Now of course we cannot say that the eternal Logos became flesh in such a way that part of the Logos was excluded—that is what the early Lutherans were afraid of, for the Logos was totally incarnate—nevertheless he remained wholly himself, the Creator and Ruler and Preserver of the universe of all creaturely reality. He became man without ceasing to be God, and so entered space and time without leaving the throne of God. Our difficulty is that we have to think both in accordance with the nature of the Logos as eternal Son of God and in accordance with the nature of the human Jesus as creature of space and time. It will not do to think of this in terms of a receptacle view of space and time, nor will it do to cut the knot and think of him only in one way or the other. Hence if we are to be faithful to the nature of Christ as very God and very Man we have to let that determine our thinking of the incarnational event, and say both that he really and fully became man, as we men are in space and time, and yet remained God the Creator who transcends all creaturely being in space and time, and work with a relational view of space and time differentially or variationally related to God and to man. Unless we think in this way we cannot really think the incarnation itself without falsifying it. That was the problem of the kenoticists which the demythologizers sought to solve by resolving away the incarnation as an objectifying form of thinking, but at the expense of detaching faith entirely from space and time, from any ground in physical and historical existence.
The question may be easier if we approach it along the line of ‘existence’. When we say that God exists, we mean that God exists as God, in accordance with the nature of God. Hence divine existence is of an utterly unique and transcendent kind. When we say that man exists, the term ‘exists’ is defined by the subject man, for it is the kind of existence which a man has in space and time. Now when we try to think together the existence of the Son of God and the existence of Jesus, Son of Mary, in one Person, we have to think them in the same way in which we think of the union of divine and human natures in the one Person. Similarly we have to think together the relation of God to space and time and the relation of the man Jesus to space and time.
It is this question that arises again in an acute form when we come to the ascension of Christ, of Jesus who is very Son of God, and who ascends from man’s place to God’s ‘place’. In so far as he is man, truly and perfectly man, we must think of the ascension as related to the space and time of creaturely reality. But this involves a duality in itself. So far as the companions of Jesus were concerned, that is the disciples who were men of this fallen world, living historically on earth, the ascension of Jesus from Peter, James and John, etc., must also be related to the kind of space and time with which we men and women are involved in the on-going existence of this passing world. But in his own resurrection Jesus had healed and redeemed our creaturely existence from all corruption and privation of being, and every threat of death or nothingness, so that in him space and time were recreated or renewed. We have no adequate language to describe this, and can speak of it only in apocalyptic language, that is in language that breaks down in its very using, but which must break down if it really is to point us to this new reality beyond, which cannot be captured or enclosed in the language of this fallen world. Nevertheless the humanity of Jesus, although risen and triumphant over all decay and corruption, was fully and truly human, and indeed more fully and truly human than any other humanity we know, for it was humanity in which all that attacks and undermines creaturely and human being is vanquished. In the risen Jesus therefore, creaturely space and time, far from being dissolved are confirmed in their reality before God. On the one hand, then, the ascension must be thought out in relation to the actual relations of space and time. On the other hand, however, the ascension must be thought of as an ascension beyond all our notions of space and time (cf. ‘higher than the heavens’, Heb. 7: 26), and therefore as something that cannot ultimately be expressed in categories of space and time, or at least cannot be enclosed within categories of this kind. That is why Calvin used to insist that while the ascension was an ascension into the heavens, away from us, yet it was also an ascension beyond the heaven of heavens, beyond anything that can be conceived in terms of earth or heaven. We have heavens that are appropriate to human beings, the sky above the earth, the ‘space’ beyond the sky, but all these are understood anthropocentrically, for they are conceivable to men as created realities. But God in his own nature cannot be conceived in that way—God utterly transcends the boundaries of space and time, and therefore because he is beyond them he is also everywhere, for the limits of space and time which God transcends are all around us. Hence from this aspect the absence or presence of God cannot be spoken of in categories of space and time, but only when categories of space and time break off and point beyond themselves altogether to what is ineffable and inconceivable in modes of our space and time. Calvin was also right when he said that the Biblical writers never thought of the presence of God or of the ascension simply in terms of our space and time or in terms of earth and heaven. What does the ascension to the right hand of God mean? he asked. What else is the right hand of God but the power of God, and ‘where’ is that but everywhere ‘where’ God is? What do we mean by ‘everywhere where God is’, except what is defined by the nature of God himself as the existence of God is defined by this nature?
