29 May Look, Pray: On the Ascension
“I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed”. (Dan 7:13-14)
“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” (Nicene Creed)
Thursday, 21 May was Ascension Day/Te Rā Kakenga. You can be forgiven if you let this day pass by, unnoticed and unmarked. Compared to Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, Ascension gets little attention. I suspect that this is only exacerbated by the fact that the celebration of Ascension Day—with its focus on Christ as the victorious king and great high priest—is confronting even for Christians, given the popular and prevalent veins of republicanism and laicism in our culture. The resulting impoverishment of our imaginations, however, is to the detriment of our faithfulness as pilgrims in God’s good world. In this article, I hope to play my small part in rehabilitating the doctrine of the Ascension and its importance for our lives—especially at this time.
The psalm appointed for Ascension Day/Te Rā Kakenga is Psalm 110. This psalm speaks of a king who—with YHWH’s aid—will conquer his enemies:
“The LORD says to my lord:
‘Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.’
The Lord will extend your mighty sceptre
from Zion, saying,
‘Rule in the midst of your enemies.’” (Ps 110:1-2)
Originally connected to King David, by the time of Jesus, Psalm 110 has become a messianic song—a song giving voice to Israel’s deep longing and hope for a king anointed by YHWH who would defeat her enemies and reestablish the kingdom of Israel along Davidic lines. It would have come as a surprise, then, to Peter’s hearers when, on the Day of Pentecost, he quotes Psalm 110 in connection with Jesus:
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,
“The Lord says to my Lord:
‘Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.’”
Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:32-36)
This is an astounding claim. Peter is saying that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah—her victorious king—and that Jesus’s exaltation to the right hand of God is proof of that. Furthermore, because of Jesus’s ascension he has received the promised Holy Spirit who has now been poured out on the disciples of Jesus.
At this point, you could be excused for wondering—as some in Peter’s congregation probably were—whether this was, in fact, true. Looking around, the Romans were still in control, Pilate was still Governor, and at the sniff of insurrection, the sound of soldiers’ boots and the threat of a Roman cross weren’t too far behind. Well, yes. But there’s something more going on here—that Peter’s sermon moves towards and the rest of the New Testament will unfold—that Israel’s enemy isn’t ultimately the Romans, but the dominion of sin and death. And that the result of Jesus’s victory as the exalted king isn’t the restoration of Israel’s kingdom, but rather the presence of God with his people in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Ascension celebrates Jesus as the victorious king—the one who has defeated the dominion of sin and death.
In the middle of Psalm 110 we find this curious verse:
“The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” (Ps 110:4)
Melchizedek is the enigmatic figure whom we meet in Genesis 14, in an encounter that takes place between him and the patriarch Abraham. In this encounter, Melchizedek presents gifts of bread and wine to Abraham and blesses him; and Abraham gives Melchizedek a tithe of all that he has. He is described in Genesis 14 as both a king (the king of Salem) and a priest.
The Letter to the Hebrews takes up this figure of Melchizedek to speak of Jesus as the great high priest, and to unite it with the image of Jesus as the victorious king.
Jesus is described in the Letter to the Hebrews as a priest in the order of Melchizedek by drawing on Psalm 110. As such, Jesus’s priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood because he is perfect—holy, blameless, pure, set apart—and able to meet our need for forgiveness once and forever (Heb 7:26). Thus the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes:
Unlike other high priests, he [Jesus] does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself (Heb 7:27).
Jesus, in his office as high priest, gave himself to us in his sacrifice at the cross, so that we might find forgiveness. Moreover, now as our exalted high priest he is interceding for us (Heb 7:25; Rom 8:34) in his ongoing high-priestly ministry.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews unites the image of Jesus as the great high priest with the image of Jesus as the victorious king, by drawing on the figure of Melchizedek and the fact that Jesus has been exalted in heaven.
Jesus is the victorious king and the great high priest. Ascension, then, is an invitation to consider what it means to say that Jesus is our victorious king and our great high priest.
For some of us, this invitation is hard to take up. We are living in a world that is being ravaged and restricted by a virus. We are aware of injustice and inequity in our communities. We know of family and friends who are facing hardship. We experience personal difficulty and suffering. Given these realities, what does it mean to confess with integrity that he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father? Can we really affirm that Jesus is our victorious king and our great high priest? Aren’t we just exhibiting an immature inability to face reality?
We are not the first ones to confront this issue. From the beginning, Christians have wrestled with their confession that Jesus is exalted at the right hand of the Father in the midst of the trials, difficulties, and suffering they experienced. On this front, the Book of Revelation is a stunning piece of literature in which the churches of Asia Minor, faced with the external threats of social ostracisation and martyrdom and the internal threats of false teaching and immorality, are reminded that the victorious Lamb is before the heavenly throne (Rev 5). Here, as elsewhere in Scripture, we are given some solid inaugurated eschatology—being reminded that Christ has decisively defeated the dominion of sin and death, but with the caveat that this victory will not be fully seen until Christ’s coming in glory; and that we now live in the tension of this “already, but not yet” reality.
Understanding this “already, but not yet tension” is helpful; however, for many of us it does not suffice as pilgrims making our way in a world wounded and marred by sin and death. We need something more. And this is where the doctrine of the Ascension comes into its own. The doctrine of the Ascension urges us to look… and to pray. To look at and to pray with our King-Priest:
“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Heb 12:1b-3)
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us approach then God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb 4:14-16)
Both these passages—taken from the Letter to the Hebrews with its developed theology of Jesus as the ascended King-Priest—encourage us to look and to pray. First, to look to Jesus—indeed to fix our eyes on him—so that we will not grow weary or lose heart. In other words, in the midst of the joys and vicissitudes of life, to contemplate—to focus our hearts and minds—on Jesus ascended so that we can stay the course.
Second, to pray to our Heavenly Father with Jesus—to approach the throne of grace with confidence—to ask for help as we make our way as pilgrims in the world. And, as we do so, to take heart that Jesus is also interceding for us, and that he does so as one who identifies with us because he is God become man.
In looking to and praying with Jesus we make our own ascent. We lift our own hearts and minds to our ascended King-Priest and find help as pilgrims in the world. For this reason, the best of the Church’s theology and liturgy have given an important place to the Ascension, not least in her Eucharistic prayers. In concluding, therefore, I want to leave you with one token of my own church’s liturgical and pastoral wisdom, the collect for Ascension Day/Te Rā Kakenga from the Book of Common Prayer, that encapsulates what I have been writing on:
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God,
that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son
our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens;
so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend,
and with him continually dwell,
who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost,
one God, world without end.
(Image: “No. 38 Scenes from the Life of Christ: 22. Ascension” by Giotto di Bondone, CC Zero)