The Ascension: Victory in the Flesh

File:The Bible panorama, or The Holy Scriptures in picture and story (1891) (14804899633).jpgThis past Sunday—or last Thursday, the fortieth day after Easter, if your diocese can handle mid-week days of obligation—was the Ascension.  “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?  This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

This year of Mark, we get one of the weirdest of all New Testament readings.  The end says, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.”  But first comes Mark’s version of the great commission, with some weird promises: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.”  So far so good.

But then: “These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages.  They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.  They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

Picking up serpents?


File:Вознесение Господне 16 в.jpgThe Ascension completes the Resurrection.  In the Resurrection Christ conquers death—but the deeper point, and the reason for all those appearances where he eats fish and lets people poke his hands—is that he redeems the flesh.  Life in the fallen world is deadly.  But death is not the end, or the goal.

Pagans (and too many Christians) believe that death is a release from the sufferings of this world.  But we look forward to the resurrection of the dead.  We don’t want to be rid of our bodies.  We don’t want to die—though for now, we have to pass through death as part of how Christ conquers our sin.

Mark’s strange lines about picking up serpents and drinking poison point to Christ’s victory over death.  He has taken our flesh into heaven in his body, so that our flesh can ascend to heaven in our bodies, too.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead.


Mark’s promises are in part missionary.  The Apostles are given miraculous powers as a way to manifest the power of Christ and win believers.  The traditional teaching of the Church is that more such miracles were given in the early Church—because they did not yet have the miracle of the sanctity of the saints, and the conversion of the poor.  We have different, more essential signs now, the miracle of the Church itself.  But in that early age, Christ showed his power through many physical miracles.

File:Giotto - Scrovegni - -38- - Ascension.jpgThe line from Acts, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” shows us this missionary dynamic.  On one level, it highlights the weakness of the Apostles.  Men from the boondocks, from the backwaters of a backwater country, looking at the sky, is an image of the human weakness of the Church, through which, as through our physical weakness, Christ manifests his strength.

But Galilee is not only a backwater, it is also a crossroads, “Galilee of the Gentiles,” where Jews lived among pagans.  And so those small-town fishermen also point toward Pentecost, which is a miracle not just of general miraculous strength, but of the specific miracle of tongues: the Gospel preached in every language, to every tribe and people and nation.  Only the power of Christ can conquer Babel and forge unity in this divided world.  These Galileans are the first sign that the Gospel will spread from Jerusalem to all nations.

Our Epistle, from Ephesians, makes a parallel point: “to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  And so “he gave some as apostles, others as prophets,” etc.: many tasks at the service of the one mission of the Church.


File:The Ascension of Our Lord.jpgThe Ascension is partly about mission.  When Christ goes to heaven, he becomes no longer a member of one nation, in one time and place, but the one Lord of all history.  And so the Ascension brings with it these missionary miracles of snake handling and poison drinking.

But more than that, it is about the victory of Christ, source and goal of that mission.  No more is human flesh a place of distance from God.  Christ takes our flesh to heaven in victory, so that he may triumph in our bodies, too.  Those strange bodily miracles of the early Church serve for mission because, above and beyond mission, they testify to the redemption of the body, Christ’s victory even in our flesh.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead.

In what ways are you tempted to deny that your own flesh can be transfigured by union with God in Christ?

Sixth Sunday in Easter: Dearness

This Sunday’s readings, obviously, were about love.  Our Epistle, from 1 John, said, “Let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.  Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.”  Our Gospel, the passage from John 15 right after last week’s reading, the vine and the branches, has Jesus saying, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you.  Remain in my love. . . . Remain in his love. . . . This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.”  Lovely.

But what kind of love?

Of course you know the Greek here is agape.  It’s not the standard Greek word for love; it’s distinct from eros, desire, and philia, friendship.  Sometimes it gets translated “Christian love,” because it is a word almost made up for Christians.  But what kind of love?  Benedict XVI spent his whole first encyclical trying to tell us.


Sometimes we misunderstand (BXVI points out) and call it “service love.”  It sounds like there are two totally different things, mistakenly covered up by a common word.  When normal people say love—from “I love pizza” to “I love him” and even “I love you”—they mean something about liking the person, desiring to be around them, finding them pleasant.  But Christians, we might be tempted to think, are above all that.  We aren’t sullied with mere desire.  Our love is without desire, purely self-giving.  Right?

Well, there’s something true in that framework—an important pushback against the million silly homilies we’ve heard that begin, “Our Bible readings today talk about love,” then never return to the Bible, and give us a lot of sentimental mush.  It’s important for us to say, “no, they’re not about ‘love,’ they’re about agape”; to pretend that Jesus just tells us to go on being perfectly normal is to throw away the Gospel—so perfectly symbolized by the utter lack of interest in what Jesus actually says about this ‘love.’


St. Augustine and St. Jerome, studying Scripture

But it would be wrong to throw out actually liking people.  My insane semester is almost over; for now I could only do a short Old Testament Scripture study.  Agape is a word in the old (Jewish) Greek translation of the Old Testament, maybe made up for that context.  (Much of the time, at least) it translates the Hebrew word achab, which is a word for affection.  It describes how Abraham feels about Isaac, and also Sarah, and how Jacob loved Rachel, and how God loves his people.  This is not about extinguishing affection.

In the great wisdom of the ancient Latin translation of the Bible, there’s a (I think) made-up word, caritasCarus means “dear,” or “precious” (there are cognates in Spanish, French has things like cher), so caritas, the Latin translation of agape, the special word for Christian love, means literally, “dearness.”  This isn’t about extinguishing affection—it is about having much more affection.


“As the Father loves (agape’s) me, so I also love you.  Remain in my love.”  “Remain” (or “abide,” or “dwell”) is one of John’s favorite words.  When he says “in my Father’s house, there are many rooms,” it’s really “places to dwell,” because we are supposed to dwell in this love, to feel the depth of our dearness to God, and to hold that dearness dear.

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . . I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”   Agape doesn’t extinguish desire or friendship, it takes them deeper.  It means seeing as God sees—and so seeing the dearness of things, and especially people, as our Creator and Redeemer sees them.

We are called to “lay down our life,” yes—for our friends.  It’s not because, like Stoics, we set affection aside.  It’s because we burn with such love that we are willing to die on the cross: he held them so dear, he loved them till the end.

That’s why we have to be “begotten by God”: until he pours his love into our hearts (by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us, Rom 5:5), we just don’t hold things as dear as he does.


Our reading from Acts is not obviously connected.  Peter is finding “that God shows no partiality.  Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”

The bigger story is, God spelled out a thousand details of right conduct for the Jews, tailored to all the details of their historic time and place.  In Christ, he transcends the particularity of that nation.  But he transcends it by giving us the deeper law, the law of agape.  It’s like moving from being told, “at 7:15 each morning, you should offer to make your wife breakfast”—to holding her so dear that we don’t need to be told all the details, we attend to those and even more, not because we are told to, but because we love.

Dearness takes us beyond the law, because dearness is the point of the law.

Whom in your life should you hold more dear?  How can you practice dwelling in God’s love for that person?