Ascending Downward: When the Manger Becomes the Cosmos
Take a look at these four sentences:
He’s moving up in the company.
She’s coming down with the flu.
Things are sure looking up for them.
I’ve been feeling kind of down lately.
Down is bad, up is good. These aren’t willy-nilly choices. Our bodies lead our linguistics. We associate “down” with sickness, collapsing in exhaustion, and dying, while “up” is iconic of vivacity, standing strong, health. Our positive and negative experiences are mapped onto the metaphorical language we use.
Even heaven is “up there” and hell is “down there,” right?
We all get this. But helpful as it may be, it really screws with our heads when it comes to something very important: the ascension, the “going up” of Jesus.
Some theological explanations of the ascension resemble a man climbing a tree to search for gold. Of course, the fellow’s gone in the completely wrong direction. He’ll never find gold “up there.” He’ll only find it “down here.” By mining, by digging, by channeling into the earth, he’ll discover gold.
So it is with the gold of the ascension. It’s not about what’s happening up there in heaven but down here on earth. Christ’s sitting at the right hand of the Father, his enthronement as King of Kings, is his climactic, regal descent.
Today the church celebrates the Downward Ascension of her Lord.
You see, dual things are happening simultaneously at the ascension. On the one hand, yes, Jesus does go up. While his disciples crane their necks to the skies, Jesus rises like a hot air balloon and slips inside a cloud (Acts 1:9-11). On the other hand, he goes up precisely in order to do what? To come down, to permeate all creation with his presence, to rule over all things in such a way that no place is outside him.
This was illustrated graphically by an Australian Aboriginal artist named Shirley Purdue in her painting of the ascension (“Ngambuny Ascends”). Rather than going up, up, and away from us into some hidden sphere in the skies, Jesus comes down into the land, into the red earth of Australia. Discussing this artwork, Ben Myers points out in The Apostles’ Creed that Jesus is “not fleeing our world but entering into its depths in order to exercise his loving authority over (and within) the whole creation.”
Christ ascends into heaven in order to descend fully into this world, into the lives of his people. The ascension is the dénouement of the incarnation. Jesus has entered his glory “in such a way that he knows everything, is able to do everything, is present for all his creatures, and has under his feet and in his hands all that is in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, not only as God but also as human creature” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, VIII.11). In other words, because of the ascension, the manger has become the cosmos.
He has “entered his glory” (Luke 24:26) to glorify us by our incorporation into his body through the earthly element of baptismal water. The water down here.
Precisely because he is seated at the right hand of the Father, he is seated at the right hand of the father who holds the tiny hand of his baby girl in the NICU.
Because all things are under his feet, Christ is there with us when all the nastiness and ugliness of life tramples us under its own feet.
And best of all, because in his body he ascended to the highest throne in heaven, he puts that body into us as we gather down here around his altar-throne. Whether it’s a makeshift table in the middle of a bombed-out battlefield or a bejeweled altar ensconced within a cathedral, that place is where heaven is down here and earth is up there. Jesus ascends downward to lift us upward by putting his body into our body, his blood into our blood.
So closely joined are we to Jesus that Paul has the audacity to write that the Father has “raised us up with [Christ], and seated us with him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Not in some distant epoch of the future but now. Not some time later when we stroll on golden streets, but even now on earth we are seated with Jesus in the heavenly places. That’s because to be “in Christ” is not to land on his skin like a fly, but to be incorporated into his body. Even as he is God made man, the Creator now also fully human, so we humans are made sons and daughters of God, members of the body of Christ.
It doesn’t matter how far down we go in this life, we cannot go so far down, that Jesus is not there to meet us face-to-face. Every time our shattered hearts say, “Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord,” from deeper within those depths comes the voice of our Savior, “Out of the depths have I loved you and prayed for you, my precious child.”
The ascension is the ultimate descension of God. Down into our world, down into the ocean of our tears, down into the sewers of our shame, down into the rubble of our broken dreams, the Lord of life descends to save us, to bring us home, to heal us with his merciful touch.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t fathom more uplifting good news than our down-coming God of grace.