Rowan Williams on the Ascension of Jesus

This is the twenty-third follow-up entry to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens”; here we look at a short entry on the ascension of Jesus by Rowan Williams (published in a theological dictionary), and some homilies by the same either touching on the ascension or else delivered on or about the Feast of the Ascension.

The previous posts ranged across a number of authors at different times and places and religious affiliations, and were not organized well into any outline, so I ordered them; further, the follow-up posts were becoming so numerous, and the text block listing and briefly introducing them was so large, that they were soon going to take up more space than the posts themselves. Thus, I organized and listed them here.


The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Professor The Lord Williams of Oystermouth Rowan Williams was the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. Having spent a number of years as an academic theologian in Oxford & Cambridge before his elevation to the See of Canterbury, it appears that he is currently largely retired from his public duties & offices. His reputation is generally very high in the broader Christian world — Mainline Protestant, Anglican (if that’s a distinct thing, and it seems to me that it is), Roman Catholic academics, the more intellectual reaches of the Revivalist (Evangelical) world (they are actually a thing, although they are often just Anglican), and the academically sensitive parts of the Orthodox commonwealth.

Williams has written not an insubstantial amount about the ascension of Jesus, and what he takes to be its meaning. In a two-page entry in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology ed. Alan Richardson & John Bowden (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 44-45, Williams notes that

Although the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father is a fundamental element of the NT preaching, it is Luke alone who presents this clearly in narrative form […], with far more theological and typological detail. [44]

Which is, of course, true: only Luke really treats the ascension in any detail. The expanded ending to Mark (almost certainly not original) has note of it, and John mentions it, but that’s it. Williams also notes that

Jesus’ departure is not so much the conclusion of a sequence of resurrection appearances as the first movement in the creation of a worldwide mission and witness by the [C]hurch in the power of the promised Spirit. [44]

That second excerpt is important, because it jibes with his notion of the Church as a location of divine semiotics, as it were, as a location in which gestures of God through sacrament, preaching, and social activity takes place, and his notion of believers sharing in Jesus’ intimacy with the Father through the ascension of his humanity.

Phil. 2:9-11 describes Christ’s exaltation in terms of the universality of his authority, but it is Ephesians which develops this a little further, seeing the heavenly enthronement as involving the present exaltation of all who are in Christ (2:6): this is what it means for the [C]hurch to be filled with Christ’s fullness […]. [44]

Williams’ language rides a line: he should know that most scholars do not accept that Ephesians is genuinely written by Paul, but is deutero-Pauline; this doesn’t really matter for outlining the traditions as they appear in the New Testament, but still — his language manages to avoid attributions of authorship. The enthronement of all Christians ties into his concern about the Church as a place where divine gestures occur, as something of a divine outpost in the world, even in its failure.

And for the writer of Hebrews, Christ’s being received in heaven means the acceptance of his atonement offering of his blood, by which we are all given the priestly privilege of entering the sanctuary (10:19) […]. [44]

I will not touch on atonement theory here, but this is a big part of Hebrews’ cosmology and “hierology”, so to speak: Christ goes before God in his ascension so as properly to present the sacrificial offering of himself. This is very different from the kind of atonement theology —which is really divine law-talk— that Revivalist Protestants are very enamored with (legal theories of the atonement get to skip past questions of “where did Jesus go to present this offering, exactly?”).

Williams rightly notes that ascent themes are present in a wider range of literature:

Variations on the descent-ascent scheme reflected in Philippians and Ephesians appear in Jewish-Christian and Gnostic literature: the Ascension of Isaiah employs this imagery extensively, with an important visionary account of Son and Spirit worshipped by the lesser angels and other creatures, but themselves worshipping the Father. Apocalyptic mysticism, drawing on its roots in Ezekiel and Daniel, shows an abiding interest in the theme of entry into the heavenly places and sharing in the heavenly liturgy — following Jesus’ way to the Father.

This is true, but he then manages to marginalize the importance of this in what follows:

But on the whole, patristic and mediaeval treatment of the subject concentrates not on any visionary experience of sharing the life of heaven, but on the Ascension as sealing and perfecting the renewal of human nature by Christ. His glorification is the firstfruits of deified humanity (Chrysostom); we are glorified as members of the ascended head of the Body, and are presented by him to his Father (Augustine). Also, very importantly, the Ascension is the pledge of the glorification of the whole person, body and soul — a point underlined in the fine office hymn (from perhaps the fifth century) for Matins on Ascension Day (Aeterne Rex): Peccat caro, mundat caro, Regnat Deus Dei caro (‘flesh hath purged what flesh had stained, And God, the Flesh of God, hath reigned’).

First off, note that Williams first admits that ascent to heaven was a theme in apocalyptic mysticism, that there was a tradition about this, and then simply states that the patristic and medieval traditions don’t focus on the visionary experience of an ascent to heaven. This notes a difference that it entirely fails to explain.

