And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.
(St. John 15. 27)
Ascension Day is sadly a spiritual feast that elicits scarce little attention in the post-modern world. Like his Incarnation, Christ’s Ascension is a celebration to which too few people pay attention. Yet both feasts direct us to the fons and origin of eternal life. The Incarnation marks the union of God with man; God came down from heaven and was conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. The Ascension marks the union of man with God, or a return of our humanity to the Father in Him. He came down from Heaven, and now He returns to Heaven. God in Jesus has come down to earth to generate new life for all mankind; and now he carries that new life back to the Father. The beginning and ending of God’s mission of mercy and love manifest God’s desire for us. They reveal completely the encircling motion of God in Christ descending from the Father and then returning to Him.
Christ’s beginning with us in conception reminds us of God’s approach, his coming near to His people, his assumption of that human nature which had rejected and removed itself from God’s permanent influence, desire, and intention for His human creation. The conception of Christ inaugurates God’s desire to cross the borders and frontiers of man’s self-willed alienation, separation, and seclusion from his Maker. Silently and invisibly the journey of salvation began in the concealment of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s womb. What had happened and how it came to pass was visible and known only to the faith of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. The truth of the matter was concealed to all others.
Between conception and Ascension there is much that is disclosed and revealed. And yet still there are gaps in the record of Jesus’ historical life. We have the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Saints Matthew and Luke, followed by a record of His circumcision and then His Presentation in the Temple. But pursuant to these events there is silence until we find the twelve year old Jesus learning and teaching in the Temple with the theological doctors. So much is concealed from our knowing. After His Presentation, we hear nothing of Jesus until we find Him some sixteen years later as His public ministry commences with baptism by John in the River Jordan, when God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him. (Acts x. 38) For three years then we have a record of His teaching, preaching, and healing, and then its abrupt termination with His suffering and death on the Cross. In death He disappears again, and His meaning and message seem destined to join the ranks other great historical men who died for something that could not last or endure. To be sure He had taught with provocative parables and even faintly promising teachings, but what were all they now that He was dead? The truth that He carried would surely now be concealed from men’s minds and understandings forever.
Of course, as we know, the Resurrection changed all of that. What had been concealed was now revealed, what had been hidden was now disclosed, what had been obscure was now clear. And all of this was conveyed to the hearts and minds of the Apostles through a risen and glorified Jesus – body, soul, and spirit intact, continuing to call, summon, lift, and carry His friends into the truth that they thought had died but was now miraculously alive. In Eastertide the faith of the Apostles is made new, their knowledge deepened, their hopes increased and their loves made strong. They begin not only to see the Risen Lord, but to grasp, know, and penetrate the mysteries of truth that call them into new life, new meaning, and a new destiny through Him. In Eastertide the Apostles begin to understand that what was concealed from their senses and perceptions was the Love and desire of God for his people, as what had come down from Heaven, was made flesh, suffered, died, and had been raised up. In Eastertide what the Apostles begin to see is that Christ was reconciling the world to God in his life, through his death, and now by Resurrection.
And yet first, once again, room must be made for a space and time of silence and invisibility. Christ must ascend back to the source of his Being. The new stillness and invisibility mirror the other side of Christ’s conception. Now once again Christ will become invisible to the tangible, physical, and material apprehensions and perceptions of the race of men. Christ’s journey began from the invisible source of the Love that came down. Christ’s mission will culminate as the Love that returns to its invisible end. The 6th century Kontakia of St. Romanus puts it this way:
He Who descended to earth, as He alone knew how, Rising up from it, again as
He alone knew how, took the ones whom He loved, and gathering them together,
He led them to a high mountain in order that, when they had their minds and sensibilities
on the height, might forget all lowly things. And so, when they were led up to the Mount
of Olives, They formed a circle around the Benefactor, as Luke, one of the initiates,
narrates in full. (Lk. 24:50-53) The Lord, raising His hands like wings-- Just as the eagle
covers the nest of young birds which she warms-- Spoke to the nestlings: "I have sheltered
you from all evil Since I loved you and you loved Me. I am not separated from you; I am
with you, and no one is against you.
