Christ is Ascended!
On this feast of Christ’s bodily Ascension into heaven, we are reminded of the importance of our incarnational existence. Put another way, Christ came to not only save disembodied souls, but bodies as well—the whole person. What is more, according to the Fathers of the Church, by assuming human nature, Christ glorified our humanity and our embodied existence! The third sessional hymn for the Ascension Matins service says:
When you came down from heaven to things on earth and as God raised up with you Adam’s nature which lay below in Hades’ prison, you brought it to heaven by your Assumption, O Christ, and made it sit with you on your Father’s throne, as you are merciful and love humankind.
The Vespers service for the feast says that the “angels marveled to see a human high above them.” Christ, in a glorified spiritual human body, entered the space reserved for the divine beings. Man has been deified! This scandalous ascent is of the same glory that provoked the Satan to jealousy. Surely, humans, who are made of the earth and dust, do not deserve such glory. What is more, Jesus’s ascent is the glorification of the lowest of humanity. The Gospels remind us that after Christ’s resurrection, he still bore in his glorious spiritual body the wounds of his death. This glorified human was executed as a criminal. As St. Paul says, quoting the Jewish Law, “Cursed is everyone hung on a tree.” The same body that was received into glory is that one that was despised, beaten, mocked and killed just forty-three days prior. We must not forget that Jesus was lynched. Further, we must not forget that Jesus’s body was subjected to derision even prior to his voluntary crucifixion.
The world in which Jesus lived was one that rendered him and his people as socially inferior. The Roman empire, as an occupying power, was entitled to exploit and abuse the Jewish people in all manner of ways. This is why James Cone states in his book, God of the Oppressed, that Jesus is Black: “He is black because he was a Jew. The affirmation of the Black Christ can be understood only when the significance of his past Jewishness is related dialectically to the significance of his present blackness.” 1 What Cone means is that because of Jesus’s identification with the oppressed in history, we can confidently affirm that he eternally identifies with the oppressed in every context. For America in particular (historical differences considered), this necessarily means that Jesus is Black.
This does not, by any means, form the theological foundation for the imposition of a victim identity on all Black Americans. James Cone was Black, and he spoke from a position of great strength and power, not victimhood. In truth, the power of the Gospel is in the fact that victims of sin, death and the Satan are transformed into victors through the voluntary acceptance of death. What this simply means is that if we fail to acknowledge the suffering and oppression of anyone, we fail to acknowledge those with whom Christ makes himself present.
In the weeks since the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, examples of this have flooded the public consciousness. Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home by police officers with a no-knock warrant, looking for someone else. Travis Miller was blocked-in and harassed by two white residents demanding to know why he was driving a delivery truck through their neighborhood. Video has emerged of a white woman calling the police on Christian Cooper for “threatening her” in a park after he asked her to leash her dog. Most recently, George Floyd was killed as the result of an excessive use of force when an officer knelt on his neck in the street for over six minutes. All of these instances have one thing in common: black skin was automatically associated with crime or danger. The results of this prejudice have produced unnecessary death and public harassment.
American attitudes toward blackness are unique in history and were built upon years of slavery and racism. Regrettably, there are many examples of how religion has served to perpetuate racism. And while American racism is quite particular, many aspects of Christian history and theology have been co-opted to feed this American demon. It would be either naïve or directly ingenuous to suggest that Christendom has never been complicit in contributing to dividing and oppressing people according to race. Even though it has been argued that our contemporary conceptions of race diverge greatly from those of antiquity, the work of scholars like Geraldine Heng demonstrate just how long people have negatively distinguished one another according to skin color— and not just black skin. Heng’s The Invention of Race in The European Middle Ages highlights the various people groups throughout the middle ages that were stigmatized based on what she calls epidermal race. 2 In the fourth chapter, however, Heng demonstrates the ways in which Christian theology was contorted to associate black skin with irredeemable evil, moral darkness and sin. This was not initially done with malicious intent, and the use of light vs dark imagery is not inherently racist. Darkness was initially a theological abstraction separate from particular bodies. Gradually, abstract blackness as a symbol for evil came into conflict with the existence of people with dark skin in the European consciousness. Given our particular context and history, such color-oriented religious language has provided unfortunate fodder for our anti-Black racism in America. One does not need to search very deeply in Church history for examples of holy men and women using black skin as an illustration for sinfulness or spiritual darkness. Again, this does not mean that they were racist in the same way Americans often are. In fact, as Heng points out, early examples of imagining blackness as sinful serve as a universal precondition for salvation. This historic association of dark skin with moral corruption, however, can play into our entrenched biases, originally racist or not. And Orthodox Christians are not exempt from this pitfall.