Also, and contrary to what Williams writes, there is a strong tradition of vision and ascent throughout the patristic and medieval periods, though it is not made an explicit goal of piety for all, nor are priests or other ecclesiastical officials expected to have had such an experience of ascent in order to justify their offices. That was something of how the prophetic office was justified, and probably goes a way as to explaining why it died. Wandering prophets were domesticated into the stable, local communities (as we see in the Didache). Others could receive visions. The monastic movement of the third century seems to have picked up this prophetic tradition of aspiring to the divine vision, only to have much of its naïve theology anathematized or ridiculed.

Doctrinally, then, the Ascension (whatever its historical and narrative uncertainties) marks the culmination of the resurrection gospel — the universalizing of Jesus’ relevance to all aspects of human life, individual and global; the present possibility of a share in Jesus’ loving union with his Father, i.e. a life of both trustfulness and authority; the crowning of the purpose of Jesus life and death in the restoration of fellowship between heaven and earth. It represents both the call to witness (and to recognize Christ in the world of which he is declared Lord ) and the promise of transformed —’deified’— life, as the ground and source of that witness. [45]

[W]hatever its historical and narrative uncertainties” — again, Williams calls to attention some critical gaps that he fails to address. What are the implications of these uncertainties — how do they affect how we can, and ought, to regard these narratives, either in the serviceability of their concrete images (if the images are like artwork that is simply meant to communicate a general idea that is held on other grounds), or else in the implications of these narratives being thought to be actually true, and the only real grounds for making the more general theological assertions about Jesus?

Williams is very happy to move from concrete textual data to general-principle point quite quickly, without explaining how he justifies this transition.

The references Williams cites are Davies He Ascended into Heaven, which I have yet to treat, but which is also a source for Ratzinger, and Ratzinger’s 1968 Sacramentum Mundi article.



Let us move chronologically through three other sermons. Williams delivered a homily about the ascension (for the Feast of the Ascension) on May the 21st, 2009. In that homily, Williams writes that the ascension story is basically about, in Christ’s gathering of humanity to the Father (and the corresponding act of the sending of the Spirit on the world); it is

a celebration of the glory of humanity, the unlikely possibilities of people like you and me, the eternal potential locked up in our muddled struggling lives. And a celebration too of God’s capacity, through his Holy Spirit, to reach into those parts of humanity that are so far from glorious, that are rebellious and troubled and broken, to breathe through them, to take them home, to drop them into that fire and melt them and recast them.

There, he does not say that Jesus’ ascension took him “up”, but uses the metaphor of the center: our humanity is “capable” of “being […] received and welcomed in the burning heart of reality itself”; Jesus, Williams preaches, took our humanity there in himself. He repeats the metaphor of the center:

Jesus takes our human nature —yours and mine— to the heart of God and he speaks to God his father in a human voice. In heaven the language they speak is human (not just angelic). Our words (human words) are heard at the very centre of the burning heart of reality.

Those words, Williams writes, express our human nature, in all of its warts, in all of the ugliest parts of our humanity, such as we see in the Psalms, which contain not only some of the loftiest and morally and spiritually elevating phrases one will read, but also some spectacular words of revenge and wrath and pettiness and self-loathing and more. There is no point in hiding these parts of ourselves, and “God has actually taken an initiative in making our language his own.” Jesus gathers this, because Jesus

takes us seriously when we’re moving towards God and each other in love; and, amazingly, he takes us seriously when we’re moving in the opposite direction – when we are spinning downwards into destructive, hateful fantasies. He doesn’t let go of us and he doesn’t lose sight of us when we seek to lock ourselves up in the dark. […] [Jesus] hears them and he takes them and in the presence of the God the Father he says, ‘This is the humanity I have brought home. It’s not a pretty sight; it’s not edifying and impressive and heroic, it’s just real: real and needy and confused, and here it is (this complicated humanity) brought home to heaven, dropped into the burning heart of God – for healing and for transformation. 

Again, the metaphor of the “burning heart” at the center —not the top— of reality. (This metaphor shift is an important feature of the modern age, and not peculiarly Christian.)

Jesus ascends to heaven. The human life in which God has made himself most visible, most tangible, disappears from the human world in its former shape and is somehow absorbed into the endless life of God. And our humanity, all of it, goes with Jesus […] into the heart of love where alone they can be healed and transfigured.

There is that ‘ascent into the center’, as I might phrase it. This mixes metaphors, but that is probably inevitable in the modern age, where so many older metaphors no longer have a cosmographic context that allow them to make sense the way they would have to people in earlier ages.

