From the Letter to the Hebrews:
God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,
subjecting all things under their feet.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 2:5-8a – May 29, 2014 – Ascension Day)
I cannot read these verses of Hebrews (nor the verses of Psalm 8 which the author quotes) without thinking of Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither . . . . (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II. Scene II)
Hamlet may not have delighted in humankind, but the story of Jesus and the witness of Scripture (Old and New) assure us that God does. With all our flaws and foibles, God loves the human race. (There are days when I wonder what that says about God, but the Feast of the Ascension is not one of them.) On this feast, we are assured that God loves us so much that God “crowns us with glory and honor.” We read not only this assurance in the Letter to the Hebrews, but also in the vision recorded in the Book of Daniel:
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
As I read today’s lessons I am saddened that this Feast is so ignored by the Church. It passes by and our members never even think about it, if they even know of it. In the Sunday rota it is noted only as the day after which the Seventh Sunday of Easter comes: that’s how next Sunday’s collect is titled in The Book of Common Prayer, “Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day.” Kind of sad, because the Ascension really is the last event, the last scene of the last act of the great drama which is “the Christ event.” Fortunately, this year (Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary) we will hear the story of the Ascension from the Book of Acts on Sunday morning; this is not the case in the other two years of the rotation.
If the Incarnation (meaning the whole of Jesus’ earthly being) were viewed as a stage play, the drama of salvation would be seen in this way: Act One — In the Nativity, God becomes a human being offering great promise to humankind. Act Two — In the life of Jesus, God fully enters human existence in all its aspects making clearer the meaning of the promise. Act Three — In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God defeats death and opens the way of eternal life to all human beings setting the scene for fulfillment of the promise. Act Four — In the Ascension, a human being becomes God bringing the promise of the Nativity revealed Act One to fruition. (Pentecost and all that follows it are the epilogue, just as the story of Israel and the words and works of the Prophets are the prologue.)
The Ascension is the denouement of the entire story but, unfortunately, most of the audience, thinking the play concluded, left after Act Three; some may even have left in the middle of that act. The climax of the drama plays out to a largely empty theater.
One of the Episcopal Church’s collects for today says: “We believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend.” (BCP 1979, page 226) I think this prayer gets it slightly wrong. Our ascension with Jesus, I believe, is not a future thing that we “may” later attain. Rather, in Jesus’ Ascension we all have already ascended. God has already seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus; our ascension is not so much an experience to be attained, but a reality to be experienced. As St. Athanasius famously put it, “God became man that man might become God.” In the Ascension of Jesus, this theosis (deification) has already happened.
What a piece of work is humankind! Crowned with glory and honor. Given dominion and glory and kingship that shall not pass away. It’s sad that on the feast day that acknowledges this the theater is largely empty; the climax of the drama of redemption passes by largely unnoticed.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.