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The exaltation of Christ

By Christopher Bryan

Every Good Friday the Christian church asks the world to contemplate a Christ so helpless, so in thrall to the powers of this age, that one might easily forget the Christian belief that through it all, God was with him and in him. Therein lies the danger of serious misunderstanding: for if any were so distracted by the pain of the crucifixion as to forget that it was God who in Christ consented to be there humiliated, then, from a Christian point of view, they would have robbed the event of its chief significance. If God were not in Christ on that first Good Friday, then Jesus’ cross was simply another of the world’s griefs, one more item in that tally of blood and violence that marks our history from the biblical murder of Abel, through Auschwitz and Hiroshima, to the latest act of inhumanity in our own time. The cross of Jesus is different precisely because in a unique way God was involved in it. Good Friday shows Christians what prophets and psalmist had spoken of through the ages: the pathos of God, who is afflicted in all our afflictions.

But then, as the climax of Easter, the church at Ascensiontide presents the world with an altogether different picture: a picture of Jesus “exalted with triumph” and “ascended far above all heavens,” as the various Collects associated with the Ascension have it. This is a picture so full of divine glory that one might be tempted to fall into the opposite error. One might be tempted to forget that amid this glory it is humanity—our humanity—which is here raised to the right hand of God. From a Christian point of view, if it is not our humanity that is here exalted, then the Ascension is no more than the pleasing story of a god, and has little to do with us. The exaltation of Jesus means that humanity is bound to God in God’s glory. The Ascension of Jesus is therefore a promise, a sign, and a first-fruit of our human destiny.

The Ascension by Giotto (c. 1305). Public domain via WikiArt.
The Ascension by Giotto (c. 1305). Public domain via WikiArt.

To put it another way, Christ’s ascension reminds Christians that the risen life that they are promised will have a purpose, just as this life has a purpose. That purpose is union with God. Human beings in all their evident fragility are, as Second Peter puts it, to be “partakers of the divine nature,” perfectly united with the ascended Christ and with each other, beholders of and sharers in the glory which was (according to the Fourth Evangelist) Christ’s before the foundation of the world. Of course Christians do not claim to know yet what that will mean, though many would suggest that from time to time they catch glimpses of it—in the noblest human endeavors (which as often as not come from the humblest among us), in the greatest of human art and performance, and (in another way) in the gospels’ accounts of the Transfiguration of Christ. Christians are, however, assured of this: that, as Saint Paul says, the risen life will have a glory to which the sufferings of this present age are “not worth comparing.” Perhaps First John puts it best of all, “My little children, already we are God’s children, and it is not yet manifest what we shall be. But we do know this, that when he is manifested we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

It is in the light of that promise that Christians dare open their hearts to the Spirit of God and attempt those lunatic gestures to which the gospel invites them, such as forgiving their enemies, doing good to those who do evil to them, and turning the other cheek. They do not attempt this behavior because they think it leads to successful lives as the world counts success, or because they think it leads to clear consciences. If they did, they would be very naïve. Most likely such living leads to a cross, if they are good at it; or to a continuing sense of their own guilt and failure if (as is more usual) they are not. Why then try it at all? Simply because they believe that God is like this, forgiving those who do evil, and causing gracious rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. And they try to be like God because as Christians they believe that that is their destiny.

Christopher Bryan is a sometime Woodward Scholar of Wadham College, Oxford. He was ordained deacon in Southwark Cathedral on Trinity Sunday 1960, and priest in 1961. He taught New Testament at the University of the South until his semi-retirement in 2008. He continues to write, teach, and serve local parishes as a priest. He is presently editor of the Sewanee Theological Review. In 2012 The University of the South awarded him the degree of Doctor of Divinity honoris causa. He is the author of several books on the Bible, including Listening to the Bible and The Resurrection of the Messiah, and also two novels, Siding Star and Peacekeeper.

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