We all begin our lives as fetuses. We all had the experience of developing in utero and receiving necessary oxygen from our mother’s blood supply by means of an umbilical cord, and we’ve all got belly buttons to prove it. All the bodily systems necessary for life in the outside world are developing during the time a baby spends growing in his or her mother’s womb. Some of these systems are functional before birth: muscles, autonomic reactions, hearing, etc. The respiratory system also develops, but it remains dormant, unused. Then, when the child is born, the umbilical cord is cut. There’s a very anxiety-laden period of time — hopefully very brief — between the cutting of the cord and respiratory system kicking into action as the baby draws his or her first breath. It’s a moment of great anticipation, and often some fear, for those in the room.
In liturgical time, that’s precisely where we find ourselves on the Feast of the Ascension. The very Jewish disciples of a very Jewish Jesus have been taken on a violent emotional roller coaster ride. In the space of three dozen months, give or take, they encountered Jesus, most of them while going about their ordinary work, they answered his call to follow him, to become disciples — an act of obedience that brought with it huge risk and great danger, they were formed by his teaching and his example, they came to expect, as a result of that teaching and example, the fulfillment of Israel’s hope for a Messiah who would deliver them from the yoke of Roman oppression and restore their lost national glory. Then they experienced, rather suddenly, one of their own colleagues betraying Jesus into the hands of hostile authorities, after which he suffered horribly, during which time they all abandoned him, followed by his death, the empty tomb, and the post-resurrection appearances of their crucified and risen Master who was clearly the same person whom they had followed around Galilee and Judea, but at the same time clearly different. Now he’s suddenly taken from them — permanently this time, it appears — yet, in a way that has them returning to Jerusalem “with great joy,” St. Luke tells us, and with a tantalizing promise of “power from on high,” whatever that is.
When a child emerges from the womb, his or her respiratory system, which previously was both unnecessary and unavailable, suddenly becomes both vitally important and available for use. The necessary condition — birth — has been met. It’s a critical moment in anyone’s life; indeed, life itself depends on it. In the economy of God’s plan of redeeming a fallen universe, the ascension of Jesus fulfills a similarly necessary condition. It’s a critical moment in the revelation and manifestation of that plan. In the ascension of Jesus, human nature comes to reside in the very heart of God. There’s a wonderful 19th century hymn text that speaks to this critical moment (Hymnal 1982, #435). The one who was “from the beginning the mighty Word,” with a reference to the majestic prologue to John’s Gospel — “in the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God” — this Word, as it becomes flesh, is “humbled for a season to receive a name” — that is, the “name” Son of Man, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, of one nature with us as human creatures. He bore that name faithfully, “spotless to the last”; indeed, he “bore it up triumphant to the central height.” In the Ascension, Jesus, the eternal Word of the Father, has now also become Son of Man, and having lived the first truly human life in the history of creation, brings that human nature into the very heart of God. Is that not a stunningly beautiful declaration, that human nature — your human nature and mine — now resides in the heart of God? Herein lies our hope, that as God assumed human nature in the Incarnation, sealing that act of love as the Father receives the Son back to his right hand, so now the way is prepared for us, sinful sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, to become partakers of the divine nature, as St. Peter tells us in his second epistle.
We await the outworking of our salvation through participation in God’s very life. We participate in the life of God by, among other things, hearing the Word of God proclaimed and broken open, coming together for the eucharistic banquet, Sunday by Sunday and holy day by holy day, and remaining together as the people of God, the body of Christ — taken and blessed and broken and given for the life of the world. And along that journey, there are gifts to sustain us and encourage us and empower us. As the respiratory system of a newborn child comes online as a response to the fulfillment of the necessary condition of birth, and the umbilical cord being cut, so the power and the gifts of the Holy Spirit come online now that the necessary condition of human nature residing in the heart of God has been fulfilled, thus bringing full-circle the saving action that God initiated in the Incarnation.
Indeed, we could do worse than to think of the Holy Spirit as the Church’s “respiratory system” that has come online in response to the ascension of Jesus. The availability and accessibility of “power from on high,” in turn, enables and energizes the mission of the Church. Two millennia later, we have that same energy and power available to us. It was planted in us as we came under the sacramental waters of the baptismal font. It is cultivated and developed in us through the practices of prayer and discernment. And then that Holy Spirit power, operating in each of the cells of the body as they make themselves available, becomes the animating force behind the Church’s missionary work of proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, and of leading others to the risen and ascended Christ so they may become his disciples, for the life of the world.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.