the ascension and the priesthood of Jesus

(cyprian)

Apologies for the lack of posts these past days. We have been experiencing some major technological difficulties with everything tied into contemplation.com. Things are slowly coming back online.

I have been surprised a number of times at people who tell me that they are perplexed by the feast of the Ascension. Our late Fr. Bruno, for ithnstance, told me several times, “I don’t really get the Ascension.” (Maybe he was just toying with me.) And the other day a very learned woman who is an author and a spiritual director wrote me and said, “Greetings on this odd little feast of the Ascension.” I did not launch into a theological spat with her, but again I thought, “I love this feast.” One of my mentors, the great liturgist Fr. Deiss called this feast, “the triumph of the flesh.” How could you not love that? I’ve preached on this feast at least twice now in the past three years, and I don’t really have anything much new to say, so I’m gonna say the same thing again but with a new ardor, new conviction… and a new introduction.

When I was a kid we had a close friend who was a priest, and he had this wooden plaque that I somehow inherited and that, even as a young man, I found disproportionately deeply moving. It said simply, “A priest is someone who brings God to people and people to God through Jesus Christ.” Obviously traditions outside of Christianity raise up priests as well; I’m thinking mainly of the cultic and sacrificial priests, for example the Brahmin priests of Hinduism that perform the sacrifices and pujas in the temple, or the shaman priests who lead ceremonies. So anthropologically speaking, you could also say that without mentioning Jesus: “A priest is someone who brings the Holy or the Divine to people and people to the Holy…” The priest is someone who is understood to be somehow in touch with both realms, the divine and the created. I’m tempted to say “one foot in both worlds,” or a “head in the clouds and the feet on the ground,” or, as our Eucharistic Prayer says about Jesus, the priest is someone “stretches out his hands between heaven and earth,” in touch with the divine as well as in touch with the human. And from that vantage point the priest serves as the bridge, the conduit. There was also book written once which made a lot of sense to me as a musician called “The Performer as Priest” because in the best of art there is that sense as well, making the numinous tangible and accessible through a work of art, especially through a great performance of any sort, where one gets the sense that the performer is a channel for something bigger than her or him. The artist as priest…

For the Christian, Jesus, who “stretched out his hands between heaven and earth,” is not only the ultimate priest, but within our tradition he is the only priest; and all of our priesthood––the priesthood of the baptized as well as the ministerial priesthood––is a sharing in that priesthood. We might think of the Last Supper or the crucifixion as the best example of Jesus as the priest. But I think of this feast as the feast of Jesus’ priesthood. The Church must think so too. This year, year C in the liturgical cycle, we hear this reading from the letter to the Hebrews, which is all about Christ’s priesthood. Yes, Christ is priest because of the sacrifice, but today we remember that Jesus is the priest because he has entered the sanctuary. Remember that for the Jewish people, no one dared ever enter the sanctuary of the Temple except for the priest himself (and they were all men). Jesus, by contrast, has not only entered the sanctuary; he left the door wide open for us. The curtain has been torn, the veil has been lifted. Here’s what I mean by that.

The Letter to the Hebrews gives us these images of the priests in the Temple offering sacrifice day after day trying to get through that wall, going into the holy of holies, trying to open that curtain. But it is different with Jesus. The Letter to the Hebrews gives us another amazing image. It says that Jesus flesh is the veil but it isn’t impenetrable: his whole being, body and soul, became a door, an opening, a bridge. And, remember, nothing got left behind: Jesus’ physical body at the resurrection, so the story tells us, didn’t even get left behind. It was changed into the glorified body, a strange thing that could walk through walls and yet still eat fish; a body that even his closest friends didn’t recognize. And now at the Ascension to the right hand of the Father in glory, even now that glorified body is still not left behind but is transformed again into a spiritual body that has been brought into perfect unity with the Absolute. The breach, the separation between the Creator and the created, between the Absolute and relative that so many traditions have lamented, has been bridged! That’s what this feast is all about. Right relationship has been restored between God and creation by our High Priest who has entered the sanctuary.

