Thought for the week - 21 May 2023
I was wondering to myself whether to talk about Ascension Day in this letter, or to talk about the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, which falls today. The Church actually gives us the Ascension narrative from the Acts of the Apostles twice anyway, once on Thursday and once again, in a slightly different format, today. We might conjecture that this is because either most churches now keep Ascension on Sunday or that because most people only go to church on Sunday – either way, the repetition of the narrative leads me to think that something of great importance is being told to us by it – and indeed it is, the incarnation is reaching its apotheosis and the authors of the Acts of the Apostles are keen for us to know it.
What do I mean by ‘the incarnation is reaching its apotheosis’? An apotheosis is a word referring to the highest, or best moment of something, or a glorification of somebody or something. For me, the English vegetable season reaches its apotheosis with fresh broad beans, it’s the best point in the season and broad beans are, for me, the finest vegetable available. King James the First had an apotheosis of himself painted on the ceiling of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, but it is overblown and makes him look self-obsessed (which of course he was), but it’s a fine example of its kind.
The incarnation of course is the moment when God became Man, and we celebrate it at Christmas. Personally, I think Christmas is fine, but we do not worship God as a baby and we do not find our true homeland in a manger, but we worship Him as the risen and ascended Lord, and we find our true homeland in heaven, even though we are also called to make this earth on which we walk into His Kingdom as well. Thus, the incarnation reaches its apotheosis not in Bethlehem, not in Nazareth, not on the cross, no even at the resurrection, but when Christ ascends back to the Father and then at the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – two events which are part of the same action if you like – an ascension that makes it possible for the Paraclete to descend, a counterbalance of the Trinitarian Godhead which stops us feeling abandoned.
The apotheosis comes because what ascends to the Father is not just the Son – no – what ascends is the Son bearing the knowledge of the human condition. At the incarnation, God became man, but as a baby. At the Ascension, God ascended as a man who knows how it is to feel pain, to be abandoned, to laugh, to rejoice, to cry. Thus it is that the heart of the Father knows how His creation feels, how we laugh and how we cry, because that knowledge ascended to Him, to dwell with Him forever. So it is that we are part of God, and so it is that He knows us, through the experience of His own Son. This is why the Ascension is the apotheosis of the Incarnation – but let us watch out, let us be alert, because the angels did not stand there watching the Disciples gazing up into the heavens in wonder, no, they told them off and said ‘get back to the City and get on with the work’. We too, nearly at the end of this joyful season of Easter, find that there is much work to be done.