Jesus takes his friends to a high place and calls his friends to follow. Lift up your heads O ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. (Psalm 24. 7) Lift up your souls, Jesus says to his Apostles, and follow me to this high place, far above and removed from your lonely, mundane, and earthly spaces of alienation, separation, and seclusion from God. Come with me, up, higher and higher. I will vanish from your physical sight. But follow me, remain close at my side in spirit and in truth. Cling to me faith and with all your desire. Come, we are moving into my Father’s presence. He shall come unto you, even into you, into your souls, and will be with you. He shall come unto you, even into you, and will strengthen and embolden you. He shall come unto you, even into you, and will heal you. He shall come unto you, even within you, and you shall spread my salvation to the nations of the world. ‘Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them…Behold I make all things new.’ (Rev. 21) This is your reconciliation with God who dwells on high. It begins now. Be not afraid, follow me, for I am with you. Come up with me and I shall fill you with a love that destroys despair and raises you up out of sin and death. Long ago, my prophet Moses went up into a high mountain to receive the Law that ‘I am’. And one greater than Moses is here. My prophet Elijah was lifted up on high and taken on a chariot of fire into heaven, long ago, and a greater than Elijah is here. Hear what Austin Farrer says about this:
WE are told in an Old Testament tale, how an angel of God having appeared
to man disappeared again by going up in the flame from the altar. And in the same
way Elijah, when he could no more be found, was believed to have gone up on the
crests of flaming horses. The flame which carried Christ to heaven was the flame of
his own sacrifice. Flame tends always upwards. All his life long Christ’s love burnt
towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire, until he was wholly consumed in it, and
went up in that fire to God. The fire is kindled on our altars, here Christ ascends in fire;
the fire is kindled in the Christian heart, and we ascend. He says to us, Lift up your hearts;
and we reply, We lift them up unto the Lord.
Christ calls his Apostles and us to lift up our hearts and to journey with and through Him to Heaven. The fire of His Love burns upward to the source and origin. The same Love that lept down from heaven and into the Virgin’s womb now leaps back up to the Father to complete the circle of His mission. Christ’s Love forms a circle around those who believe, enkindling and flaming a Love that ascends and carries all who will follow in the wake of His passion. Christ’s Love lights a fire on the ground of men’s hearts, soaring ever upward into the home of their destiny.
If this fire is kindled in us, we shall begin to ascend. What is this fire, but our longing for true meaning and definition, true vocation and calling as the sons and daughters of God? What is this fire but the zeal for discovering and finding God’s eternal plan and intention for our lives? The earth cannot hold me. Heaven takes hold of me. Let it take hold of you also. Christ leads captivity captive - captive to the inner and mystical Spirit of God. Our bondage to sense is transformed into service to God. As Bishop Westcott reminds us, we are being transformed into service as servants. We are being lifted up; we rise through the fire of Christ’s love for the Father. With Him in heart and mind we thither ascend that with Him we might continually dwell. Christ ascends and so we too must ascend.
And in our ascending something more, at first concealed and hidden, will begin to be revealed and disclosed to us. Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes: The Transfigured One took the Apostles’ hearts with Him to God, and they will never again feel altogether at home in this temporal world. For that part of the world that they most loved is now with God. And this is why everything that they see on earth becomes transparent to heaven. The Holy Spirit, which the Son sends to them from heaven, kindles in them the fire of longing in which every image on earth becomes radiant for heaven, for the everlasting life which springs up from triune love. (Hans Urs Von Balthasar) Jesus is the part of this world that we must love most. If we love Him, we will ascend in heart and mind to be with Him. We must learn to be at home with Jesus, whose heart was and is always in Heaven. Jesus shows us that we have come from God and must return to God. In this Ascension Tide let us with deepest desire begin the journey home. And let us remember also, that if we are following Christ, inwardly and spiritually, indeed we shall suffer in the world. Christ warns us that those who ascend with Him in heart and mind, and with Him continually dwell, will be rejected by this world. They shall put you out of the synagogues: Jesus says, yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you, will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me. (St. John xvi. 2, 3) But who cares? We are not meant to be at home or content in this world. A Carmelite Friar asks, Do you feel shaky at times as you face your own life with all its ambiguities? The mystery of the ascension invites us, even in our shakiness, not so much to believe in God, but to believe that God believes in us. In other words, don’t get stuck looking down in discouragement, or looking up in bewilderment. Staff in hand, mantle around your shoulders, look out and step out with grace, longing, and courage. (A Homily for the Ascension) And Jesus says, Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (St. John xiv. 1-3) And most importantly, he sings, Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (St. John 16. 33) Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: