It is perhaps unsurprising that a culture that dismisses its religious heritage as an embarrassing and primitive appendix to modernity and idolises novelty as much as ours does should laud ancient half-truths as if they were modern – and therefore correct – discoveries. One such is the division of the spiritual from the worldly. Among the many moderns who claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious,’ whether neo-pagans, agnostics, broad theists or pseudo-Buddhists, it is almost axiomatic that one must transcend the merely material to achieve spiritual gain.
The word ‘God’ only points at something entirely beyond human comprehension, and certainly beyond the naive Christian attribution of human characteristics to it, and it is to this that our spiritual efforts should attain. There is nothing new about this at all, of course, and it is not as if Christianity has never encountered such a view of God. Neo-Platonist Christian philosophers of the early Church tried with some success to accommodate this God with the God of the Gospel, but it has otherwise threatened Christian orthodoxy throughout history, from the heresy of the Gnostics, through to Islam, then in the 18th century Unitarianism and Deism, and now popular religious relativism.
It is also common even for Christians, uncomfortable with those articles of their faith that do not accord to the dictates of empirical reason, to treat the Resurrection as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. Adherents to other faiths, particularly monist Hindus, can also embrace Christianity with this caveat. However, the Ascension of Our Lord, like His Incarnation, offers a radically different perspective of both the nature of God and our relation to Him. S. Luke has Jesus tell us that the Resurrection happened to fulfil prophecy in order that ‘repentance and the forgiveness of sins’ might be preached in all nations, and that the disciples are witnesses to all this; a witness for which many would later pay with their lives. It is hard to imagine Jesus’ followers accepting gruesome deaths for the sake of an esoteric truth uncontroversially replicated in several contemporary mystery cults, and harder sill to imagine how a merely spiritual crucifixion could reveal the love of an all-forgiving God. Rather, Jesus’ words are grounded in the self-sacrificial love revealed by Him and the Father in the physical reality of Cross. Without the sheer physicality of the Crucifixion, the intense suffering and forsakenness of it, God’s forgiveness for humanity’s abundant sin would have been too easily won.
Just as Christ was God made man in the Incarnation and truly suffered on the Cross, so S. Luke reminds us of His physicality when resurrected. In the text immediately before this one, on the same day as the Ascension Jesus has broken bread and eaten fish. He is no ghost, but living, breathing man – and living, breathing God. Nor should we be tempted to believe that after his curious ascent into heaven, Jesus would return in a merely spiritual form. It is not as if, like the Buddha, He had died beneath a Bodhi tree having achieved Enlightenment. The disciples’ joyous reaction shows that they do not consider Him to have left them: instead of mourning the loss of their leader and friend, they rejoice, because He is not lost to them, not dead, but rather with them in a new – but no less corporeal – way. According to S. Mark, after Jesus ascended, His disciples went out and began performing miracles, healing people and speaking in tongues. They were not capable of this of their own accord, but because Jesus continued to live through them and with them as the Holy Spirit, that which ‘the Father had promised’. The Church became the body of Christ, of which its members are particular limbs and organs each with particular roles, bound by the ‘clothing from on high’ of the Holy Spirit to each other in God’s living presence.
Christians worship a God who became man, who revealed Himself to us as boundless love through the reality of incomparable self-sacrifice, and who continues to live corporeally in this world through His Church and its sacraments. Any distinction between the spiritual and the physical is a human contrivance to be treated with suspicion; everything that Christ reveals to us about God shows that the two are inextricably linked. The Ascension of Our Lord is therefore not just a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment – enlightenment may help Christians towards their final goal, but it is not the goal itself. The Christian should seek rather to emulate the Ascension, which consists not in the selfish pursuit of illumination or afterlife through a sterile and pietistic faith, but by giving our lives to the Kingdom as it is being built now on earth, being clothed with God’s Holy Spirit and acting in the faith which it affords. Contrary to the modern obsession with self-fulfilment and personal enlightenment, the Christian can never be fulfilled by him or herself, but only in the fullness of salvation in that Kingdom which will embrace all humanity and for which we must tirelessly strive.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.