The Ascension is a feast of triumph where Jesus rises to Heaven to take his seat at the right hand of his heavenly Abba. There is much rejoicing in our celebration of this feast but it’s hard to pin down what the celebration is all about. Towards the beginning of his great Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul celebrates this triumph of Jesus which has brought him “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” (Eph. 1: 21) That’s pretty high up, about as high as anyone, even God Incarnate, can go. However, before this outburst of triumph, Paul prays that our hearts may be enlightened to perceive the hope to which we are called and “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” (Eph. 1: 18) So what is this hope and what are the riches that Paul would have us understand and embrace?
With combativeness programmed into us before we’re old enough to know it’s happened, our first instinct is to see the triumph of Christ along the lines of the underdog winning against the stronger team, or an amazing come-from-behind victory. But such victories, satisfying as they are for the victors (and correspondingly humiliating for the losers) are still variations on the same old same old, that is, combats with winners and losers.
What we have a hard time seeing is that Jesus, for all the triumph, is still the loser. Yes, Jesus is above every authority and power, but it is as the vanquished one, the loser, that Jesus holds this high position. It isn’t that Jesus defeated Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate in the end; Jesus lost to them. If he had won, it would have been the same old same old, which would have made losers of us all. Rather, Jesus put himself at the mercy of all that he created with his heavenly Abba and the Holy Spirit. But if any of us should jump to claim the victory over the Divine Victim, what have we really gained? Perhaps something like a stone instead of bread.
We will soon see, at Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit gives the disciples power to witness to the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrected life. The truth of Jesus’ death that they proclaim is that, although innocent, Jesus was put to death by the Roman authorities under pressure from the Jewish leaders. But Jesus’ heavenly Abba raised Jesus from the dead with the offer of forgiveness and salvation to his persecutors. The triumph of Jesus is a triumph of innocent weakness, not a triumph of might and strength in the world’s understanding of strength. Jesus accepted loss so that all of us might win in the end.
We see this triumph through losing in the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7. Stephen berates the Jewish leaders for always persecuting the just ones such as Moses and the prophets. There is no sense of the forgiveness in his harangue that fills the other apostles’ proclamation of the truth of Jesus’ death. But then Stephen sees the heavens open to reveal the Son of Man at the right hand of God. Suddenly, Stephen is no longer an accuser but one who forgives before he dies, just like the risen victim he sees in glory. That is the victory of Christ that becomes the victory of Stephen. Forgiveness even unto death is the victory celebrated in the Ascension of Christ. This is the victory that earns life-giving bread instead of a stone. There is nothing higher than that!