Is This Preface Proper
I don't know how many of you listen to the Proper Preface. It occurs in the Divine Service at the beginning of the Communion liturgy after you say, "It is meet and right so to do." It's the part that concludes with, "Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Thy glorious name evermore praising Thee and saying." It is the oldest and least changed part of the liturgy (Reed, 324). It is meant to be said swiftly and ecstatically. But may we, should we, can we say what we do tonight in the Proper Preface for Ascension?
This is what I will say and has been said for almost 1600 years: "It is truly meet, right, and salutary, that we should at all time, and in all places give thanks unto Thee, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty, Everlasting God: Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who, after His resurrection, appeared openly to all His disciples, and in their sight was taken up into heaven, that He might make us partakers of His divine nature."
"Make us partakers of His divine nature," wow! Can we say that? Isn't that too much to say? The Episcopal Church thought so. They changed this Proper Preface to read that Jesus ascended into heaven "to prepare a place for us." That is not only weak but lame, and I wonder if we're doing the same. The Roman Mass has "make us partakers of His Godhead." Doesn't that strike you more powerfully than "partakers of His divine nature?"
My Latin dictionary says divinitatis means "divinity" or "Godhead." And a Roman Catholic scholar renders the Proper Preface more like ours. He has "sharers in His own divinity" (http://wdtprs.com/blog/2010/05/podacazt-101-wdtprs-preface-for-ascension-1962mr/). So perhaps our hymnal doesn't water that ancient Proper Preface down, but I definitely know our new hymnal does. It renders this phrase "make us partakers of His divine life."
We could get bogged down in a debate about the difference between partaking of Jesus' Godhead, divine nature, and divine life, but my real point in bringing this up is to ask how does the Ascension make us partakers of the Divine nature? That's the question that struck me last year when I read the Proper Preface. I only read it once a year, and it was like I never heard it before. I thought, "What an odd thing to say?"
It's odd because don't we celebrate the incarnation making us partakers of His Divine Nature? Don't we hear each Christmas that the Eternal Word of God took on flesh and dwelt among us? Don't we sing every Epiphany that God in Man is manifest in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth? Don't we sing in that Luther hymn "To Shepherds as They Watched by Night" "Oh, then rejoice that through His Son/ God is with sinners now at one;/ Made like yourselves of flesh and blood,/ Your brother is the eternal God?" So what's with saying tonight that Jesus was taken up into heaven in the sight of His disciples "that He might make us partakers of His Divine Nature?"
I thought that happened at Christmas, and I thought we celebrated it being paid for on Good Friday. In order to make sinful, fallen flesh and blood partakers of the Divine Nature, sins had to be paid for, removed, gotten out of the way. God's holiness is not just that He is opposed to all things sinful but that sin cannot exist at all in His holy presence any more than liquid water can in the presence of something very hot.
The human nature Jesus took on through the womb of the Virgin Mary was holy and pure, but to make our befouled, fallen, sinful human natures partakers of the Divine Nature, Jesus had to become sin. After keeping all the laws required of human nature, after showing that He was innocent before God and men, Jesus took responsibility for all our sins. Scripture says God made Him to be sin itself, and nailed our sins to the cross.
On Good Friday the price was paid to make our fallen human natures partakers of His Divine Nature, and on Easter Sunday that fact was proclaimed. Remember how Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to the disciples saying, "Go tell My brothers. I ascend to My God and your God; My Father and your Father?" Right then and there Jesus is proclaiming that His disciples are partakers of His divine nature, so what's with our saying, along with the Church for the past 1600 years, that the Ascension does that?
We need to stop separating incarnation, redemption, resurrection and Ascension. These can't exist without one another, and in the mind of God they exist all at once. He tells us in Revelation that the Lamb of God was slain before the foundation of the world. Incarnation, redemption, resurrection, and Ascension are eternal realities made known at a certain time but they aren't to be viewed in isolation.