In order to express this more positively, let us turn back to the incarnation for a moment. Jesus Christ, the man Jesus, is the place in this physical world of space and time where God and man meet, and where they have communion with one another. The Temple in the Old Testament was the place where God put his Name, where he kept tryst with his covenanted people, and where they kept covenant with him. Jesus Christ is that Temple of God as a living reality on earth and among men where God has put his Name, and where he has appointed us to meet him. It is the place where heaven and earth meet, the place of reconciliation within our historical existence in flesh and blood. Jesus Christ is himself among us God’s mercy-seat, God’s place in the world where he is really present to us in our place.
Now we have to think of this Jesus Christ ascended to God as ‘in heaven’. In its way this is the reverse of the incarnation. As in the incarnation we have to think of God the Son becoming man without ceasing to be transcendent God, so in his ascension we have to think of Christ as ascending above all space and time without ceasing to be man or without any diminishment of his physical, historical existence. That is what we normally mean by saying that Christ is ‘in heaven’. But we surely mean something more, for the ascension of the incarnate, crucified and risen Jesus Christ inevitably transforms ‘heaven’: something quite new has been effected in the heavenlies which must alter its material content in our understanding of what heaven is. Whatever else ‘heaven’ is for us it is the ‘place’ where Christ is in God. Hence we can speak of Christ as having a ‘heavenly place’ in God far beyond anything we can understand and far beyond our reach. Nevertheless through his Spirit Jesus Christ bestows his presence upon us in the Church, so that the Church on earth, in the continuing space-time of this world, is the ‘place’ where God and man are appointed to meet. In the incarnation we have the meeting of man and God in man’s place, but in the ascension we have the meeting of man and God in God’s place, but through the Spirit these are not separated from one another (they were not spatially related in any case), and man’s place on earth and in the space-time of this world is not abrogated, even though he meets with God in God’s place. ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.
There are two points here we have to try to think together: (i) In the ascension Jesus Christ ascends from man’s place to God’s place; (ii) By his ascension Jesus Christ has established man in man’s place in time and space.
(i) Jesus Christ has ascended from man’s place to God’s place, and yet he is in himself the one place in our human and created reality, and therefore in the immanent order of time and space, where God and man fully meet.
We have great difficulty in speaking about this because of our abstract notions of space, but let us remember that as time is to be understood as time for something, the time in which we live our life, time for decision, time for repentance, time for action, and the ‘time’ of God is the time in which God lives his own life, the time which God has in himself for his own eternal will of love, so we must think of space as room for something, as place defined in terms of that which occupies it. This means that we must not abstract the notion of space from that which is located in space—for space concretely considered is place, but place not abstracted from purpose or content, and place not without ends or purposeful limits. Time and space must both be conceived in relational terms, and in accordance with the active principles or forces that move and make room for themselves in such a way that space and time arise in and with them and their movements—they are not receptacles apart from bodies or forces, but are functions of events in the universe and forms of their orderly sequence and structure. Space and time are relational and variational concepts defined in accordance with the nature of the force that gives them their field of determination. In modern thought we cannot separate space and time but think of space-time in a four dimensional continuum—although there is a difference between them, for, whereas space is three-dimensional, time is one directional or irreversible. But in the nature of the case we cannot separate space from time, or location from time—temporal relation belongs to location. This is another way of saying that we must think of place as well as time in terms of that for which they exist or function. This is why we must speak of man’s ‘place’ and God’s ‘place’, but in the nature of the case ‘place’ is differently defined in each case. Man’s ‘place’ is defined by the nature and activity of man as the room which he makes for himself in his life and movement, and God’s ‘place’ is defined by the nature and activity of God as the room for the life and activity of God as God. Man’s space-time is defined in accordance with the field of change and the sequence of coherent structures in which he lives his life, and this way of speaking is appropriate to man as a creature of this physical world—although we would also have to speak about the space-time of his personal, social or mental life in appropriately differential ways. We do not speak of space-time in relation to God, but we must speak of the ‘place’ and ‘time’ of God in terms of his own eternal life and his eternal purpose in the divine love, where he wills his life and love to overflow to us whom he has made to share with him his life and love. ‘Time’ for God himself can only be defined by the uncreated and creative life of God, and ‘place’ for God can only be defined by the communion of the Persons in the Divine life—that is why doctrinally we speak of the ‘perichoresis‘ (from chora meaning space or room) or mutual indwelling of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Triunity of God.