At the last Ancient Christianity and African American Experience Conference, organized by the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, Fr. Samuel Davis pointed out one often overlooked aspect of being Black and Orthodox in America. He noted how often Black male converts to Orthodoxy assume St. Moses the Black as their patron saint. On the one hand, this is often due to the fact that most Orthodox Christians are not familiar with any Black or African saints other than St. Moses. St. Moses, the deeply beloved patron of our brotherhood, while a shining witness of repentance, radical hospitality and nonviolence, was a criminal and gang-leader before he became a Christian. This in no way detracts from his sanctity. Saints are regarded as holy because they were repentant, not because they were perfect. Fr. Samuel’s point, however, was that underlying this trend is often the automatic assumption that Black American men would naturally identify with a dark-skinned gang leader and murder. We have so thoroughly associated blackness with moral degeneracy that we assume that all Black converts would resonate with St. Moses’s criminal past. And the fact that we have no familiarity with other African saints or don’t consider them Black in the same way may speak to our selective veneration and ignorance of the sanctity of those with dark skin. Perhaps there is a latent religious racism residing in the back of many white Orthodox minds that automatically associates black skin with the inherent evil of Black people.
Of course, this racist association couldn’t be further from the truth of our Tradition. That isn’t to say that black skin hasn’t been used by Church Fathers as an illustration of sinfulness, but the exact opposite is also true. In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen, the third century African theologian and teacher of St. Gregory of Nyssa, offers a profound and dignified allegorical reading of Solomon’s Black bride. Acknowledging the tradition of associating dark skin with corruption and moral inferiority, Origen interprets the bride as signifying the Gentile Church. In his poetic retelling of a dialogue between the Gentile bride and her Jewish interlocutors, Origen insists on the inherent beauty of a Black body:
She answers their objections thus: ‘I am indeed black, O daughters of Jerusalem, in that I cannot claim descent from famous men, neither have I received the enlightenment of Moses’ Law. But I have my own beauty, all the same. For in me too there is that primal thing, the Image of God wherein I was created; and, coming now to the Word of God, I have received my beauty. Because of my dark colouring you may compare me to the tents of Cedar and the curtains of Solomon; but even Cedar was descended from Ismael, being born his second son, and Ismael was not without a share in the divine blessing. You liken me even to the curtains of Solomon, which are none other than the curtains of the tabernacle of God— indeed I am surprised, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you should want to reproach me with the blackness of my hue. How have you come to forget what is written in your Law, as to what Mary suffered who spoke against Moses because he had taken a black Ethiopian to wife? How is it that you do not recognize the true fulfillment of that type in me? I am that Ethiopian. 3
Here, Origen recalls the Old Testament story of how Miriam insulted Moses’s wife for her dark skin. As a rebuke, God turned Miriam’s skin white. Later in this same commentary, Origen states explicitly that black skin has no inherent bearing on morality, saying that skin color is a matter of “circumstance” and is importantly different from the symbolic darkness of the soul. Nevertheless, he acknowledges the association of blackness with shame and uses it as an example of how God dignifies that which is considered by humans to be unclean— hence why the bride is a type for the Gentile Church. Blackness has its own inherent and distinct beauty, derived from the same source as all human skin— the Image of God. Here, Origen might be thought of as saying, in an extension of St. Paul’s words to Galatians, “There is no black nor white, for you are all one in Christ.” In this commentary, he points to the inaugural racial controversy of the Church between Jews and Gentiles, the settling word being Christ’s commandment to Peter: “Do not call unclean what God has made clean.” This, of course, was stated to accompany a “Gentile Pentecost,” in which non-Jews received the same Holy Spirit that came upon the Apostles at the feast of Pentecost. So, for James Cone, Jesus is Black; and for Origen, the Church is too.
And yet, two thousand years later in America, we are faced with the same problem and have struggled with it since the founding of our country. As a result of a long and complicated history with black skin, white people have been conditioned to regard blackness as a sign of danger. White Christians, too have (perhaps passively) presumed the guilt of Black bodies or tacitly considered them “unclean.” The fact that so many of us cannot identify with the struggle of Black men and women in this country is perhaps indicative of our failure to recognize Christ— and the Church— as Black. Black people bear the damning mark of stereotypes, all too often resulting in their mistreatment or even unjust death. But Christ and the Church are always found with those that are left out and marginalized. The very feast of Pentecost demonstrates nothing less than the fact that those who were once considered outsiders, foreign, unclean and strangers are now welcomed into the Body of Christ. What is more, within the Body of Christ, wherein are all shades of skin, what is maligned by the world is honored by the Church. By proclaiming that the Church is Black, we confront the racism that has resulted in our brothers and sisters being assaulted and slain for the color of their skin. Make no mistake, St. Moses and Jesus and the whole of the Church is with them today and on every day that Black men and women are killed unjustly. Are we with them?
On the feast of Ascension, we must remember that it was a Jew that was elevated to the heavenly places. How scandalous it was for the angels to witness a human ascending God’s throne. Scandalous still, it must have been, for the Romans and divine kings of the earth to see a Jew glorified above the gods. Scandalous again it was for Peter and the Jewish Church to see God’s own Spirit indwell the unclean Gentiles. It was scandalous for Origen to co-opt the negative image of blackness as an icon of the Gentile Church. Perhaps it was scandalous for James Cone to insist that Jesus is Black. It would be very much out of place, then, for us not to continue the scandal and insist that Black lives matter, that black skin bears the image of God and stand in solidarity with the Black bodies that are slandered and murdered.
Deacon Jonathan Reavis
1 James Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: Orbis Books, 1997), 123.
2 Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
3 Origen, The Song of Songs Commentary and Homilies, trans. R.P. Lawson (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press,