Like the author of Luke-Acts, the ascension of Jesus is linked to the descent of the Spirit; Williams sees this descent as the movement and gestures of God in the world, as a kind of empathetic and sensitive in-gathering both of dimensions of human experience, and of the range of people who suffer (“All of that [i.e., the many voices of human suffering, gathered in Jesus] on the throne of eternity in the burning heart of truth and reality”):

When the Holy Spirit sweeps over us in the wind and the flame of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gives us the life of Jesus. It gives us something of Jesus’ capacity to hear what is really being said by human beings […] It opens our eyes and our ears and our hearts to the full range of what being human means. So that, instead of being somebody who needs to be sheltered from the rough truth of the world, the Christian is someone who should be more open and more vulnerable to that great range of human experience. […] God’s capacity, through his Holy Spirit, to reach into those parts of humanity that are so far from glorious, that are rebellious and troubled and broken, to breathe through them, to take them home, to drop them into that fire and melt them and recast them.

The fire, the center, ascension, transformation. I suppose it would be interesting to know how to map the semantic range of these words in ancient and modern contexts — the metaphor of the center and the metaphor of fire would be placed very differently, and the expansive receptiveness of human suffering that Williams champions may be overwhelmingly displaced by a sense of the earthliness of the Earth (and the suffering on the Earth) as flawed and dense and recalcitrant of the work of both the human spirit and the divine Spirit.

I suspect that ancient authors would have seen the descent of the Spirit as transformative for an upright life, and as a prelude for a fiery judgment, but I know there were universalist voices even in the late antique world who saw the fire as purgative and purifying and salvific and a form of divine love.


The second homily I could only find preserved in audio form. In 14th of May of 2015, Williams preached a sermon on the Feast of the Ascension. (The audio can be found here.)

“And still the holy Church is here, although her Lord is gone” — two of the silliest lines in our hymnody, Williams says.

This suggests a Jesus who says to his disciples, before his ascension: “Are you sure you’re going to be alright on your own?”, instead of “Stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.”

…of course, there is an obvious sense in which the Lord is not here in the way in which he was. Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, is no longer an object inside the universe, as when he walked in Galilee, as when he hung on the cross. His presence in the world is not that of a thing among other things; his presence is a pervasive life; his presence is an ever-present agency: a word, an embrace, a challenge, an invitation —and as soon as you try and lay hold of it, it evaporates between your hands, and yet is more real and solid than anything we can conceive. The Lord is not here, in that simple sense. —but the sense in which he is here, as power, as agency, as word and invitation — that is what the Church and its ministers struggle hour by hour, day by day, and millennium by millennium, to make sense of.

This does not strike me as consistent with the patristic or medieval testimonies — the idea that Jesus is nowhere to be found in the world. It is, however, the case. The upper floor is gone. That is not a “where” for Jesus to be. He seems to be advocating for a much more Lutheran notion of Jesus’ body as ubiquitous (appearing where God appears, which is everywhere), but that God (and so the ubiquitous body of Jesus) is only to be sought in the places where God covenants himself to be given — such as in the Eucharist and in the apostolic preaching (and, Williams would likely add, in the social mission of the Church).  

Williams goes on to suggest that there are “at least two considerations” that follow from what he says here.

Firstly, “[i]n one important but alarming sense, the Church, its people and ministers, are the good news.” The people of the Church are the place where the word, the act, the embrace, the gestures of Christ are made present, and credible. “Our calling is to make God believable in what we say.” People will turn to you, bishops, to hear what God has to say. You are the good news for the people of God there, for an interviewer for a radio station, &c. You cannot bear this in your own strength. 

The “second dimension” —the second consideration— is that “you are not the good news.” As you exercise your ministry, you will find that your humanity was not taken away from you today. There will be times when you damage and undermine others, or evade, or procrastinate. There is a prayer of gratitude that the new bishops should say, that their weaknesses should reveal something of God’s strength.

Also, the Church is not the good news. The absence of Jesus, and thus (it seems?) the absence of God is again noted:

The Church is not stand-in for Jesus Christ; the Church is not here to apologize for God’s unavoidable absence; the Church is here so that the invitation, the power, the energy, the heartbreaking love and challenge of God in Jesus Christ will go on being enacted hour by hour, day by day, and millennium by millennium — and that is the good news.

It is curious that Williams seems to want to connect the ascension of Jesus and Pentecost to historically unique moments, to general trends in history, and to ideals or models after which the Church should strive to conform herself.
It is also interesting that Williams wants to connect all of this to divine hiddenness or even absence. Williams also says that the bishops’ uneven actions are “woven in” to God’s action. It seems that the infinite God in heaven is, and any signs or wonders coming down from on high are, absorbed into divine gestures inflected through ecclesiastical humanity (a Cartesian absorption), rather than into the world (a Spinozistic absorption).

“You are witnesses of these things” — witnesses of that life hidden with Christ in God, witnesses of that new world which Christ is already, in his ascension, carrying in his wounded hands into the presence of the Father.

