What's Up with Ascension?
Advent, as you note in your defining of the term, comes from the Latin “to arrive”. We as Christians anticipate the second arrival, or as we commonly say, second “coming”, of Christ while celebrating Christ’s first arrival. In Christ’s first arrival, God offered Her only Son to die for the sake of all who believe (Jn. 3). Jesus rose from the dead in three days, and after remaining on earth for some time, ascended into heaven and is now placed in God’s seat of highest honor before Her throne (or as the creeds put it, God’s “right hand”). Jesus, who is most truly Lord and Son of God, left the earth to come to the point that it is now, in which people die of various diseases and various sufferings, and knew when He left this world that such things would happen (God is omnipotent, and so also Her Son must be). Why would God’s Son leave this world to return again later knowing that such terrible things would take place? What did God have to gain by having Her Son come twice rather than once?
Short version: I have no idea.
Well, I have ideas, but nothing I’m willing to put out there as the incontestable, incontrovertible truth.
So I’ll humbly put out there a few of those ideas, consoled by the fact that it is great fun wondering about the question, and by the fact that nobody really knows why anything is as it is, so I’m in good company.
The Christian claim that Jesus came, and then left, is characterized by some as tantamount to him saying, “Now, hold that thought!” while, as you point out, suffering goes on unabated.
What’s up with that?
It’s actually a great Advent season question, because it has to do with waiting.
I am increasingly interested in the difference between ‘waiting’ and ‘anticipating.’
If we wait, we are passive. As I write this, I am waiting for my car to be repaired (sunroof is stuck in the up position, which is an unfortunate matter when my thermometer is registering 8 degrees!).
But there is nothing that I can do to help that car be fixed. I can only bide my time, doing activities that are unrelated to the reason I’m waiting.
Anticipating, however, involves action. When we anticipate something, we involve ourself in the act of waiting.
My daughter was on the phone with my sister last night. Both are named Else, by the way. So Auntie Else asked Elsegirl, “Are you getting ready for Christmas?” “Nope,” said my daughter, “but we sure are getting ready for Advent!”
During Advent, and during this period of waiting for God to come again (for what purpose? you have asked), we wait.
But perhaps it is better said that we anticipate, which means (etymologically speaking) “to take before”. We are, as Else says, getting ready. Anticipating is like participated waiting.
Christians can learn a lot about waiting from the Jews.
Taped up on my wall at OMG I have a page from the German newspaper Die Zeit, a piece written by the Jewish theologian Elie Wiesel. (For those who can read German, the link to this same article is here) In it, he mulls this business of waiting, of anticipating the arrival of the Messiah. And he writes this:
“Zurzeit träume ich nicht mehr vom Messias. Er besucht meine Träume nicht mehr. Er kam nicht, als er erwartet wurde. Also hat er Verspätung. Macht nichts, der Jude in mir wartet weiter auf ihn.”
“These days, I don’t dream any more about the Messiah. He doesn’t visit my dreams any more. He didn’t come when he was expected. So he’s late. Doesn’t matter. The Jew in me will just continue to wait.”
Now, Wiesel is not speaking here about waiting in keeping with the sort of waiting implied in the joke, “Quick! Jesus is coming! Look busy!” Wiesel is speaking about waiting that anticipates the one for whom we are waiting. It is the very Jewish notion that we hear in John the Baptist’s cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
So some theories are that Jesus did not disappear to some place far away, but rather appears to us now as the breath that moves in us to make the reign of God present. Some theologians, notably those who teach something called Process Theology, believe that God works in every moment to inject love and compassion into a situation, and that there you see resurrection, there you see God in the fullness of the moment, seeking always to lure us toward the right and the good.
Others, who agree that Jesus did not ascend to some place, think that he ascended to the future. The resurrection was a “downpayment,” so to speak, a promise-in-action that death does not have the last word. It is a both/and notion. God is already here but not yet fully.
I felt this take on matters when I was two months pregnant with my son Karl during December of 2000. My life had already changed (I was taking new vitamins, not drinking great German beer any more, planning for his new and safe arrival), even though he wasn’t fully here yet.
