe.
In other words, the Logos was
- not constrained
- not contained
- not limited
to the measure of Jesus’ body.
The Logos continued to order the whole of the universe outside Jesus even when the Logos became incarnate as Jesus.
The paradoxical presence of Christ
The Ascension sort of reverses the original paradox:
- Christ’s human flesh ascended into heaven.
- Meanwhile, the divine Logos, Jesus, remains present with us — and will remain with us even to the end of the age.
Do you find Jesus’ ascension and presence with us paradoxical? Helpful? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.