Williams does not say much here that he did not say earlier, but it makes some of his points clearer.


Finally, in another Ascension Day homily preached on the 10th of May in 2018, Williams opens by citing the words of the founder of the modern Iona Community, George MacLeod, who said

There is a human being in heaven; one of us has made it.

Immediately Williams states that Jesus may be one of us, but he is not like us. He mentions a curious ritual in which

every Ascension Day, members of the chaplaincies of both York’s universities climb[…] the Minster tower […].

Apparently this is still done. The metaphor of height may be gone, as Williams seems to want to replace it with metaphors of depth and of centers (vs. peripheries?), but eventually he is, here, forced to confront the mismatch.

We use the language of ascending and descending —up  to heaven, down  to earth— as a way of trying to make sense of our feeling that there is a distance (maybe even a separation) between us and God: as if we belong here, and God there. Jesus forces us to rethink that idea. For he is both here and there; both with God and with us; both then and now.

If the language of height is supposed to express a sense of alienation, it won’t be solved by a homily, and it is not clear that Jesus ever forced or forces us to rethink the idea — that imperative seems to come from elsewhere. Further, if one wants to say, with Williams, that Jesus “is both here and there; both with God and with us”, then I need to drive home the question: where is the “there” that is “with God”?

Unfortunately, Williams wants to turn the conflict between ancient and modern cosmographic models —a conflict that is, I will grant, partially raised by Eucharistic piety and Christology— into a divine riddle, into a paradox, when it never was a riddle or a paradox where Jesus’ body was thought to be. Williams wants to say that the ‘up vs. down’ divisions that were so clearly spatially related in the ancient world are “too small” for this singularity, and that “there is no division between heaven and earth”. 

All the ways we have of understanding how time and space work are simply too small to comprehend how God can be both human and divine. We’re confronted with the same problem at the other end of the liturgical year: Ascension and Advent are opposite sides of the same coin. At Advent, we experience a similar knot in our linear understanding of time: we await the arrival of a baby who is simultaneously timeless, present in creation from the beginning of all time; and  fixed in human history in first-century Palestine; and eternally present as we await the fulfilment of all time. At Ascension, we see that just as God transcends our understanding of time —past, present and future— so too God transcends our understanding of space — up and down, here and there. There is no division between heaven and earth. God is, was, and ever shall be here. God is, was, and ever shall be one of us: from the beginning of time to its end.

Now, with regard to Advent, there is something to this idea of timelessness and time overlapping, perhaps, in passages like those in Hebrews where the Lamb was “slain before the foundation of the world”, even though Jesus was, of course, executed on the cross in the passage of history. With regard to ascension, however, passages like John 3:13 show a strong discomfort with the idea that anyone else has even ever ascended to heaven — whether Elijah or Isaiah or Enoch or whomever, and so seems to set up an exceptionalism that is rooted in historical particularity. This doesn’t necessarily exclude typological overlap between some primordial event of ascension and Jesus’ ascension, but it never says that, and we must be cautious about projecting into a vacuum.

—which, so far as we know, is all that is “up” there: vacuum, and other planets.

“Stay here in the city until you are clothed with power from on high”.

It is here, and now, that we are to build the Kingdom and live out the truth of God, until we discover for ourselves what is beyond this life, beyond our current capacity to imagine or comprehend.

There is a laudable hope here (I, too, hope in the resurrection, in a final apocatastasis, some horizon where all of history is recalled, rescued, transformed, and vivified incorruptibly in something that is neither static nor the kind of time we know here). The apostles’ task

is to begin the work now of transforming the world we live in into the kingdom of heaven. It is not that God belongs there and we belong here. Quite the opposite. There is a human being in heaven: and because there is one, wherever human beings are is also, already, touched with the divine.

This seems to slide around the element of divine acts as intervening judgment, and of ecclesiastical separation, that there is a community that sees itself as part of the divine body through Jesus that is not coterminous with humanity as a whole (though the push to make that part of humanity that is the body of Jesus largely identical with the Church is a strong element of late antique Christianity). The historical distance seems to interrupt the beautiful thought with historical difference. There are precedents in the Psalms and elsewhere for a universal ingathering of sorts, and this is seen as a kind of messianic hope; the sectarian holiness drive needs to be admitted honestly, however. It is tied into a notion of Heaven and Earth as separated, and the overcoming of the separation as only available through certain particular means — and not as a de facto universal possibility.

‘Why do you stand looking up into heaven?’ It is all around you. There is a human being in heaven. The whole world belongs to God, across every boundary of time or space: and it is here in the city that we are to find him.

What a beautiful homily, in so many ways! I only wish Williams would confront, head-on, the implications of the spatial differences between Heaven & Earth in the earlier texts, rather than trying to dissolve them through Christology.


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