By Mark Clavier
There’s little on social media that really riles me. When I log onto Facebook or Twitter, I go with the expectation that I’ll encounter all sorts of rubbish. Instead of being bothered by anything, therefore, I usually come away with the pleasing satisfaction of having been proven right again. A friend once suggested to me that the internet has proven false the old saw that if you give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite amount of time to bang on an infinite array of keyboards, they’ll eventually produce Shakespeare. No, they won’t. We now know that beyond any doubt.
But something did stick in my craw recently. I recently read several posts about Ascension Day being the day when we recall that Jesus went to work from home. On the face of it, this sounds rather droll, connecting in a light-hearted way that great high feast to our own experience during the COVID-19 lockdown. One priest even used it to defend clergy staying in their homes rather than going to their churches. If Jesus thought it best to work from home, why not us?
Please don’t get me wrong. What bothered me isn’t how the idea of Jesus ascending to heaven has been used by some to suggest that we clergy should abide by social distancing. What got my goat was the idea that Jesus’ ascent to heaven was somehow a return home. This suggests that his Incarnation and ministry on earth were a cosmic, thirty-year-long trip abroad. This, of course, betrays the misapprehension that when God is among us, he’s somehow in a foreign land, a place that is our home rather than his.
To the contrary, Jesus was as much at home in first-century Palestine as he was in heaven; and he’s still as much at home amongst us as when he sits at the right hand of the Father. And this is true in two ways utterly vital to our understanding of who he is.
First, let’s for a moment go with the idea that God is more at home in heaven than in our world. Even if that were true, the fact that God became man would mean that our world became his home when he was conceived of the Virgin Mary and emerged in the squalor of a manger. Home for Jesus was an out-of-the-way village in the Roman Empire called Nazareth and then amid the people of Palestine among whom he taught, worked miracles, and ultimately died. To deny this is to deny (at the very least) his humanity. If you wanted to risk dividing his personhood, you could even suggest that his humanity is now away from his homeland — that would be no more wrong-headed than saying that Jesus is now at home in heaven. This would, of course, put him in an impossible situation where he’s always both at home and away from home, depending on whether you’re referring to his human or divine nature. But that would be plain silly.
Secondly, to think of heaven as properly the home of Jesus is to suggest that God belongs in heaven and not here on earth. That is probably what a lot of people do believe in our religion-is-a-private-affair world of ours. Accordingly, heaven is where God lives — he may also be here among us, but it’s not in the same way as he’s in heaven. In fact, it’s best that he not get too involved here lest he make us self-reliant, hubristic men and women uncomfortable, like teens trying to have a party with their parents in attendance!
But one of the fundamental messages of the Incarnation is that God is as much at home in creation as in heaven. When God acts among us, he isn’t doing so from afar. There is no departure or return for God. God simply is. God is in heaven; God is on earth; God is also beyond both. Indeed, God is in heaven much more than any of his heavenly hosts, just as he’s among us and with us far more fully and deeply than we are. If anything, in our fallen creatureliness, we’re the ones at home in neither place. We’re the restless ones ever searching for our home, always finding ourselves abroad and thus unable to rest or be still. God is never truly the stranger, while we almost invariably are.
Part of the reason for that is our continual failure to recognize that everything that exists only does so insofar as it’s at home in God. God, of course, is always at home with himself, whether as a baby in a manger, a tortured man hanging on a tree, or sitting on his throne in heaven. There simply is no place that exists apart from the God who is. In fact, our own homes are only pale reflections of our true home in God.
To think of the Father or the Son as not really belonging in our world is to betray our Christian faith in a way that has serious repercussions. As soon as we think of heaven as God’s home and this world as ours, we create a dichotomy, pretending that there’s a wide gulf between us, which, if true, would undo the Incarnation. People who don’t see that God is at home within his creation are much more likely to treat his creation as though God isn’t here. People who fail to see that creation only exists because it’s at home in God see salvation as an escape to heaven. Moreover, such people forget that God is even at home among suffering, cruelty, and despair. He does not stand afar off from human darkness and pain, though he may seem to do so to even prophets and psalmists. But God only seems distant because of our own blindness. Perhaps when Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was showing that he’s even at home (paradoxically) amid our sense of separation like a consoler who clings faithfully to someone who in pain and despair can no longer discern love.
Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday remind us of this fact each year. Before Christ ascended into heaven, the Father and the Holy Spirit were at home with Jesus in his ministry. When the Holy Spirit descended onto the Apostles in the upper room, he did not do so apart from the Father and the Son. The doctrine of the Trinity compels us to recall and celebrate that “from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:36). Home is not, in fact, where the heart is, unless, of course, our hearts abide in God.
In On Christian Teaching, Augustine likened our Christian lives to a journey back to our homeland, back to God. I think it’s important for us not to think of this homeland as just heaven – it includes the renewed cosmos where we’ll discover God equally at home. Peter refers to us as “aliens and exiles,” not to creation and not (though this is generally how it’s taken) from heaven, either. We’re “aliens and exiles” from the world erected by fallen humanity, because now in Christ we have found our home in God. That’s here and now, not some ethereal afterlife. At the moment, our homeland in God looks like living in the world. It may seem and feel that way, too, especially when that world can seem bleak as it does now. But by faith and in love, we have been brought into God’s home that encompasses both heaven and creation. And we know it as home because Jesus incarnated, crucified, risen, and even ascended is there first, welcoming us (as he always does) with the same eager embrace that the father welcomed his prodigal son.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon, or priest in residence, of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales.