No barrier to heaven

Frances writes on the texts for the Ascension :- What does this Feast mean for us; what did it mean for those early Christians for whom it had been an historical event of recent times? It must evidently have been more than: exit stage left for Jesus. Whatever it does mean it is clear that some Church members were still labouring under misapprehensions about Jesus before this event: Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel? Some were still convinced he was, even after his death and resurrection going to lead a military coup which would bring world domination to Israel. How wrong they were! Luke’s picture of these times presents a Jerusalem-based situation feeding into Jewish hopes and longing and is of course the antithesis of what Jesus was and is all about, but within it we get a vivid picture of the swirling different evaluations of Jesus within the early Church, demonstrating what a very Jewish affair it was for many at the time. This situation reflects some current Jewish thought; indeed, the near contemporary school of Hillel even taught that gentiles could be saved and enter the glory of God without full acceptance of the Law or circumcision, so we can see where someone like Paul was coming from, in opposition to those who demanded full acceptance of the law and its demands. Almost certainly however Jesus wanted to get them to think within a much wider, God-given framework as his response to the disciples’ question indicates. Clinging to our own limited hopes of what a messiah should be like and what he should do according to our tenets is clearly wrong.

Some clues to the answer seem to be found in the Letter to the Hebrews. This document, written most likely between the late 60’s-80’s, possibly from Antioch to a group of Jewish-Christians would have been contemporary with Luke/Acts and John’s gospel. It follows Paul’s earliest account of the Eucharistic tradition as found in 1 Corinthians 15 and builds upon it. It would have had a profound effect on groups like the Matthean Churches closest to the Jews of Antioch. Even the briefest reading of Hebrews shows that it is totally rooted in a deep Christology, an understanding of the identity of Jesus and teaching how Christians are to find him and become completely united with him in the Eucharist. The passage we read today is emphatic on the unique significance of the sacrifice of Christ and emphasises how his once and for all death has forever altered the relationship of the believer with God.

I suspect it to have been written after the destruction of the Temple in 70, when of course the sacrifices ceased, the priesthood became redundant and Judaism had to remake itself. Whilst many opted for the rabbinic style with its synagogues and study of Torah/Law, those close to Jesus opted for the Eucharistic, a sacramental form of worship rooted in a continual re-meeting with the saviour after the pattern of his last Passover meal. Only when we consider the significance of the Jewish defeat with the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple do we begin to see what a radical unhinging had taken place with the loss of all the focal points in Judaism: land, nationhood, temple, sacrifices and priesthood wiped out. Of course, those earlier brought to the faith by a Pauline Christianity, especially converts from paganism would have rejected the demands of conversion to full Judaism some time in the 50’s but what of those more attached to Judaism, as were those of the Jerusalem Christians and Matthew’s communities? The fact that the writer of Hebrews deliberately stresses the links and vivid contrast between Christianity and Judaism is significant, after all, there would have been little point in making this kind of argument to converts from paganism, they wouldn’t have known what he was talking about, but Jewish Christians would.

Christian Jews could now no longer hark back to the temple and long for its restoration, they had to move on and into a relationship with Father and Son continually given in the power of the Holy Spirit who has quite simply superseded all other forms of sacrifice, most especially those of the Jerusalem temple. Hebrews then is a magnificent and successful sales ploy on the part of a remarkable theologian aiming to convince and capture people thrown all array by the failure of the Jewish Revolt and at a loss at to where to turn in their faith.

Our writer therefore labours to impress upon his listeners and readers the defining story of Christianity and its superiority over Judaism and temple sacrifices which have continually to be repeated because of human sin. No, he insists Christ offers himself only once to take the faults of many on himself. Indeed, by his self sacrificial death he has achieved far more, for, through the blood of Jesus we have the right to enter the sanctuary, by a new way which he has opened for us, a living opening through the curtain, that is to say, his body. Where formerly, under the temple a great curtain separated Jewish believers from God’s presence now Jesus’ death has torn that down and in him we all have direct access to God. This is what the Ascension is about and all we have to do, according to Hebrews is to have a good conscience and we can and do continually meet the risen, glorified Jesus in the Eucharist. God is now with us, inseparably a part of our lives.

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