Is Jesus Christ present or absent? If present, in what way(s) is Christ present? If absent, where is he? Where has Christ gone? Does he live “up in the sky with the angels,” or somewhere in the abyss of space, on a strange planet? These questions are those of a child or of a fundamentalist, not of someone mature in Christ. But the question, “How is Christ present, while being absent in body?” is indeed a good and fruitful question. “Seek and you will find.”
The oldest Christian documents (the letters of the Apostle Paul, the Gospels, other NT epistles) do not ask these questions directly or as boldly. Rather, they begin with real experiences, and express their experiences of God in Christ in the symbolic language of the New Testament. There is no way to speak of non-physical, non-existent reality except in symbols; and one without experience of their truth may misunderstand the symbolic meaning or consider them to be “meaningless.” In fact, the symbolic language of spiritual experience is precise within its own kind, and is highly meaningful, as generations of the faithful will attest based on their own faith and love in Christ Jesus.
Here are some typical symbolic formulations about the murdered and living Christ: “This Jesus whom you crucified is not here [in the tomb]; He is risen.” “Jesus Christ is Lord of the dead and of the living.” Or in words attributed to the Resurrected, “Behold, I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.” The expressions of faith in Christ as risen from the dead, as God’s means of ruling over human beings (hence, called “Lord” or Ruler), and as present with his disciples are abundantly found in the earliest Christian writings, long before doctrines had been formulated and fixed, as in the Nicene Creed (321). “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain.”
The fundamental experience of the risen Christ is always paradoxical: for Christ is both absent and present at the same time. He is absent physically, so that one cannot see a body or hear his voice with one’s ears; but He is present in spirit in the depths of the believer, who has opened himself up to the presence of the living God. The presence of the Risen Christ is variously symbolized as the “I AM with you,” as “Christ is in you,” or in the more impersonal symbol of “the Spirit of Christ is in you.” In other words, although Jesus is not physically present, He is very much spiritually present and active in the hearts and minds of the faithful who open their hearts to the LORD’s presence. Indeed, this opening of the mind and heart to Christ is what is meant by “conversion,” by “coming to faith.” Faith is not a belief about Jesus, but fundamentally a loving surrender right now to His presence. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone opens the door [of the heart], I will come in and commune with him, and he with me.” The faithful also understand Christ to be sacramentally present in the proclaimed word and in the Eucharist. “Take and eat; this is my body, which is for you; do this in memory of Me.”
These are the issues at stake in the symbolization of Christ’s “Ascension:” not only is Christ risen and alive, but He is active as the presence of the living God who liberates, sanctifies, guides, heals, challenges, rules over those who obey Him. Do not look for a body floating around in space, or for the “Son of God” living on a planet somewhere. These childish beliefs serve to keep God away, to live an autonomous life without the indwelling God. Rather, listen for the “still small voice” of the One who communes, heart to heart, with a trusting and loving human being. It is really that simple. Visual arts portray Jesus as a body disappearing behind clouds, but visual arts must use the physical to disclose the spiritual. Music is less hindered by physical representation. In the music of Schütz or J. S. Bach, for example, one encounters the risen and glorified Christ directly in sound, without being masked by clouds. In their glorious compositions, they directly communicate Jesus Christ. “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” And Christ most surely does enter into the mind that is still seeking, who knows it does not know, and longs for a deeper communion. The Risen Christ does indeed come to “the poor in spirit,” to those who question, seek, stay awake, are attentive, listen. Or Christ can ask, “Have I been with you for so long, and yet you do now know me?”
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