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The Absence of Christ

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Question 46: What do you mean by saying, “He ascended to heaven”?

Answer: That Christ was taken up from the earth into heaven before the very eyes of his disciples and remains there on our behalf until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.

Question 47: But isn’t Christ with us until the end of the world as he promised?

Answer: Christ is truly human and truly God. In his human nature Christ is not now on earth; but in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit he is never absent us.

Question 49: How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?

Answer: First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.

Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a guarantee that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.

Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a further guarantee. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.

Between Ascension Day and Christ’s return on the Last Day we live with the dual experience of the absence of and the presence of Jesus Christ.This is a time of waiting. It is a time to live by the first fruits of the Spirit when we do not yet enjoy the full harvest. These are the days when the signs of the reign of God are all around us, but when the prince of darkness still roars like an aggressive lion. We live by the promise that Christ is coming soon. But, in the meanwhile, like those ten virgins in the Bible, we must wait.

After his ascension, Christ’s absence weighed down on the disciples while they huddled in the room with doors locked until the Holy Spirit came down upon them at Pentecost. Then after Pentecost, even when the Spirit was with them, they lived with the experience that his incarnate body was not on earth but seated on the right hand of his Father. They were exposed to persecutions, martyrdoms, illness, and death while waiting for his coming again. To this day, we share–personally, socially, and politically–in that experience of his absence.

That experience came home to me in 1991–93, the three years prior to my retirement when I met annually, along with representatives of other mission agencies, with leaders of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan. We heard how six million refugees were displaced from their homes because of the war and how church buildings and homes were burned. Children and adults were dying for lack of food. Worst of all, we heard how despair sets in when people are left without hope for their future on earth. God seemed to have abandoned them.

But in fact Christ had not abandoned them. The Catechism says that while they were suffering on earth, Jesus Christ remained their advocate with his Father in heaven. His body was absent from earth in order to guarantee that they would be taken up to live with him in the presence of God.

Yet even while living with the experience of the absence of Christ, until he comes again we also live with the experience of the presence of Christ in his Holy Spirit. The signs of Christ’s presence remained in those villages. They knew this presence when they sang hymns, worshipped together, and heard the stories from the Bible. When their pastors came, they celebrated the Lord’s Supper, where the Spirit of Christ was present with the bread and wine, the sacramental tokens that Christ was still present reigning among them.

At a time when the villagers had lost all their tools and fishing equipment, a Reformed Church World Service shipment of seeds, hoes, and shovels became tokens of Christ’s concern that they would once again have the food that they needed. A shipment of one hundred thousand fish hooks together with bales of fishing line became a sign that the Spirit of Jesus who had once called fishermen to become fishers of men was now present among them, enabling them to once again become fishers of fish.

Our sense of the absence of Christ occurs not only when we look at the suffering world. We also experience it when the depths of our souls feel empty and we wonder whether God still hears our prayers. Seventeenth-century Reformed church pietists lamented over God’s abandonment of them. They wept, saying, “I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me” (Psalm 69:2). Sometimes they recognized that the Spirit of Christ had departed from them because they had first departed from Christ. But they also meditated on the fact that Jesus had experienced being forsaken by God in Gethsemane and on the cross. The experience of Christ’s absence can have a positive purpose, perhaps to warn us not to become proud of our own spirituality, or perhaps to teach us how to encourage others when they feel abandoned, or perhaps even to encourage us to wait more patiently for the presence of the Spirit.

Those pietists also tell us what to do when the experience of Christ’s absence overwhelms us. They advise us, “Seek out the companionship of other believers; continue to join in the prayers, hymns, and celebration of the Lord’s Supper on Sunday; read the Bible, especially the Psalms; and continue to pray even when prayer seems empty.” When we continue in such spiritual exercises, the Spirit of the Lord sustains us with the result that “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Eugene Heideman served as pastor, foreign missionary, professor, and denominational executive for the Reformed Church in America.