The ascension of the God who remains one of us

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Venice, Italy was known as La Serenissima—“the most serene one.”

Europeans do like their titles. And why shouldn’t they? They have some excellent ones. I was attending a meeting in Britain of university presidents from around the world. I served as one of the academic consultants to this august group, and on the conference table my placard identified me the way the Brits typically do: shortened given names and lengthened titles. So my little sign read, “Prof. Dr. J. G. Stackhouse, Jr.”

The pleasant fellow beside me, however, was the rector of a Polish university and thus had an appropriately grander title. His card read, “His Magnificence K. H. P—-.”

When Martin Luther made his defense before the assembled dignitaries at the Diet of Worms in 1521, he addressed the Holy Roman Emperor thus: “Your Serene Majesty.” Not just “Your Majesty,” as we are used to hearing in terms of our own monarch, but “Your Serene Majesty.”

Serenity in this context clearly suggests someone so powerful that he is utterly unruffled by that which troubles ordinary people. Serenity, which derives from roots meaning “clear and calm” (as in weather), marks a superb highness in one who has risen loftily above all that disturbs and darkens those of us below.

In its imperial heyday, the city of Venice itself was known as La Serenissima—“the most serene one.” For centuries, that is, Venice was prosperous, beautiful, and secure, while other, lesser, principalities struggled along.

This quality of imperturbability characterized ancient Greek notions of greatness as well. Aristotle attributed the creation of the world to an “Unmoved Mover”: one who influences, but is not influenced.

In the cultural shadow of this way of thinking, early Christian theologians sought to glorify God by attributing to God the highest qualities they could imagine. They thus declared that God must be utterly serene—although they used terms such as “immutable” (= God cannot change) and “impassible” (= God cannot suffer).

This past week, Christians around the world celebrated Ascension Day, the day Jesus said good-bye to his disciples and rose into the sky, disappearing into a cloud. The ascension of Jesus from earth to heaven marks his Lordship over all—the church and the world—as he resumes his place at the right hand of God.

The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus not only rules the world, however, but that he constantly represents humanity in the very heart of God, as a member of the Trinity. He is the mediator between us and divinity, the “high priest” who can sympathize with our weaknesses since he himself experienced temptation, yet without succumbing to it (Hebrews 4:15).

As such a divine-human one who shares our feelings and represents them, so to speak, to God the Father, Jesus confounds this long tradition of greatness rising above the passing vagaries of human experience and emotion. Jesus rises above, yes, to govern the world. But he does not thereby rise above empathy and sympathy. He does not rise above compassion—literally, “suffering with.” He does not disappear from our sight into heavenly clouds that insulate him from our pain. He forever bears scars of his suffering love, and forever holds our experience in his own human heart.

These are all unfathomable mysteries, of course, but a few key points remain clear. The ancient doctrinal traditions of immutability and impassibility deserve serious questioning. Any suggestion that God is somehow “above” caring deeply about our welfare seems manifestly to militate against the whole plotline of Scripture.

Other magnificences and majesties might be serene in their splendid isolation from the plight of the common man and woman. But not the Most High God…who in Jesus became a poor baby…and a low-status adult…and a condemned criminal…and an executed pariah.

No, this is no emperor ascending to a realm of serenity, but a priestly king who has tied his joy with ours (Hebrews 12:2). The theologians mean well who attribute immutability and impassibility to God. But God is greater than even our attempts to praise him.

When Moses asked what name by which God wanted to be identified both to Israel and to Pharaoh (non-Israel), God replied, “Yahweh—I am what I am.” Ever since, we believers should have been careful to avoid supposing or inferring what God “must” be, but instead look and see what God actually is, what God actually has been, and what God actually has told us God will be.

And if there is one thing the God of the Bible, the God most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, the God who is busy every moment subduing evil and bringing his marvellously good purposes to fruition is clearly not, it is…serene.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).