Thursday, May 25, 2006

Salvation and the Ascension

In celebration of the feast of the day, a short essay on salvation, life in the body, and the ascension.

If it is in Jesus that we see the fullness of salvation, what does the body of Jesus tell us about what needs to be healed? I would like to explore this question through our four narrative elements of the life of Jesus in succession, that of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. We will pay specific attention to the consequences of the life of Jesus on how we understand our own bodily existence, and how this impacts an understanding of the salvation of the world in its universal sense, that is, the salvation of the whole material cosmos.

In the incarnation we have the embodied entrance of God into the world. Jesus, according to the Chalcedonian formula, is fully God, and fully human. That is, in the incarnation we do not have some portion of God, but all of what is God is present in the world in Jesus. Concurrently we have the fullness of humanity being assumed by God. And by assuming humanity ‘as-is,’ assuming the material of a fallen humanity and a fallen cosmos, Jesus also takes on the consequences of material existence; Jesus, by the fullness of material participation in the world as it is, will die.

And Jesus does die. In the crucifixion we see the end of all flesh as it is known now, its end in suffering and death. In the crucifixion we have the identification of God, as Jesus, with the depths of human suffering as embodied persons. Jesus bears this suffering as he bears the cross towards Golgotha. And when he is nailed and raised on the cross, Jesus cannot descend from the cross on his own, despite the taunts of onlookers. Jesus is totally disabled in the nailing of his hands and feet, perhaps the ultimate expression of sickness. These are the consequences of life in the body; each of us are eventually unable, each of us, as Jesus does, dies.

But Jesus is resurrected, and this is the hinge of salvation. In the resurrected Jesus we see what bodily salvation is, and we see what is lacking in human being experienced as material and embodied persons. Jesus has become a person in a way that we evidently are not. In the resurrection we have a transformed body, where the body remains material but a finer material, one able to pass through locked doors, yet material enough to eat fish. The resurrection inaugurates and shows us the future of material life, where material existence is not shed in favor of a spiritual one, but our material existence and the material existence of the cosmos is one unmarked by corruption and death. Only the emblems of suffering remain, in Jesus’ nail-marks in his hands and feet.

And it is this transformed body, redeemed humanity and the redeemed cosmos, that penetrates the Godhead in the ascension. This is why the greatest of atonement symbols is the ascension: not only is all of humanity entering into the fullness of divine life, but the whole world is also made at one with God. Fullness of relationship among humankind finds fulfillment in Jesus, fullness of relationship with our world is found in Jesus, and all this ascends into fullness of relationship with God in the participation of all this in the divine life of the Holy Trinity.

Following this, we can say that a major part of the human predicament is life in the body. Life in our bodies are characterized by sickness and disease. These are symptoms of the universal experience of death: sickness and disease are part of what it is to be in the process of dying. Sin lies as the anterior link on this causal chain; not the sins that we participate in or perpetuate as moral agents, but the sin that is expressed in a fallen cosmos, a sin that is not necessarily connected to the human guilt of each individual, but is nevertheless a definite experience of the not-quite-rightness of our lives. As embodied and material persons we unwittingly wear this coarse material, and suffer from our own personal dying-ness as a result.

But salvation entails a different kind of life, eternal life. Salvation is not only a deliverance from disease and death, but is also bodily participation in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Our inability to transcend sickness and death by our own power has meant that God has had to take on sickness and death in his own person, transform the body and all material existence, in order that humanity and the world may be re-introduced to Godself. We are not abandoned here, without salvation, Jesus the only one participating in the life of the Trinity. In Christ, following the ascension, we are already participating in the life of the Trinity by the ubiquitous nature of Jesus's participation in the material, and Jesus's material participation in the life of the Holy Trinity.