It is not to be missed that the notion of God as mother resonates throughout Scripture. Note Isaiah 49:15:
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
Feminist scholar Elizabeth Johnson notes that Jesus also compares himself to a mother gathering her chicks (Mt. 23:37). Note what else she says down below in my “quotes” section. It is goosebumpy good.
And one effect of this notion is, to quote my mentor Walt Bouman, “Now we know that there is more to do with our lives than preserve them.”
That is, we are now called to be “little Christs,” as C.S. Lewis would say in Mere Christianity. (“The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.”)
At this point I am reminded of Lisa Ling, whom I once heard present here in Sioux Falls. She said that she was not a religious person, but married one. All of the horrors that she covers as a journalist led her to finally ask her husband, “Why doesn’t your God do anything about this suffering?” To which he replied, “God did. God made you.”
In other words, we who call ourselves Christians are called to be ambassadors of the reign of God, being in our selves and in the Church demonstrations, enactments, of life trumping death. Allow me to also point out yet again that it is critical that Christians figure out what we understand Jesus to be, for that informs (dictates, one could say) who we are as “followers of Jesus.”
The tradition of the theology of the cross suggests that God does not passively sit by, but suffers with us, calling new life out of dark death. It has often attended to the forgiveness of sins, but since WWII, it has asked the question of what the cross says and does not only for those who are the sinners, but for those sinned upon.
Another approach suggests that this period of time is the “gathering time,” the time when Christians are called to proclaim God’s word to all the world. Even within this idea, there are (at least) two divergent notions: one says that we need to evangelize so that as many people can be “saved” as possible before Jesus comes again; others say that the point is to proclaim the risen Jesus because in him we see God’s agenda to heal and gather all the world.
Regardless of the ideas of what we’re to be doing in the meantime, your last question still hangs over the entire blog entry so far:
Why would God’s Son leave this world to return again later knowing that such terrible things would take place? What did God have to gain by having Her Son come twice rather than once?
How can there be such suffering in a world created by one whom we proclaim to be good?
There is an idea that although one can make the case that God is good, it might be more accurate to say (merely?) that God is God.
God is wild.
God is a mystery.
Even if you take God out of the equation, existence is a mystery. It doesn’t make sense.
But for those of us who put some faith in something we call God, it behooves us to figure out what we mean by it, more or less, and what difference it makes.
I’ve begun dancing with a thought, a thought born out of an awareness that it is very easy to judge someone’s actions, or inactions, from a distance–and not particularly creative, either.
However, once stories are told from the inside, once differing and personal perspectives are heard, sometimes what appeared to be a cut-and-dry matter suddenly becomes, well, not that.
And one is compelled toward compassion, toward humility, and toward an appreciation of messiness and complexity, a recognition that life is anything but simple.
I look at the suffering you name, and am fully aware of suffering in my life and of the lives in my sphere, and I wonder too with indignation and with perplexity and with curiosity, “What is up?”
And then I wonder whether I need to apply the same sort of humility and compassion toward God that I strive to apply toward others whose actions cause me indignation and perplexity and curiosity. Maybe something is up.
I do not know why the Messiah has not come/come again.
Some might see this concession as a cop-out.
I don’t feel particularly cop-outy when I point out my son’s brain injury and remind God loudly of God’s promises.
Nor do I find myself particularly relieved of my pain and indignation when I imagine that there is no God and this is all happenstance.
At the very least, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we’ve got a story of a God who gives God’s creation freedom–for if we did not have that, then this entire enterprise of life would be a game, a puppet show, an illusory matrix.
And, it seems to me, that is what love relationships are: wild, a mystery.
(Lest we forget, the Latin origin of the word passion means ‘to suffer.’)
The minute that there is the exertion of coercion, we have no longer a love relationship but a controlling relationship.
So there is freedom, and there is consequent suffering.
And the general trajectory of this same story is that God does not desire pain and suffering, but rather wholeness, healing, justice, mercy, and redemption….and God is passionate about that agenda.
So we’re talking about faith in this agenda, and therefore also in this persistent belief that God desires something different than what you so poignantly describe as this apparently persistent reality.
