“As they were watching, [Jesus] was lifted up” (Acts 1:9). The heavens received him, but also appeared to hide him: “and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The Son ascended to the glory he had with the Father before the world began, the glory of their shared love who is Holy Spirit (John 17:5). We, on the other hand, stand upon earth where, despite seasons and moments of blessing, we face a “fiery ordeal” (I Pet. 4:12). So, God is everlasting love in heaven; and we suffer here below? Yes and No.
Jesus ascends to his Father and their shared glory, that is, the Holy Spirit. This Trinity of love — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is one God and one Love. Jesus ascends, however, as the Son of God in whom human nature has been inseparably united in one divine person. Ascending, he takes our humanity with him, and so we are called “to set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:2-3). Elsewhere in the corpus of St. Paul, we hear that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). In a sense, we are already in heaven.
The old humanity, however, nailed to the cross of Christ, dies the slow death of our transition from one mode of being to another. The new being in Christ comes both as a flash of purifying grace in baptism and as a process of renewal and testing. We have, as the Scriptures promise and experience verifies, anxieties and trials, disciplines to undergo, an enemy to resist, suffering that cannot be avoided. Nonetheless, the God of grace “will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (I Pet. 5:10). We lift up our hearts and set our minds on things that are above, but we do not for a moment neglect the works we are to walk in, the obligations of love we owe, nor the joys we are presented or the consolations given.
How does the new humanity emerge? In perfect love, God reaches out to each person according to their need and capacity. St. Irenaeus, using verbs indicative of a process, insists that salvation is profoundly personal and adaptive in its application. “So, in the beginning, God formed (plasmavit) the human being on account of his own munificence, but chose patriarchs for the sake of their salvation; and was in truth preparing (praeformabat) a people, teaching (docens) the unteachable to follow God, and was raising up prophets on earth, fitting (assuescens) humanity to bear his Spirit and to have communion with God . . . In a variety of ways, composing/adjusting (componens) humanity to an agreement/harmony with salvation” (Against Heresies 4.14.2). God is forming, preparing, teaching, fitting, and composing each person for the goal of salvation.
I suggest we see this work for a moment in the action of a beautiful young woman caring for her younger siblings. “In the vestibule, six children, ranging from age eleven to two years old, were crowded around a beautifully formed girl of medium height . . . She was holding a loaf of black bread and cutting for the little ones around her slices appropriate to their age and appetite: and she handed over each one with such amiability, and each child cried out ‘Thank you!’ so affectionately, stretching out its little hands high into the air even before the slice was cut” (Goethe, The Suffering of Young Werther). The saving grace of God is a beautiful young woman cutting a loaf of black bread.
Look It Up: Read the Collect.
Think About It: We need strength first. Then, we will be exalted.