THE LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT
Douglas Dales begins a series of articles on the essentials of the faith by considering the mystery of communion with God
Why does the Church exist? Jesus said, `I have come that they may have life - life in all its fullness.' Any church exists therefore to be the place where that life is made accessible - to its members, and to those outside. To the distractions inside the church and outside it in society, the words of St. Augustine are directly relevant: `God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.' The joy embedded in the witness of the New Testament is that this can be found and entered upon; that it is indeed a true possibility that men and women can come to know God in a loving relationship; and that within that relationship, and only within it, life may be experienced in all its fullness, now and for eternity.
When Jesus said, `Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God', he was affirming a truth at the heart of the faith of Israel, that God could reveal himself to those whom He made ready to receive Him. Yet at the end of the prologue to his gospel, the fourth evangelist declares: `No one has ever seen God: God the only-begotten, the Son who is nearest to the Father's heart, he has made Him known.' So the heart of the gospel is to be found at the moment of the Transfiguration when, in the words of St. Paul, the `glory of God shone forth in the face of Jesus Christ'. This was in direct fulfilment of the hope of Israel, in its antiquity and also in its contemporary mysticism. But it was also in fulfilment of the promise of Jesus that `there are some of those standing here who will not taste of death before they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.' At this moment therefore was brought to a focus the truth declared in the prologue of St. John: `Thus the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, such glory as befits the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth.' It is supported by two other moments of epiphany - at the Baptism and before the Passion, according to the fourth gospel. It points forward also to the mystery of the Resurrection and to the acclamation of Thomas: "My Lord and my God" This then is the heart of the Christian faith: that in Jesus God revealed Himself truly, and in a way to which human beings can relate in love, worship and obedience in both a personal and corporate way. Any church, at whatever level, must seek this reality without distraction, and by so seeking, mediate it by its common and individual life to others.
It is the writer of `Hebrews' who most eloquently outlines the scope of this `new and living way which Jesus has opened for us through the curtain, the way of his flesh.' He affirms that, in the humanity of Jesus, God accomplished once and for all the reconciliation between mankind and himself - all to which the ancient sacrifices of Israel were intended. As the Son, `He is the radiance of God's glory, the stamp of God's very being', so that if you want to know what God is like, as you look into the person of Jesus you will fmd out. Yet his glory is found in his death on the cross. His identification with mankind is complete in this suffering and death: it is this that attracts us to him, seeking his help in the midst of sin and weakness. Yet at the same time this writer emphasises the heavenly reality of Jesus as mediator between humanity and God: `Jesus holds a perpetual priesthood, because he remains forever. That is why he is able to save completely those who approach God through him, since he is always alive to plead on their behalf.' So this new and living way is indeed accessible, but it is also awesome. Jesus is not simply the focus of personal devotion, affection and dependence. He is `holy, innocent, undefiled, set apart from sinners, and raised above the heavens.' The possibility of this way rests upon sacrifice - but in this case `the blood of his sacrifice is his own blood', for `through the eternal Spirit he offered himself without blemish to God'. It is upon this basis and by the will of God `that we have been consecrated, through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for a11'. This is not intended as a merely symbolic statement, though clearly the reality it indicates transcends the capacity of human language. The new and living way is opened by the shedding of the blood of Jesus, an action within history and human nature, an action of supreme cost and awesome in its divine power, an action made real at the heart of the Church's life.
The reality of this `new and living way' is summed up at the start of B Peter: `God's divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and true religion, through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. In this way he has given us his promises, great beyond all price, so that through them you may escape the corruption with which lust has infected the world, and may come to share in the very being of God. "
Everywhere in the New Testament, in different modes of expression, this is the common
message: that in Jesus, by the indwelling of the Spirit, it is possible to come into union with God and to share in his nature by grace. This astonishing truth fulfils the meaning of the primordial belief that man was made, male and female together, in the image and the likeness of God. In Jesus the true image is recognised - the true nature and potential of humanity revealed. By the Spirit the lost likeness is being restored by divine love, through the hard road of repentance, into true Christlikeness. In this process human relationships are restored to their proper balance in freedom and compassion. And the goal of this way lies in the life that is beyond this life - participation in the eternal life and love. of God himself, revealed to man in the three persons of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
The message is united in its diversity. The points of reference in St. John are manifold, as that gospel communicates what it actually means to receive Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. It is emphatic about the reality of this divine indwelling, symbolised in the living water within, and about the participation in the divine life which will transcend death, symbolised in the living bread. Both these `symbols' spring from the ancient belief of Israel about the Torah - the divine law, which has now become embodied in Jesus. Both these symbols become accessible spiritual realities only through the death upon Calvary. The awesome intensity of this testimony is conveyed in these mysterious words from the final discourse: `anyone who loves me will heed what I say; then my Father will love him, and we will come t him and make our dwelling with him'.
St. Paul gives us the first autobiographical witness to the experience of being `in Christ'. It is through this experience that the tradition he has received becomes the gateway to a profound understanding of the meaning of the suffering and dying of Jesus, and also to a vision of the divine glory and an overwhelming sense of the indwelling of the Spirit. One passage must suffice:
`But we have only earthenware jars to hold this treasure, and this proves that such transcendent power does not come from us; it is God's alone ... Wherever we go we carry with us in our body the death that Jesus died, so that in this body also the life that Jesus lives may be revealed ... Thus death is at work in us, but life in you.'
The Church is the creation of God through
Christ, manifest in time but rooted in eternity, sustained by the activity of the Spirit. Churches of whatever Christian tradition are called to become transformed into true participants in the life of this one true Church. The path of this transformation is a corporate pilgrimage of faith but one that is rooted in the hearts, wills and minds of individual Christians. It is truly a `ladder of divine ascent', that for which humanity was created and to which it is now called afresh. The ladder is tangible in the sense that it may be grasped by fidelity to the gospels and the creeds, by participation in the eucharist which renews our baptism, and by the quality of life and relationships in the fellowship of the church. These relationships are hallmarked by the self-sacrificing and ascetic morality without which this ladder can hardly be climbed at all. But the way of this climb is indicated by those who have already climbed it and who seek only to assist those of us who will follow in their steps - the saints. In subsequent articles it is proposed to ,me the shape and angle of this ladder with these various components in mind. As faithful Christians, like St. Paul and others before us, we are called `to put God's word into full effect ... to make known what a wealth of glory is offered to all mankind in this secret purpose Christ in you, the hope of glory.,
Douglas Dales is Head of Religious Studies at Marlborough College
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