Jesus' Ascension is the event that shows us His mission to make us partakers of His Divine Nature was successful. The emphasis on Ascension is that this flesh and blood that you know so well; this flesh and blood that gets pimples and measles, that ages and wrinkles, that is so easily cut, bruised, and decayed will enter heaven. In I Corinthians 15 Paul deals with the fact that this can't happen apart from us first being changed even as Jesus was raised in a glorified body, but Ascension shows us that it will certainly happen. Remember in the forty days before the Ascension how many things Jesus did to convince them it was the very same Body that had gone into the grave that now stood before them? Acts says He gave them many convincing proofs.
Almost 200 years ago the American Lutheran Charles Porterfield Krauth observed: "To the theology of a large part of the church it would be no disturbing element if the divine nature of Christ had been separated from the human after the Resurrection" (Conservative Reformation, 653). For them, Jesus only took on flesh and blood to redeem us. They were His tools to do so. He put them off once He was done with them. He ascended into heaven without the body born of Mary. Such folks don't confess with the Nicene Creed those longing words, "I look for the resurrection of the dead." Such folks think it's all done once their loved one's soul goes to heaven. Such folks think graveyards can only yield white bones or decaying bodies. Such folks haven't really progressed much beyond paganism.
The Greeks had their Elysian Fields; the Romans had their Valhalla, and the Native Americans their Happy Hunting Grounds. All of these were places for the souls of the dead. The souls of the dead could partake of the divine nature, but not their bodies. The sea goddess Thetis had children with the mortal Peleus. To spare her children the common destiny of death she placed them in flames one by one as they were born so that when their mortal parts were consumed their immortal elements might rise to Olympus and eternal life with the gods (Blumberg, Whose What?, 3).
This too was the comfort at the death of the half-man, half-god Hercules. After Hercules burns himself up the gods were troubled but Jupiter wasn't. He said, "He who conquered all else is not conquered by those flames Only his mother's share in him can perish; what he derived from me is immortal" (Bulfinch's, 148-9). Jesus did what neither Hercules, a half-god, could do, nor, Thetis a full-goddess could do. He makes flesh and blood partakers of the Divine nature. Let us not be practical pagans and not get the full comfort of this; let us celebrate what flesh and blood is shown to have won today.
The cloudy-presence of God receives Jesus' flesh and blood. The Epistle reading calls the Church Jesus' Body. Do you think only the Head of Jesus was received into heaven and the Body left sticking out? No, where the Head goes the Body must follow. Likewise, when the Epistle reading says, The Father "put all things under His feet," you are to think of real flesh and blood feet, just like yours five toes and all. The One who reigns and rules over all things is not some pulsating light, some faceless deity, some Supreme Being. He is the flesh and blood Jesus.
Ascension happens so that He might make us partakers of His Divine Nature. Jesus makes sure we see Him go with His Body born of Mary into heaven, so that we might know that all those in Him will likewise go. Do you think it's for nothing that Jesus rebirths you into everlasting life, puts you into the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost by sprinkling your body with the waters of Baptism? Do you think it's for nothing that Jesus forgives your sins not by telepathy, not by a good feeling, but by words spoken from the lips of a man that vibrate the eardrums of your body? And why would Jesus feed your body and blood with His Body and Blood unless He intended yours to go where His does?
Luther quotes Bernard as saying, "'How can I ever become sad and mournful or discouraged? After all, my flesh and blood sits in heaven above. I expect He will not be my enemy" (LW, 13, 245). Jesus is doing even more than sitting with His flesh and blood. Hebrews says He is always making intercession. He's making intercession with His flesh and blood not just for your soul but for your body. Charles Wesley's hymn "Arise, My Soul, Arise" describes this graphically. "Five bleeding wounds He bears; received on Calvary;/ They pour effectual prayers; they strongly plead for me:/ "Forgive him, O forgive," they cry, / "Forgive him, O forgive," they cry, / "Nor let that ransomed sinner die!"
This truly is a Proper Preface. It's truly fitting that we with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven waiting for the resurrection of their bodies to laud and magnify the glorious Name of God for taking Jesus bodily into heaven. Why? Because now we know, now we see that this flesh and blood that He washes, forgives, and feeds is headed for something more than disease, decay, death, and the grave. It's headed for heaven; it's headed for partaking of the Divine Nature. Now you know why the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Jesus' Ascension was the preface to their bodies going to heaven, and it's very proper to be overjoyed about that. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Ascension of our Lord (20110602)