Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. (Hebrews 4.14)
The Missing Icon
“Icon” came into usage to set Christian paintings apart from portraiture of Greco-Roman gods and Old Testament heroes. While the term now covers everything from movie stars to computer widgets, its initially provided “snap shots” of Christ, first and foremost, but also Mary, the disciples, and later saints. Googling “Christ” and “icon” turns up innumerable versions of one image: Jesus holding an open text in one hand while gesturing with the other. This is Christ the Teacher. After it, a smattering of other icons follows: The Miracle Worker, The Crucified Christ, The Risen Christ, The Ascendant Christ, Christ the King, etc. Still, the Teacher dominates the field, since, in life, Jesus was a rabbi.
Yet casting Jesus as such troubled Early Church theologians. Judaism was stocked with great rabbis—Hillel, for example, whose writings in the generation before Jesus were revered as nearly sacred. There were also dozens of prophets and miracle workers in the lore. All of these figures, like Jesus, rose on the strength of their callings. To categorize Christ among them would reinforce His ordinariness, planting questions about His divinity and doubts about the meaning of His death and resurrection. There was, however, one vocation unlike any other: the priesthood. Priestly titles were inherited and confined to one tribe of Israel, the Levites. Priests were bred, not called.
Only one known exception to this rule predates Jesus, a man named Melchizedek, who—not coincidentally—also predates the Levites. He briefly surfaces in Genesis as a priest who serves Abraham, the great-grandfather of Levi. After that, other than an oblique mention in Psalm 110, no reference to Melchizedek is made until the Hebrews writer uses him to redefine Jesus as our high priest by calling. Not fitting the Levite mold, Jesus broke it, Hebrews says, enabling Him to be more than our Teacher. He’s our Confessor and Intercessor, the Advocate pleading our case before God. This is a seismic shift in the affairs of God and humanity, an irreversible improvement on an unparalleled scale. And Hebrews insists we grasp it. Do we? Judging by the iconography, it’s doubtful. Christ the Teacher is everywhere; Christ the Priest is nowhere. It’s the missing icon.
A Big Deal
Throughout Christendom, today is Ascension Sunday, commemorating Christ’s return to Heaven. The mysteries baked into this event—the physics of it, if nothing else—incline us to observe it without quite rejoicing in it. We’re apt to think of it as no big deal, the last stop before next Sunday’s really big blow-out: Pentecost. But if I read Hebrews correctly, the writer would take us to task for not recognizing the Ascension is a big deal—an event every bit as essential and joyful as Easter and Pentecost. It’s the day we celebrate Jesus’s priesthood. And knowing we now have a Priest in Christ is worth celebrating. Hebrews 4.14 puts it like this: “Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” With the Ascension, Jesus effectively becomes the Agent that fixes our faith. The Cross provides atonement for sins. The Resurrection delivers us from death. Without a Priest to facilitate our repentance, though, they’re just historical events. Had Jesus not ascended, we’d be as lost as we were before He died and rose again.
This is what Hebrews is all about—knowing by faith we have a High Priest. The writer follows up the allusion to the Ascension with one of the most thrilling passages in the epistles: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (v15-16) The whole point in a living Savior is knowing He’s there when we need Him. Jesus ascends out of physical reach to remain forever in human reach. He knows and understands our frailties, and no matter where or when we need Him, we approach Him confidently, certain we’ll receive mercy and find grace. This makes the Ascension a big deal indeed, one to be celebrated on par with the highest holy days.
What’s Happening to Him?
One imagines the Hebrews author would be outraged that many of us limit our view of the Ascension to how it affects the disciples (and, by extension, us). “Look at Jesus,” we hear him/her say. “Don’t you see what’s happening to Him?” Now that we’ve opened our minds to the Ascension’s meaning, we watch Christ leave the planet in utter amazement. Transformation occurs before our very eyes. Unlike the Incarnation and Resurrection, which happen off-stage, we actually observe Christ’s ministerial transition from Rabbi to Priest. We see Him literally entering the priesthood. And while we assess what’s happening to Him, we also gauge what’s happening to us. We’re shaking off the last vestiges of condemnation, fear, and hopelessness. What never was, and never will be, possible for us is now reality through our High Priest.
In The Revelation, John of Patmos is lifted into Heaven and meets the Ascended Christ. The transformation is stunning. He describes Christ’s hair as white wool, His eyes a blazing fire, and His feet molten bronze. Jesus doesn’t even sound the same: “His voice was like the sound of rushing waters.” (Revelation 1.15) Christ dictates seven letters regarding strengths or weaknesses that affect His service on our behalf. In one, He says, “I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (3.8) If Christmas celebrates God’s gift of love, Easter His gift of life, and Pentecost His gift of power, the Ascension celebrates His gift of freedom. With Christ as our High Priest, forbidding rules of engagement are revoked, eternally replaced by unfettered access. Perhaps there’s no icon of Christ the Priest because no artist can capture what John describes. But on this holiest of days, we rejoice because our Priest opens the door to us—all of us—a door no manmade power can close. Maybe that’s the most fitting Ascension icon of all, an open door.
In the Ascension we observe Christ’s transition from Rabbi to Priest. As our Teacher He opens our minds, as our Priest He opens the door to God’s grace.