The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes:
St Luke tells us that Jesus ‘presented himself alive’ to the disciples and appeared to them for forty days after his Resurrection until being taken up into heaven (Acts 1.3). Christians have been commemorating Ascension Day (sometimes called ‘Holy Thursday’) forty days after Easter Day since at least the fourth century. We do so this year on Thursday 26 May.
The Ascension affirms the Incarnation. It signals the divinely revealed truth that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14), and the Word remains flesh at this moment and forevermore albeit in a mysterious manner. Jesus’s body was laid in a manger, suckled by Mary, lost in the Temple, hungry after fasting, scourged, hung on a cross, dead and laid in a tomb. Then, up from the tomb he arose! The body born of Mary, so the Ascension observes, now sits at the right hand of the Father (Mark 16.19; Acts 2.33; 8.56) as we profess every Sunday in the Nicene Creed. The Incarnation is an ongoing and enduring reality.
We humans are incarnate spirits. Our bodies, frail and fragile though they are, like Jesus’s body once broken, are destined to sit at the right hand of God in terms of being at the right hand of Jesus at the eschaton when he comes in glory (Matthew 25.31–46). St Paul goes to great length to remind us that Jesus’s Resurrection is the first fruits of those who fall asleep in 1 Corinthians 15.Paul goes so far as to say that if Jesus has not been raised, his preaching and our faith are useless. Paul affirms our bodily resurrection with all his might. Yet he acknowledges the paradox: the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable. For Paul, and for us, the resurrection of the body is a marvel. ‘Listen, I tell you a mystery,’ he writes, ‘we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.’
It is, according to Paul, the Risen Christ who will transform our lowly bodies to be conformed to his glorious body (Philippians 3.20–21; cf. Luke 24.13–35). Getting our heads around the mystery of a resurrected body is aided by the example we are given in Jesus’s glorified body. For instance, Mary Magdalene, who knew Jesus so well in his earthly body, needs prompting to recognise Jesus in his glorified body (John 20.11–20). Her reaction is not atypical. ‘Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet’ (Luke 24.36–40).
Jesus’s glorified body is a foretaste of our resurrected bodies and a reminder of the integrity and destiny of each and every human person. Humans are made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1.27; 5.1; 9.6). Human bodies are God’s gift and are integral to us; they are not addendums, burdens or accidents. As Christians, we can only be horrified by the hedonism prevalent in the twenty-first century that so often demeans the body. Our selves, our souls, our bodies are destined for heaven, for glory. We rightly treat human bodies with respect; even when they are dead, they are human remains. As Christians, we witness to hope in human life beyond the tomb through the merits of Jesus Christ. The Ascension celebrates the fact that God’s gift of fleshiness is irrevocable, for our embodiments stretch from earth to heaven, from time to eternity, in a manner outdoing the laws of the universe as we know them.
Ascension Day, then, is a fitting time to reflect on our integrity and destiny. It is, to be sure, first and foremost about Jesus ascending to heaven, but it is also about us. The dark hedonistic and hopeless outlooks of our time need the light of Christ and our witness to it insofar as we proclaim the goodness of God and God’s created order, the Incarnation of the Word in time and place on earth, Jesus’s seat at the right hand of God, and the incredible generosity of God in creating and redeeming us. The Psalmist (139.14) reminds us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. By God’s design, we are marvellous!
The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.