After all, in the very text you cite, namely John 3, verse 17 (which I have never yet seen held up on a placard at a ballgame) says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Below, then, a smattering of thoughts (more to come: I left a few on the floor at my study) on the matter to round out this entry, and to demonstrate some varying voices weighing in on the matter that I stumbled on as I read up on things.
Thanks ever so much for your question.
Jürgen Moltmann in The Coming of God:
…with the raising of the crucified Christ from the dead, the future of the new creation of al things has already begun in the midst of this dying and transitory world… (136)
The eschatological message of the New Testament–‘The End of all things is at hand’ (1 Peter 4.7)–is geared towards resistance, and against resignation. (137)
Elizabeth Johnson in Quest for the Living God:
…seeking the female face of God has profound significance. By relativizing masculine imagery it lassoes the idol off its pedestal, breaking the stranglehold of patriarchal discourse and its deleterious effects. God is not literally a father or a king or a lord but something ever so much greater. Thus is the truth more greatly honored. This is not to say that male metaphors cannot be used to signify the divine. Men, too, are created, redeemed, and sanctified by the gracious love of God, and images taken from their lives can function in as adequate or inadequate a way as do images taken from the lives of women. But naming toward God with female metaphors releases diving mystery from its age-old patriarchal cage so that God can be truly God–incomprehensible source, sustaining power, and goal of the world, holy Wisdom, indwelling Spirit, the ground of being, the beyond in our midst, the absolute future, being itself, mother, matrix, lover, friend, infinite love, the holy mystery that surrounds and supports the world. (99)
[Referring to the multitude of maternal images for God in Scripture] Strongly associated with all these maternal images is divine compassion. Biblical scholars point out that the Hebrew noun for compassion or merciful love comes from the root word for women’s uterus, rehem, which is also the root for the verb “to show mercy” and the adjective “merciful.” Here the life-giving physical organ of the female body serves as a concrete metaphor for a distinctly divine way of being, feeling, and acting. When scripture calls on God for mercy, a frequent theme, it is actually asking the Holy One to treat us with the kind of love a mother has for the child of her womb. “To the responsive imagination,” writes Phyllis Trible, this semantic connection “suggests the meaning of love as selfless participation in life. The womb protects and nourishes but does not possess and control. It yields its treasure in order that wholeness and well-being may happen Truly, it is the way of compassion.”
Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality:
What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love int he world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion–the fellow-sufferer who understands. (532)
Kathryn Tanner in Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity:
Since there may come a time when the world no longer exists, this placement in God cannot e equated with God’s repsence or placement within the world. A kind of indwelling of God in us is, however, a consequence of life in God, just as incarnation has as its consequence a human life lived by the power ofGod. In imitation of Christ, we live in God and therfore the life we lead has a kind of composite character to match our new composite personhood: God’s attributes become in some sense our own; they are to shine through our lives in acts that exceed human powers and in that way become established as part of a reborn sense of self. (111)
Douglas John Hall in Professing the Faith:
The theology of the cross is about the courage to enter the darkness so that the light may be seen. (128)
Douglas John Hall in Confessing the Faith:
The “good news” (gospel) is formed over against and in response to the “bad news” of the historical moment. (11)
To wait for God is hard. It is comparable to the posture of the beggar, who possesses nothing, is dependent, and is constantly made conscious of his inadequacy. The Christian preacher who waits for God feels bereft in the presence of those who look to him for religious answers to all their questions; his expertise appears bogus; he does not command the respect accorded to those who possess authority in their fields. Yet, who other than superficial persons can give credence to those who speak and act as if they already possessed….God? (271)
The Bible is well acquainted with Shakespeare’s thought that history may be “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Think only of Sarah’s laughter when she heard “those men” under the tree talking about her forthcoming pregnancy (Gen. 18). When Israel affirms that hope is a legitimate historical category, applicable to time, applicable to individual life as well as the life of the creation as a whole, it does not do so naively but in the full knowledge that this can never be done easily. It is a matter of trust in God, not in processes naturally favorable to human welfare. (485)
Emil Fackenheim, Canada’s foremost Jewish theologian and philosopher, now living in Israel, has written that after Auschwitz, hope is for the Jew not an option but a “commandment.” But hope is authentic only when the Jew remembers–that is to say, remembers not only the ancient “root experience” of the exodus but also the modern one, the Holocaust. If the data of despair is neglected, then hop–or what will be called hope–will revert to shallow hopefulness, a conditioned reflex of the well off. (488)
Luke Timothy Johnson in The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters:
The…New Testament’s witness insists that jesus did not return from the dead to continue his former life. That would be good news only for him and his friends and family. It would not be a new creation. It would not be good news for all humanity for all ages.
