In this post we consider the theme of ‘ascent’ in Christian spirituality. In a future post we’ll look at the theme of ‘pilgrimage’. Both are biblical themes, but we can think about them in unhelpful ways.
Our culture is full of the language of ascent. We talk about ‘the ascent of man’, often as a synonym for evolution. Humanity has ascended above the animals and the sign of our ascent is our superior intellectual development. Or the ascent of man is a synonym for civilization. Our ascent is our move from primitive cultures to ‘high’ culture.
The image of ascending to God is an important feature of Medieval theology. This drew on Greek philosophical traditions of the ascent of the rational soul to join the logos, the rational principles that pervades the universe. It also involved transcending or even escaping the physical world.
Guigo II proposed a fourfold method for reading the Bible in which a monk passed from reading to meditation to prayer to contemplation. The title of the work was The Ladder of Monks. Clearly these represent progressive stages through which you ascend to higher spiritual levels. The sixteenth century Spanish writer St John of the Cross wrote the influential The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Again the mountain is symbolic of gaining insight and mastering techniques. The spiritual life is about progress towards the presence of God.
John Calvin, too, makes much of the language of ascent but in a radically different way.
Christ ascends physically
First, the ascension is physical. Ascension is not an escape from the body. Christ’s ascension was not his transition into a different mode of existence so that he has become some ethereal spirit. Rather, it was a physical departure into heaven:
It has been demonstrated by strong and clear passages of Scripture, first, that [Christ’s resurrection body] is bounded by the dimensions of the human body; and, secondly, that its ascension into heaven made it plain that it is not in all places, but on passing to a new one, leaves the one formerly occupied. (John Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.30)
In the first generation of Star Trek higher beings are those who have evolved to a point where they have left their bodies behind and become pure mind or pure love. They speak to Captain Kirk from the ether or communicate thought-to-thought through telepathy. This is how many people think about the ascent of Jesus. Jesus is somehow thought to be spiritually everywhere in a disembodied sense. Perhaps he has become one of Star Trek’s higher beings – pure mind or pure love, unconstrained in space by a body. We remake the ascension of Jesus in the image of our notions of human ascent instead of understanding human ascent in the image of Christ’s ascension. But the Bible refuses to leave the body behind in the ascent of Christ.
We ascend with Christ
For us ascent is not an achievement. It is not something that happens as a result of spiritual exercises or techniques. It is something we already experience through union with Christ by faith. Christ has ascended and we ascend with him: ‘And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.’ (Ephesians 2:6) ‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.’ (Colossians 3:2-4)
Christ is present by the Spirit
The role of the Spirit is key to putting this all together. Jesus is present with us by the Spirit. If you ignore the role of the Spirit then Jesus can only be with us as the expense of his embodiment. If you ignore the role of the Spirit then Jesus can only be with us. He cannot also be absent. But the absence of Jesus is the sign that this world is not yet what it will be. The rule of Jesus would be the rule we see on earth now – and that would be a big disappointment for anyone who has read the Bible’s promises of God’s new world! It is the Spirit who means it makes sense to talk about both the absence and presence of Jesus.