Ascension Day is one of the most neglected festivals in the Church of England today. It always falls on a weekday, and this country unlike many continental countries, does not recognise its importance by making it a public holiday. It suffers from the further disadvantage that the season it ushers in is a short one, and even this is coming to be dominated in the latest lectionaries by preparation for the celebration of Pentecost ten days later.
All of this is unfortunate, because Ascension is rich in meaning. One of the themes particularly associated with the Ascension is that of the heavenly high priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Part of the meaning of the Ascension is that he ascended to the Father’s right hand (to use the pictorial language of the Bible and Creeds) not only as Son of God but also as Son of man. He did not divest himself of his humanity at the Ascension. Rather he took our human nature to the throne of Godhead, and appears in heaven continually on behalf of humanity, as our Advocate and Mediator (to use two other biblical terms closely related to the High Priest).
As the hymn puts it: His manhood pleads,where now it lives on heaven’s eternal throne.
Within the New Testament it is the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews that develops the theme of the heavenly priesthood of our Lord most completely. The writer takes up the theme of the priesthood in the Old Testament, and shows, in a series of arguments, how Jesus fulfils and transcends all that the Jewish priesthood was meant to be. The reasoning is complex, but repays careful reading, study and reflection. One key passage is 5:1-10. here the writer makes three important points about the priesthood of Jesus. The first is that priests are such by divine appointment, by being called by God. The Jewish priests owed their divine appointment to their ancestor Aaron. Jesus did not belong to the priestly tribe of Levi, but his appointment was of a different order, that of Melchizedek, attested in one of the messianic psalms (110:4).
The writer goes to some length in chapter 7 to explain how the priestly order of Melchizedek was superior to that of Aaron even within the Old Testament. The second point is that every priest appointed to represent humanity in things pertaining to God, particularly in offering sacrifice to atone for human sin.
This theme is worked out in some detail in chapters 8-10 where the writer shows that Jesus inaugurated the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah, and offered the one sacrifice that avails to atone for all human sin for all time. The third point underlines the humanity of Jesus. His human experience was like ours in every respect except that he was sinless. The agony in Gethsemane shows the reality of his human experience. The writer points out that this gives us confidence to approach Jesus as our High Priest: the fact that he has shared our human experience and suffering demonstrates his ability to come to our help in our own time of need.
Tony Gelston is Emeritus Reader in theology in the University of Durham