The resurrection is, the whole of the New Testament witness insists, Jesus’ entry into the life and power of God. To express that truth, the New Testament uses the language not only of resurrection, but they symbol also of Jesus’ ascension and enthronement at God’s right hand. (185-86)
Jesus’ ascent is the premise for the sharing of the gifts (of the Spirit) with others (Eph. 4:11-16). The ascension of Christ is not a distancing from us but the condition for a new form of intimacy with us. (189)
James Wm. McClendon, Jr. in Systematic Theology: Doctrine:
According to Revelation 5:9f, the sacrificial work of the earthly Jesus has already formed this “royal” people; we exist; the new politics has begun. As [John Howard] Yoder puts it, “On the average and in the long run, truthtelling and the love of enemy are the effective ways to create and defend culture,” that is, to give viable shape to the world, even in the present age. Relief work goes farther than war to enable a people to survive; the Red Cross outlasts the Nazi swastika cross. (99)
Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki in God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology:
The great reversal themes in the teaching and life of Jesus call for a radical openness to God’s rule. Our structures, no matter how inclusive their original intent, tend to harden toward their own preservation and perpetuation, rather than to be continuously open to the needs of inclusive well-being. The structures are to be in the service of love and justice. Openness to God’s future calls upon us indeed to create structures, but always to submit those structures to the critique of the demands of God’s radical love. Faithfulness to the past, when that past is the revelation of God in jesus Christ, calls upon us for a radical openness to new and unexpected forms of inclusive well-being, God’s reign.
Apostolicity, therefore, is a continuity with the past that nevertheless has an essential openness to it. In every generation and in every Christian there must be a faithfulness to the content of the gospel: our words must point to the Word who is a person, living, crucified, risen. Therefore, our words must also take the form of ever new interpretations of ways in which we can enact love and justice. Word and deed together constitute the church’s faithfulness to its apostolic tradition. Constancy and openness form the dynamism whereby the apostolic church witnesses to the world. (141)
Wow! Thanks for such an elaborate and thoughtful response :). I was one of the students at Trinity Seminary you talked to on camera the other day (thx for talking to us). I am working on becoming a Biblical Theologian Professor (1st Year MTS). Take care and have a merry Christmas.
You’re welcome. And I pray that one day God give you a student just like you.
Kevin, one more thing in response to your question:
You wrote, “Jesus, who is most truly Lord and Son of God, left the earth to come to the point that it is now, in which people die of various diseases and various sufferings, and knew when He left this world that such things would happen (God is omnipotent, and so also Her Son must be).”
That sentence is itself worth a blog response, but let me put a few thoughts in your hopper.
1. On what basis are you asserting that Jesus “knew when He left this world that such things would happen?”
2. I am wondering if you meant to write “omniscient” rather than “omnipotent” right after that by way of explanation.
But in either case, many theologians question these “omni” assertions,” even dismissing them as leftovers of a believe in Zeus! If you believe that God is omni-anything, it might behoove you (as a seminary student, which is why I’m taking the liberty to press this one a bit!) to figure out why you believe without question that God is omniscient or omnipotent.
Take a look at the theological notion of kenosis, seen awfully poignantly in Phil. 2:7. Here, power is redefined as the ceding of it, the “pouring out” of it. Suddenly, omnipotence takes on a different hue.
You had so many good things in this question that I am sure that a few more “and another things!” will surface in the days to come!