Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Vigil of the Ascension

Ephesians 4:7-13 / John 17:1-11

There are no small parts, we are told, only small actors. Of course, these words hardly ever issue from the actor who has been cast in the role of "Soldier #3" or "Woman eating pasta". If anyone speaks them, you can be assured that that man is the director, that woman has top billing in the show. Now, we accept as a given that not every show, not every beautiful thing can have each and every part be equally prominent. Its beauty, its impact derives at least as much from what takes a rightly minor place as from what is central. We can see this, for example, in good mosaics. From afar, one might see what appears to be a field of blue or gold. Up close, however, one sees that the tiles differ one from another, and that many of them are quite different colors, red or green or even black. The effect, however, is a seamless field of a single color, but one which is altogether more pleasing for the presence of those otherwise unnoticed tesseræ of different colors. A mosaic which has portions all of the same hue looks inevitably poor and flat.

Even so, even granting the beauty of the whole in light of the presence of the obscure, unnoticed, unheralded parts, who would actually want to play the minor role? What tessera, could they speak, would want to be merely an unseen accent color, whose contribution is only to highlight the dominant color while remaining itself unmarked and unseen? In the spiritual life, the question is even sharper than this. Who, on granting that God has apportioned an array of spiritual gifts — And He gave some apostles, and some prophets, and other some evangelists, and other some pastors and doctors — and that this array of gifts is for the good of the whole, nonetheless would be satisfied to know that his contributions are, at best, only to make another's work shine with even greater brilliance? Even more to the point, when Jesus departs, ascending to heaven to sit at the Father's right hand, who would rather remain in the world than be gifted to share, bodily, a life with him in heaven, even now?

This view, however understandable, mistakes what it means for Christ to be present in his body in heaven and thus, to that extent, "absent" from the world. Jesus Christ has not descended first into the lower parts of the earth and then ascended above the heavens as though to pass through every part of his creation only serially, leaving the one place so as to enter the other. As Paul reminds us, he came down from heaven and has returned on high not so as to leave the world, but rather that He might fill all things. In other words, the mystery of the Ascension is not about the absence of Jesus Christ, but rather about the exaltation of each and every one of the members of the Body through the exaltation of the Head. Since anyone made one in Christ is not merely rhetorically or poetically, but really and truly wherever Christ the Head is, then there is no life in Christ that is not a central part of the divine economy of salvation, no member who is merely a disposable twig or leaf on the great Vine. To be in the Body of Christ who has ascended on high is to be the one and only Christ, the perfect man, and thus no more distant from the body than the foot can be said to be less the body than the hand or the eye.

This is why the Ascension is not merely a mystery about Christ in himself. This is why the ascending of Jesus to glory matters to each and every one of us. Made one with him, being among those whom the Father gave to the Son out of the world, means to share, here and now, all of the love poured out upon the Son, our Head, who has gone before us to prepare a place for us. This is our hope, our blessed assurance. Declare it with the voice of joy, and make this to be heard: the Lord hath delivered his people. Alleluia!

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