Various ages and various traditions have translated the biblical descriptions of the ascension and session of our Lord in different ways theologically. Whenever Lutheran theology was most true to its most characteristic insights, however, it rejected the idea that the exaltation of our Lord had resulted in his imprisonment in a 68-by-18-by-9-inch hole in space above the empyrean. On the contrary, it insisted that the exaltation was precisely the decisive self-liberation of our Lord from the circumscribing confines of a state in which His body normally occupied and vacated space as He moved about. As God’s right hand is everywhere, Christ’s exaltation enabled Him to be in a very real sense with His disciples (and they in Him) among all nations and until the close of the age, individually and wherever two or three or more gather in His name. This presence includes all space but it transcends all spatial limitations. This presence is that of His true humanity, but it depends upon the omnipresence that is His in the personal union as the second hypostasis of the holy and undivided Trinity (Ep VIII.17).
Of His Godhead we can say with Luther:
Nothing is so small, but that God is still smaller; nothing is so big, but that God is still bigger; nothing is so short, but that God is still shorter; nothing is so long, but that God is still longer; nothing is so broad, but that God is still broader; nothing is so narrow, but that God is still narrower; and so on.1
But because God became man in Christ Jesus, this series of statements has implications for Christology and the sacraments as well.
This presence of the Godhead and of the exalted Christ is not something that we can manipulate. “There is a difference between his presence and your taking,” Luther observes in Dass diese Worte Christi, “Das ist mein Leib,” noch fest stehen (1527);
[God] is free and unbound wherever He is and does not have to stand there like a scoundrel locked in the stocks or wearing an iron collar… The same thing is true of Christ. Even though He is present everywhere, He does not let you take hold of Him or catch Him. He can divest himself of His shell, so that you get the shell and do not take hold of the kernel. Why? Because it is one thing when God is there and another when He is there for you. But He is there for you when he adds His word, binds Himself with it, and says: “Here you shall find me.” Now when you have the word, you can with assurance take hold of Him and have Him and say: “Here I have you, just as you say.”2
We are thus brought back to the biblical insight that an omnipresent God can be absent as far as the apprehension of His activity is concerned. Luther makes this point with specific reference to the Sacrament of the Altar, but the insight can be generalized:
Both can be true, that Christ is at the same time present and not present, according to different forms. . . God can very easily keep Christ’s body in heaven in one particular way, and in another way in the bread. If there are two different modes of presence in the two instances, no contradiction is involved, just as it is no contradiction that Christ sat with His disciples after His resurrection (St. Luke xxiv, 44), and yet at the same time was not with them, as He Himself says, “These things I spoke to you, while I was still with you.” Here we find “with you” and “not with you,” and yet there is no contradiction, for dialectics teaches children that contradictories must refer to the same thing, in the same form, in the same context.3
In this connection Jakob Andreae (1528-1590), coauthor of the Formula of Concord, can assert:
Here you have only one Christ and not two Christs, in such a way that the one is the son of God the other the son of man, one born of God the other of Mary, the one having suffered, the other not having suffered, the one in majesty, the other not, but there is a single Christ, the son of God and the son of Mary.4
We cannot of course describe our creaturely experience in the terms in which God sees it. But it is also obvious that we must not attempt to impose our creaturely category of space upon God, or even upon the humanity of the Incarnate Word. This carries with it the corollary that we cannot impose upon God or upon the humanity of the Incarnate Word our creaturely category of time. If His presence measured on one coordinate of creaturely existence, space, both includes and transcends space, His presence measured on the other coordinate of creaturely existence, time, includes time, so that it is completely historical, but nevertheless transcends time. This is true with reference both to the time of our Lord’s life upon earth in the days of His flesh and our present time and all time in between and in the future.
Hermann Sasse’s words are apposite:
In the Word of the Gospel, Christ, the Word Incarnate, speaks to us. In the Sacrament He gives us the same as He gave to the Twelve at the Last Supper. He gives us His true Body which was sacrificed on Calvary and raised from the dead on Easter. This makes us not only contemporaneous with Him, but unites us with Him in a way that transcends everything that we otherwise call “remembrance.” The centuries that separate us from His earthly days and from the time of His death disappear.
1. WA (Weimarer Ausgabe, the Weimar edition of Luther’s works) 26:339.39-340.1. Von Abendmahl Christi Bekenntnis (1528) AE (=American Edition of Luther’s Works) 37:228.↩
2. WA 23:151.3-17. Dass diese Worte Christi, “Das ist mein Leib,” noch fest stehen (1527) AE 37:68.↩
3. WA 26:413.20-414.30. Von Abendmahl Christi Bekenntnis (1528) AE 37:276-7.↩
4. Jacob Andrea, Von den Spaltungen, so sich zwischen den Theologen Augspurgisher Confession von Anno 1548 viss auff diss 1573. Jar nach und nach erhaben (Tubingen: Georf Fruppenbach, 1573) 84f.↩