When, therefore, we come to speak of the ascension of Christ from man’s place to God’s place, we make a statement which is delimited and defined or bounded by the nature of man and his space at one end, but a statement which at the other end is ‘bounded’ by the boundless nature of God, and ‘limited’ only by the limitless room which God makes for himself in his eternal life and activity. In the nature of the case, statements regarding that ascension are closed at man’s end (because bounded within the space-time limits of man’s existence on earth) but are infinitely open at God’s end, open to God’s own eternal Being and the infinite room of his divine life. Here we discern the theological significance of the intention in Byzantine art in a deliberate reversal of the natural perspective in depicting the dais on which the figure of Christ is made to stand, lest it should be enclosed within converging lines, which when produced meet at a finite point. When the lines depicting the dais are made to diverge, against the natural perspective, then when produced they never meet but go out into infinity. At one end of the ikon or mosaic the figure of Christ stands in bounded space and time, but at the other end he transcends all such limitations. He became man without ceasing to be God, and lived within our physical and historical existence without leaving the throne of the universe. Epistemologically, this means that statements about God or Christ must not be such as to enclose them within the finite limits of the conceptualities and determinations of creaturely forms of thought and speech, that is, within the ‘room’ or ‘space’ of the creaturely comprehension. Here also, then, in respect of the ascension we must say with Calvin that the ascension is an event which we must speak of, on the one hand, through its relation with space and time as we know it on earth and in history, and within creaturely existence, but, on the other hand, we must speak of it as transcending all that, and as an event infinitely beyond the boundaries of our space and time or anything we could conceive in terms of them. It is the event in which Christ ascends to God’s place and God’s place is wherever God is, the place of the omnipresent God, who is as far removed from us as the Creator is from the creature and yet as intimately and indeed infinitely near us as the Creator is to the creature to whom he ever gives being, sustaining its reality through a relation of himself to himself, since he is so present to the creature as to complete its relation as a creature to himself the Creator. The ascension of Christ is thus an ascension to fill all things with himself, so that in a real sense he comes again in the Ascension. He had to go away in one mode of presence that he might come again in this mode of presence, leaving us in the mode of man’s presence to man, and returning to us in the mode of God’s presence to man, and thus not leaving man bereft of himself.
There are two things to consider here. (a) The ascension is the revelation of the gap between the time of the new man and the time of the old man, the gap between the resurrection reality of our humanity in Jesus Christ and the corruptible existence which we still wear and in which we are fully implicated. (b) The ascension is the exaltation of new man, with his fully and truly human nature, and therefore of man with his ‘place’ as man, with the ‘room’ which he is given for his human life, to participation in the divine ‘place’, the ‘place’ which God makes by his own life, and the ‘room which he has for the fulfilment of his divine love. It is ascension in which our humanity in Christ is taken up into the full Communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in life and love.
