Piercing the Veil: Ascension, Heaven, Eucharist

“Two affirmations,” writes Paul J. Griffiths, “are required of Christians about Jesus’ ascended flesh” (Christian Flesh, p. 49):

  1. The ascended flesh is now located at the right hand of the Father.
  2. The ascended flesh is truly present in the Holy Eucharist, albeit in a veiled mode.

On the basis of these affirmations, we surmise that the risen Christ presently enjoys a dual presence, eschatological and sacramental:

The first is eschatological. Jesus’s ascended flesh is present somewhere and somewhen, in intimate relation to the Father, but inaccessible to humans by touch, and therefore inaccessible as flesh, because they aren’t where and when it is. It’ll be haptically available, available as flesh, only to human resurrected flesh, which will be before its face. That won’t happen until the general resurrection, which is the immediate prelude to the last things proper. That’s why Jesus’s ascended flesh at the Father’s right hand has an eschatological presence only. It cannot be touched now, even if, in dream and vision, it might sometimes be seen. The second mode of the ascended flesh’s presence is, by contrast, fully tactile: it’s edible; it can be caressed with the tongue and ingested. It’s also available for fleshly exchange in many different timespaces at once because it is definitively and completely freed from the unities of metronomic times­pace. That is because it occupies the fold of eucharistic time that is identically and at once available to every moment measured by the metronome, and every place located by map grid. The principle mode of tactile availability of the ascended flesh is, then, as the eucharist. (pp. 49-50)

The above passage raises pressing questions, but before addressing them, Griffiths segues to the the Apostle Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ. In Galatians and 1 Corinthians, Paul insists that the Lord appeared to him in the same way that he appeared to St Peter and the Apostles during the days and weeks after his resurrection (“Am not I an apostle? Have not I seen Christ Jesus our Lord?” [1 Cor 9:1]), the only difference being one of timing: “And last of all, he was seen also by me, as by one born out of due time” (1 Cor 15:8). Scholars typically take Paul’s testimony at face value and assimilate his road-to-Damascus experience to the Paschal experiences recorded in the Gospels; but Griffiths, following the accounts given in the Book of Acts, affirms that Jesus’ appearance to Paul was different in kind, precisely because it occurred after the Lord’s ascent to the Father. Whereas the disciples encountered Jesus in his resurrected flesh, Paul encounters him in the mode of ascension. He hears the dominical voice but does not see anything, except “light from heaven” (Acts 9 & 22):

Saul sees light and hears the voice of the ascended Jesus; he hears Jesus, but sees only radiance. The light that visually signals Jesus’s presence is too radiant for human eyes, and so Saul is blinded—an ordinary response to the approach of the ascended flesh, inseparable as it now is from the Father at whose right hand it is located. The ascended flesh will be visible to the eyes of the risen flesh, but until then it’s visible—even to Saul about to become Paul—only as in a glass, darkly. The trans-local and trans-temporal eucharistic presence of the ascended flesh requires the absence to our senses of the human ascended flesh, and this is a point underscored by the particulars of the scriptural account of the event in which this comes closest to not being so. The veil is not removed, even for Paul. (pp. 50-51)

Orthodox Christians will immediately think of the deifying experiences of St Symeon the New Theologian, St Seraphim of Sarov, St Silouan the Athonite. Was the light which Paul saw the uncreated Light of God? Griffiths does not address the question, but the hesychastic tradition certainly believes that it was (see Maximos Constas, “Paul the Hesychast“). Why was the Apostle blinded and the saints were not? Perhaps, we might conjecture, because the latter were already baptized into Christ and had prepared themselves for theoria through ascetic discipline and labor. Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord, on the other hand, occurs when he was still an unbeliever and enemy of the gospel. He was constitutionally unprepared for the explosion of Christic glory.

The entrance of the risen Son into heaven is the precondition for Holy Eucharist. Neither the natal nor resurrected flesh of Christ can be eaten—the former because of cannibalism; the latter because of haptic unavailability. At the Last Supper the disciples ingest Christ only proleptically ( how proleptic is proleptic?). “But after the ascension,” continues Griffiths, “his flesh, veiled as bread, and his blood, veiled as wine, can be touched and tasted everywhere and at once, without constraint by the metronome of time or the map grid of space” (p. 31). The ascension makes possible the fulfillment of Christ’s words to his disciples:

Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him. (John 6:54-57)

“What was visible of our Redeemer passed over into the sacraments,” declared St Leo the Great in his sermon on the Ascension (Hom. 74). The gift of ascended flesh entails veiling—necessarily so in the Devastation—because it is eschatologically transfigured and transfigur­ing flesh. To eat this flesh is to eat immortality. “That—being edible without the constraints of timespace—is the work of the ascended flesh, and it’s only in being ascended, in being unavailable to our senses in locatable human form, that the ascended flesh can do this work” (p. 53). The baptized eat the sacred Body and drink the precious Blood and so become “Christian flesh.”

