Thursday, June 2, 2011

C.S. Lewis on the Ascension

Happy Himmelfahrt day! "Oh, excuse you, what barnyard talk." No, seriously, it's a real word (German to be precise). Today the Church celebrates the Ascension of our Lord. And whenever Christians celebrate we sing:

Up through endless ranks of angels,
Cries of triumph in His ears,
To His heav'nly throne ascending,
Having vanquished all their fears,
Christ looks down upon His faithful,
Leaving them in happy tears.
- LSB 491:1

Forty years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness before they were led by Joshua across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Forty days after Easter the new, wandering Israel is led by the greater Joshua (Yeshua) across the glassy, crystalline sea to the right hand of God on high. Christ is the beginning of the New Creation; He is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15) and the pioneer of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10ff). Today, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, "a new chapter in cosmic history has opened." Christ closed the door to everlasting death by his own death and opened heaven for all as easily as he opened his own tomb. The dragon is slain, the Lamb has conquered and now the King ascends to his throne. All of this (and more as we shall read on below) follows along in joyful refrain as we celebrate the Ascension. For "there is no possibility of isolating the doctrine of the Resurrection from that of the Ascension" (Lewis - Miracles, p. 236). Jesus' resurrection leads to his Ascension. You don't get one without the other. The 'It is Finished' of Good Friday must be extend throughout the whole world. And when one's work is finished they rest, or in Jesus' case, rest by siting down on at the right hand of God.

Think of Christ's ascension like the coronation scene towards the end of Tolkien's Return of the King: the Ring has been destroyed, Mordor is defeated, Aragorn ascends the throne having conquered the enemies of middle-earth, all things are under his feet and elves, men and even hobbits gather for feast and festival. Ascension is a triumphal entry, not into Jerusalem to die, but into the Heavenly Jerusalem as King: palms are waved in exaltation, the vault of heaven resounds, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive honor and glory and blessing."  That's why the most brilliant Easter cross is not empty but adorned with the Christus Rex - Christ is King through his very life, death resurrection and ascension.

Christianity simply cannot do without the story of the ascension - just as we cannot do with out the Resurrection. We confess it every Sunday in the creed. According to Lewis, we can only drop the Ascension story (as a real event - for it was seen by more than one person at a time and group hallucination/dreams are impossible) if we are prepared to throw out the Resurrection as well.

We can do so only if we regard the Resurrection appearances as those of a ghost or hallucination. For a phantom can just fade away; but an objective entity must go somewhere - something must happen to it. And if the Risen Body were not objective, then all of us (Christian or not) must invent some explanation for the disappearance of the corpse. And all Christians must explain why God sent or permitted a 'vsion' or a 'ghost' whose behaviour seems almost exclusively directed to convincing the disciples that it was not a vision or a ghost but a really corporeal being. If it were a vision then it was the most systematically deceptive and lying on record [not to mention the most brilliantly, skilled conspiracy ever conceived in history; lying takes work, you know!]. But if it were real, then something happened to it after it ceased to appear. You cannot take away the Ascension without putting something else in its place (Miracles, 243-244).

Speaking along the via negativa, Christ's Ascension is not an event such as a tractor beam or transporter; "Beam me up Scottie!"  He also didn't blast off like a rocket and leap tall cumulus clouds in a single bound. Jesus is more than a sanctified superman. He is very much a real man, or to speak in the words of the Creed, true God and true man. We must do away with any gnostic, mystical Jedi-mind tricks when it comes to thinking about the Ascension.  A disembodied Jesus is not the Savior you're looking for. A bodiless Jesus does you no good - not at his incarnation, not in his life, not in his death and resurrection and certainly not in his ascension and return on the Last Day. Thankfully, there is far more to say positively about Jesus' ascension than there is negatively. What Jesus assumes, Jesus redeems. And he redeems you. He just happens to do it with a body that is better than yours. He's sinless; you're not. He's able to make satisfaction for sin, perfectly; you're not. He's able to raise his body from the grave; you need him to do that for you. He's also able to walk through doors and walls and appear to disciples; he eats fish and then ascends in the body to the right hand of God. That's why we can say that he is present with his Church in the Lord's Supper with his body and the blood, not in a gnostic, absent way, but in a real, flesh and blood way. Risen and Ascended Jesus can do whatever he wants! This is what Lewis calls a 'new human nature' or a 'different mode of existence.'

The picture [of the Ascension and Resurrection and the ensuing New Creation] is not what we expected - though whether it is less or more probable and philosophical on that account is another question. It is not the picture of an escape from any and every kind of Nature into some unconditioned and utterly transcendent life. It is the picture of a new human nature, and a new Nature in general, being brought into existence. We must, indeed, believe the risen body to be extremely different from the mortal body: but the existence, in that new state, of anything that could in any sense be described as 'body' at all, involves some sort of spacial relations and in the long run a whole new universe. That is the picture - not of unmaking but remaking. The old field of space, time, matter, and the senses is to be weeded, dug, and sown for a new crop. We may be tired of the old field: God is not (Miracles, 244).

Indeed, in Christ the perishable are raised imperishable, the mortal puts on immortality. And this same imperishable, immortal, yet fleshly and real Savior, abides with his Church closer now in the Sacrament than he ever did with his disciples. Christ's ascension is the culmination of his work, the proclamation of his gracious reign over all things, the glorification and exaltation of humanity in the flesh and blood of Jesus and it is of the utmost consolation for his bride, the Church. What else is there to say, but "Amen, come quickly, Lord Jesus."

Now our heav'nly Aaron enters
With His blood within the veil;
Joshua now is come to Canaan,
And the kings before Him quail.
Now He plants the tribes of Israel
In their promised resting place;
Now our great Elijah offers
Double portion of His grace.
- LSB 494:4

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