And it doesn’t end there. The patristic era taught that human nature itself has been glorified in this event. This is the idea I got from Jean Corbon, what he calls “the continual ascension.”[1] Meaning: the ascension is not simply one single static moment in history. The ascension is a dynamic event; the ascension of Jesus is the first movement of a progressive event. As St. Paul notes over and over again, Jesus is the head of a Body, and the fullness of that Body is in the church, the fullness of him who fills all. Where the head has gone, so will go the rest of the body. So that where I am, you also may be.[2] We are the Body of Christ and where the head has gone––Jesus, the priest––so the rest of the Body is going. Jesus has not only entered the sanctuary, he left the door wide open for us. As a matter of fact, he is the door. And not just he baptized: all of humanity, all of flesh, the rest of the Body is being pulled there, to the realm of the divine––sometimes kicking and screaming––by the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ who has bridged the breach and draws us with cords of love. And if you think I am making all this up in a kind of New Age hooey, this is exactly what the opening prayer from the Roman Missal says: “…the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation, and, where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.” The Ascension of Christ is our telos, our destiny, our end.

That Body, by the way, is not only us baptized Christians; nor is it just us human beings: this is the destiny of all creation, God will be all in all, all of creation (I never get tired of quoting this line from Paul’s letter to the Romans) which is groaning and agony whole we await this redemption of our bodies will be brought into right relationship with Spirit. A new heaven and a new earth. (Our Vespers hymn by Aelred Seton Shanley uses that image beautifully: “In Christ new heavens and new earth / are groaning to be given birth…”) Again, I think this is the Christian mystical vision at its most sublime––nothing gets left behind. Jesus’ has brought everything back into right relationship with the Divine––that’s his priesthood; and we, the rest of the Body, are still trying to work this out––that’s our priesthood.

We heard two different accounts of the ascension of Jesus this year, one from the Acts of the Apostles and the other from the Gospel of Luke itself, but they differ one from the other just a tiny bit, which is interesting because we assume that they’re both written by the same author. When Luke re-recounts this story in his second book, he adds two details: the cloud and the angels. And I think those two things are symbols of the two elements that are often lacking in our spirituality. I think we are for the most part stuck in a kind of middle realm, stuck in our souls, that is to say, stuck in our heads, thinking, thinking, thinking. We’re very notional, we creed-based folks. And, being stuck in our heads, we often lose contact with two things. First of all often lose our bodies and the beauty of material reality; and secondly we often do not stretch high enough or deep enough to find this place of holy darkness, the mystery that is the source and the summit. And yet that’s our priesthood, being firmly rooted in our creaturelieness and yet in communion with and a vessel of the Divine.

Well, in this reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke reminds us of both. The cloud into which Jesus disappears is the cloud of unknowing, the cloud around Mount Horeb, the darkness into which Moses entered where, the author of the book of Exodus and Gregory of Nyssa tell us, God was, God beyond all name and form. This is the source and the summit toward which our mystical tradition always points, the ground of being and consciousness from which we come and to which we return in our deepest prayer and will return at death. This is the cloud of the mystery of God to which Jesus has returned, now in his spiritual body. But besides the cloud of mystery and otherness, there is the angel calling the apostles––and by extension calling us––, saying, “Why are you looking in the sky?” pointing us back to the earth, pointing us back to our own flesh and matter, back to proclamation and service, back to the bread and wine. Experiencing the realm of mystery and otherness, union with the source and the summit, become the beginning of our new life. Union with God in the Spirit becomes the very reason we live, our energy for living, and the motivation for working and praying and loving.

So just as Jesus our great high priest stretched out his hands between heaven and earth, so we who share his priesthood by our baptism stretch out our hands between heaven and earth. We are now called to bring “people to God and God to people through Jesus.” This is our priesthood: we are the priests of all creation, working this out for our sisters and brothers, and for all creation that is groaning and agony due to our very poor stewardship and kinship. Especially through this feast of the Word and the Sacrament, let’s enter through the opening that Jesus is, with him and in him to the Holy of Holies, and let that be for us the beginning of our new life in Christ, proclaiming, serving, and consecrating all creation in his name.

[1] Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1988), 35.

[2] Jn 14:3.

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