Ascension: Sharing Christ's Ministry
The significance of Jesus’ ascension is manifested already in the incarnation, but it is not named until his baptism. Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus grasp this in the Heidelberg Catechism. In Q&A 31, they ask, “Why is [Jesus] called ‘Christ,’ meaning ‘anointed’?” Taking their cue from Olevianus’ Genevan tutor, John Calvin, they provide a trinitarian response that highlights the three-fold office of the Son of God: Jesus is called “Christ” “because he has been ordained by God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief prophet and teacher . . . our only high priest . . . and our eternal king.”
When Jesus rose up from the waters of the Jordan, the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. His ministry commenced. When he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God in synagogues and puzzled his disciples with parables, did he not prove himself to be “our chief prophet and teacher”? When he withdrew to a mountainous region and “spent the night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12), or when he “looked up to heaven” to address the Father on the night of his betrayal (John 17:1), did he not prove himself our only high priest, through whom we, his disciples, enjoy communion with the Father? When he reversed death’s grip on a child, or epilepsy’s seizing, or a storm’s tossing, did he not prove himself the King of all creation? When Jesus, incarnate, rose up from a cold, stony slab in a dank tomb that smelled of death’s decay, did he not prove himself the firstfruits of a new creation? When he rose up from earth to heaven, the dust of Galilee on his feet, did he not take his ministry, as it were, to another level?
A Ministry We Share
Remarkably, this is the ministry we share. Ursinus and Olevianus ask this question: if Jesus is called “Christ,” meaning “anointed,” because he is appointed by God the Father to be our prophet and teacher, priest and king, then “why are you called a Christian?” (Q&A 32). A Christ-ian? A little Christ? The answer is nothing short of profound: “Because by faith I am a member of Christ, and so I share in his anointing.” I share in his anointing. So by association and anointing, I, too, am a prophet, a priest, and a royal ruler.
In an essay on vocation in The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993), Barbara Brown Taylor describes baptism as “that turning point in each of our lives when we were received into the household of God and charged to confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share in his eternal priesthood.” Our baptisms, she continues, are our anointing: they are “our ordinations, the moments at which we are set apart as God’s people to share Christ’s ministry.”
By virtue of our baptism into Christ, Christ’s ministry is our ministry, and its field is nothing less than cosmic. This, of course, has amazing implications for our “offices” in the world. To work off Taylor further, this vision of calling, or anointing, or ordination “requires a rich and disciplined imagination . . . to see the extraordinary dimensions of an ordinary life, to see the hand of God at work in the world and to see one’s own hands as necessary to that work. Whether those hands are diapering an infant, assembling an automobile or balancing a corporate account, they are God’s hands, claimed by God at baptism for the accomplishment of God’s will on earth.”
The ministry we share with the ascended Christ has profound implications for our worship, too. Its scope, its dimension, is likewise nothing short of cosmic.
The Cosmic Proportion of Worship: To the Heavens
God granted John a “revelation” of heavenly worship. While “in the Spirit,” John saw God’s throne, encircled by an emerald rainbow and emanating peals of thunder and flashes of lightning. He saw torches and a crystal sea. He heard four living creatures continuously hailing “Holy! Holy! Holy!” while a chorus of twenty-four elders sang in full voice, “You are worthy, our Lord and God!”
The book of Revelation is mysterious. But for all its mystery, it shows us at least this: that our worship on earth, no matter how paltry and clumsy it may be, is conjoined with the celestial host’s worship in heaven. When the Spirit assembles the people of God for worship, they are, says Calvin, “in the presence of God and his angels.” In his nineteenth-century paraphrase of Psalm 103, lyricist Henry Lyte puts this notion upon our lips as starkly as the psalmist: “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven! . . . Angels, help us to adore him; you behold him face to face.”
We experience the conjunction of our earthly worship and heavenly worship when we offer thanksgiving at the table of our Lord: “O Lord, our Creator, almighty and everlasting God! With the whole church on earth and with the whole company of heaven, we worship and adore your glorious name: ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
Jesus Christ is our only high priest. The ascended Christ is the one in whom and through whom we offer our praise, because Jesus Christ is the one by whom our praise is perfected and offered to the Father.
The Cosmic Proportion of Worship: From the Depths
The ascended Christ is our high priest. But we, too, share his priestly ministry on behalf of our sisters and brothers in Christ. Some we hear breathing beside us or see sitting across the aisle. Others we imagine, helped by pictures in world relief pamphlets or depictions in resources for global church news. We intercede for one another, individually and communally. We summon God to “strengthen the weary, lift up the downtrodden, chasten the proud, exalt the humble, protect the persecuted, and convict the complacent.” Christ is our high priest, and we are priests, each to each other.
But the ascended Christ is also the world’s high priest, the high priest of creation’s every utterance. This, too, is a priestly ministry we are created and anointed to share.
James B. Torrance begins his book Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (IVP, 1996) with this reflection: “God has made all creatures for his glory. . . . But God made men and women in his own image to be the priests of creation and to express on behalf of all creatures the praises of God, so that through human lips the heavens might declare the glory of God. When we, who know we are God’s creatures, worship God together, we gather up the worship of all creation.” Calvin said as much in his commentary on Psalm 148, when he identifies us as the “heralds” of creation’s praise.
Implicitly or explicitly, Torrance and Calvin are taking cues from Augustine, who takes his cue from the psalmist. In his exposition of Psalm 148, Augustine spins an eloquent yarn on the psalmist’s summons, stressing our role in creation’s economy of praise: Animals, says Augustine, “do not have rational intelligence, but they have their own spirit that animates their bodies, and they obviously have life. Trees do not have even this kind of life, but they all praise God nonetheless.” How is this so? Well, says Augustine, while such creatures and created things do not praise God with their own voices and hearts, “when they are contemplated by intelligent observers, God is praised through them. And if God is praised through them, it can be said that in a way they too praise God.” To be more specific and even winsome, Augustine considers the psalmist’s summons to “the sea monsters and all deeps” (Ps. 148:7): “What? Are we to imagine dragons forming a choir to praise God? Of course not, but when you think about dragons you are reminded of the dragons' designer, the dragons' creator. When they fill you with amazement you reflect, 'How great must be the God who made them!' In this way dragons praise God through your voices, and so the psalm invites them, Praise the Lord, you dragons and all depths.”
But the ascended Christ’s kingdom has not yet fully come. In Romans 8, Paul proclaims that all creation groans as if enduring the pain of birthing, eagerly longing “for the children of God to be revealed” (v. 19). So if we are, as Calvin says, the “heralds” of creation’s praise, we are likewise, it seems, the priests of creation’s pain. Jean-Jacques von Allmen, a twentieth-century student of both Paul and Calvin, puts it this way: Christian worship, “because it is based on the reconciliation of all things in Christ, is the vanguard of that cosmic quest”; it is the frontline of the cosmic longing for shalom. So in Christian worship, we live into the calling for which we were created—a calling given refreshed inflection in light of a world not yet fully redeemed. We exercise our anointing as priests who share the ascended High Priest’s ministry.
As priests of creation’s praise, we shout out with the psalmist and Francis of Assisi: “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing!” Burning sun! Shining moon! Rising dawn! Fierce fire! Flowers and fruits! People and nations! But, as priests of creation’s pain, we cry out, too. We cry out to creatures with oil-slicked fur, feathers, or fins, “Lament!” We cry out to native species overrun by invasive species, “Groan!” Together, with them and for them, we pray, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus, ascended on high! Send your Spirit to renew us and the face of the earth!”