Where is Jesus? In heaven, we confess. This becomes a bit confusing. Jesus is the eternally begotten Word, and so transcends the universe he has made; yet because he is embodied, he is also dwells in a timespace. We call his place heaven—eschatological reality consti­tuted by the ascended flesh of Christ. We might even be tempted to say, with qualification and nuance, that heaven was created when the Father raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him as “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). “The LORD and heaven, on this view, cannot be discriminated easily,” explains Griffiths, “and this means that when we find ourselves in heaven we find ourselves in him”; more precisely, “the LORD is the timespace in which the resurrected saints find themselves” (Decreation, pp. 215-216):

The LORD’s presence, we might say, constitutes heaven; he is its timespace­ness; its location, temporal and spatial, just is his presence; and the location of creatures in and at it just is their spatio-temporal relation to him, and to one another as related to him. This is a relation more intimate than which there is none. If there were greater intimacy yet to come, heaven would not be a novissimum, which is no more than to say that it would not be heaven. The LORD’s presence in heaven has, necessarily, a double modality. One mode is fleshly presence: the flesh of Christ is there, resurrected and ascended. That, like all fleshly presences, is a spatio-temporal presence, folded most tightly into the eternal pattern of inter­personal love that is the Trinity. Another mode is nonbodily, which is to say presence as the eternal economy of the Trinity. Recall that . . . the LORD is differentiated from all creatures, severally and collectively, in being nonbodily, which in turn means eternal and also without spatio-temporal location. Creatures are creatures exactly in not being these things; he is the LORD precisely in being them. Restricting our attention for the moment to human creatures, and to resurrected fleshly human creatures at that, this double mode of the LORD’s presence is heaven-for-us; it is the timespace in which we have the life of the world to come, and in which, therefore, we find the quies, the rest, which is promised to us as a possibility … Heaven’s timespace is the LORD in his double mode of presence to us, and it is a timespace characterizable for humans above all as pax and quies … A traditional Christian word for this is beatitude: heaven, the LORD is our timespace, is our beatitude, which is our glorious last thing, the novissimum for which we were made. (p. 216)

But where is heaven in relationship to our world? Modern cosmology no longer allows us to think of it as existing so many miles above us, whether close or far. There is no heaven up there—only galaxies and more galaxies, as far as our instru­ments permit us to see. (Astronomers presently estimate the edge of the observable universe to be 46.5 billion light years away!) Hence there is no longer any place in which to place the risen body of Jesus. The demytholo­gization initiated by Martin Luther and Johannes Brenz in the 16th century and so vigorously advanced by Rudolf Bultmann in the 20th has run its full and neces­sary course (see Robert W. Jenson, “You Wonder Where the Body Went,” Essays in Theology of Culture, pp. 216-224). Where then is the ascended flesh of Jesus? If in heaven, where is heaven? Griffiths argues that the question is unanswer­able, not because of modern cosmology but because the cosmos suffers from the damage caused by the double fall (i.e., of angels and human beings). The timespace we know, the timespace we can study, measure, and explore, is devastated and deformed, physically out-of-joint, awry. It does not work as divinely intended and therefore cannot enjoy a spatio-temporal relationship to the heaven of the transfigured flesh of God:

Heaven is not a timespace according to the metronome or the map grid. It can’t be arrived at by timespace movement so understood, and the upward metaphor (ascendere) of scriptural and traditional discussions of the ascension isn’t a metaphor of that kind; it signals, rather, a definitive mode of absence, which is to say a mode of presence that is in no respect under the sign of the metronome and the map grid. None of this is a contingent matter, either; heaven is by definition not spatiotemporally locatable, and that’s because healed (redeemed) timespace is what heaven is, and timespace in that mode is not locatable in those ways. In positive mode: heaven is where/when the ascended flesh of Jesus is; it’s the timespace in which fleshly creatures keep closely intimate company with the ascended flesh, the lingual (and, sometimes, manual) caress under which intimacy with Jesus’s ascended flesh occurs here below, in the metronomic time­space, is supple­mented by interaction with all the other senses. There and then Jesus’s human flesh will be visible, audible, and smellable, just as here and now it can be taste-touched. Haptic relations to that ascended and human-formed flesh will then also be complete in ways that exceed the imagination. (CF, pp. 54-55)

At the moment only the Theotokos enjoys, with and in her son, the blessing of glorified flesh; nonetheless she is not alone in heaven. With her and Jesus are the angels and discarnate souls. When Christ returns and rolls up the devastated universe, the discarnate souls will be reunited with their resurrected bodies, while the righteous still alive in their mortal flesh will be instantaneously glorified. As the Apostle declares: “For the Lord himself shall come down from heaven with commandment, and with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead who are in Christ, shall rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet Christ, into the air, and so shall we be always with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:15-16). Heaven will be the cosmos healed and deified, without remainder. All creatureliness will be in it, remarks Griffiths, “because there is nowhere and nowhen else to be” (Decreation, p. 238).

What of the plants and animals? What of our beloved dogs and cats (and guinea pigs and hamsters) that have been so important to our happiness in the Devastation? We may reasonably expect that they too will be included in the cosmic transfiguration:

If heaven is the world healed, the world made beautiful as cosmos, Eden transfigured by the presence of the flesh of Christ and of Mary, as well as by the resurrected flesh of the saints, and if excess is a mark not of the double fall but rather of the LORD’s delight, then all plant and animal kinds, with all their individual members, should be present there, transfigured as inhabitants of the peaceable kingdom. (p. 293)

A new heaven and a new earth. With transfigured bodies we will see and know and caress—and be caressed by—the incarnate God. Deified flesh will commune with deified flesh, with full and unmediated intimacy. The time for eucharistic veiling will be over.

(27 May 2019)

(Go to “Tactual Salvation”)

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