(ii) By his ascension Jesus Christ establishes man in man’s place in space and time.
The withdrawal of Christ from visible and physical contact with us in our space-time existence on earth and in history means that Jesus Christ insists in making contact with us, not first directly and immediately in his risen humanity, but first and foremost through his historical involvement with us in his incarnation and crucifixion. That is to say, by withdrawing himself from our sight, Christ sends us back to the historical Jesus Christ as the covenanted place on earth and in time which God has appointed for meeting between man and himself. The ascension means that our relation to the Saviour is only possible through the historical Jesus, for the historical Jesus is the one locus within our human and creaturely existence where God and man are hypostatically united, and where man engulfed in sin and immersed in corruption can get across to God on the ground of reconciliation and atonement freely provided by God himself. The ascension thus means that to all eternity God insists on speaking to us through the historical Jesus. Just because it is the historical and risen Jesus who is ascended, what Jesus says to us, the Jesus whom we meet and hear through the witness of the Gospels, is identical with the eternal Word and Being of God himself. Jesus speaks as God and God speaks as Jesus. Therefore we are sent back to Jesus, for there and there only may we hear God speaking in person, and there and there only at the foot of the Cross, where God, and man meet over the judgment and expiation of sin and guilt may we meet with God face to face and live, may we be judged and cleansed and have living communion with him in love through the propitiation of Jesus Christ.
Thus the ascension means that we cannot know God by transcending space and time, by leaping beyond the limits of our place on earth, but only by encountering God and his saving work within space and time, within our actual physical existence. Hence the ascension is the opposite of all demythologizing, for demythologizing means that we have to slough off the space-time involvement of the Word and Act of God as merely our own projecting and objectifying mode of thought, and so demythologizing means that we have to try to get to know God in a timeless and spaceless way. The ascension, on the contrary, sends us back to the incarnation, and to the historical Jesus, and so to a Word and Act of God inseparably implicated in our space and time. It sends us back to a Gospel which is really accessible to frail creatures of earth and history, and a Gospel that is relevant to their bodily existence day by day in the structures and coherences of space and time. Thus all true and proper knowledge of God is mediated through the historical Jesus Christ. Now that God has taken this way of revealing himself to us in and through the incarnation of his Word in the space-time existence and structure of Jesus Christ, he has set aside all other possibilities for us, no matter how conceivable they were a priori. Jesus Christ as the actualization of the way God has taken towards us thereby becomes the one and only way of approach to God, so that we have to follow Jesus exclusively. We derive our knowledge of God a posteriori from him who is constituted the Way, the Truth and the Life—there is now no other way to the Father. We cannot and must not try to go behind the back of Jesus Christ, to some kind of theologia gloriae reached by direct speculation of the divine majesty. All contact with the majesty of God as of the glorified Lord is in and through the crucified One. But the obverse of this is, that through the historical and crucified Jesus we really meet with the risen and ascended Lord, we really meet with God in his transcendent glory and majesty, and we really are gathered into the communion of the Son with the Father and of the Father with the Son, and really are taken up through the Spirit to share in the divine life and love that have overflowed to us in Jesus Christ.
How are we to think of these two aspects of the ascension together? Clearly this can be done only through the Spirit. As it is the pouring out of the Spirit that links the historical Jesus with the ascended Lord, so it is through the Communion of the Spirit that we can think these things together, that is, think of the ascension both as actual historical event, in which Christ departed from man’s place, and as the transcendent event in which he went to God’s place. But since God’s place is the place where God is, it is through the Spirit that we can think of Christ as historically absent and as actually present. It is through the Spirit that things infinitely disconnected—disconnected by the ‘distance’ of the ascension—are nevertheless infinitely closely related. Through the Spirit Christ is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, and we who live and dwell on earth are yet made to sit with Christ ‘in heavenly places’, partaking of the divine nature in him.