He dwelleth with you and shall be in you.
(St. John xiv. 17)
Today we celebrate the feast of the Pentecost. In the Church of England, it is called Whitsunday - White Sunday, because of the white garments worn by those who are traditionally baptized on this day. Pentecost derives from the Latin that means the fiftieth day. For the ancient Jews, it marked the day on which God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, fifty days after Exodus from Egypt. It was also a day of thanksgiving for harvest, falling often in May when, given the temperate climate, the Israelites ingathered wheat, oats, peas, vetch, lentils, and barley. The early Jewish-Christians retained its character of thanksgiving but focused now on the Holy Ghost’s harvesting of souls for God. For on the first Pentecost, the Holy Ghost descended from the Ascended Christ and into the hearts of the Apostles, vesting and mantling them with the spiritual gifts that would generate new communion with God the Father.
So, today we are bidden to contemplate this new movement of the Holy Ghost at the time of the Church’s first Pentecost. Yet we should not think that the Holy Ghost had been dormant or inactive prior to the coming of Christ. The Old Testament is full of references to the Holy Ghost’s role in creation and Jewish man’s hope for salvation. In the Creed we say, I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son…. We believe that the Spirit’s lordly rule and governance are essential for animating all created life. The Spirit is that Third Person of the Blessed Trinity without whom creation would not be. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Gen. i. 2) The man who fails to grasp this is like the one who knew not his Maker, and him that inspired into him an active soul, and breathed in a living spirit. (Wisdom xv. 11) This is the Spirit who comes upon priests, prophets, and kings to fortify them physically and spiritually against their enemies. King David tell us that The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and His word was in my tongue. (2 Sam. Xxiii. 2) He spake by the prophets. Beyond creating and sustaining, we know that the Holy Spirit carried warnings, prophecies, and counsels to men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and others. Monsignor Knox tells us that by the Holy Spirit they were moved to say various things, much of which it is difficult to understand, and some of which they probably didn’t understand themselves. They were carried away by the impetus of the Holy Spirit, and the great point is that many of the things which they said, or rather which He said through them, were prophecies about the coming of Jesus Christ. (The Creed in Slow Motion: p. 143) The Holy Spirit, in other words, was hard at work leading the Jewish people to prepare them for a fuller revelation of God’s promised salvation and redemption. He prepared them for the day when the Word would be made flesh in Jesus Christ and then for that time when the same Word would come alive in their own hearts and souls. And lest we think that He works by a kind-of Divine possession that violates human nature, we must
remember that He comes only to those who welcome Him freely with pleasure, desire, and joy.
For it is the work that He invites men into that is of uttermost importance to the Holy Ghost. It comes about only through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Christ has ascended to the Father, and from there He desires to continue His work of salvation in the hearts and souls of all men –indeed out of the raw materials of any human life that will forsake all and follow Him. For Christians, Pentecost is the moment where earthly life begins to blend with heavenly desire. For Christians, Pentecost is that moment when communion with God begins afresh through divine rapture. It is the fulfillment of the promise offered by Jesus to his friends: If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him: but ye know Him; for He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (St. John xiv. 15-17) Again, the offer is not forced. If ye love me. God in Jesus respects man’s power of free will. If…then....The invitation is conditional. The Holy Ghost comes only to those who desire the Spirit of Christ. The ongoing work of God hinges upon desire and love.
Our first encounter of it is found in today’s Epistle reading taken from Acts. And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts ii. 1-4) To so many who read this text, the event seems alien and embarrassing. Even many a Christian finds himself more like the early witnesses to this paranormal event who were in doubt, or, mocking said, these men are full of new wine. (Ibid, 12, 13) We tend then to think that whatever happened to the Apostles long ago is wholly mythical and thus beyond what can happen to sensible men. And yet, we do well to remember that the first receivers of this heavenly impulse were men who were not remarkably unusual in any way. They were common fishermen and observant Jews. They were pious and industrious middle-class men who were genuinely interested in everything that Jesus of Nazareth said and did. Their last days with Him began in sadness, fear, and shame. Later they were filled with justifiable wonder and astonishment. When they finally began to obey and follow, it was the consequence of a logical conclusion. They made sense out of what they had experienced as normal men.
Their transformation in relation to Jesus all happened, mostly, in one place –the upper room or cenacle. This is where we first find them today. In it, they had learned of an impending betrayal that He foretold. To its safety, they had fled in fear and cowardice when He was dying on the Cross. Into it again came the Risen Christ to invite them into fellowship with His Resurrected Being. In the same cenacle today, we find that He has sent the Holy Ghost. And while these men and women are not any different from you or me, one thing is significant: as before, in the same place, they were watching and waiting for what would come next. They were gathered together in unity of purpose. (Ibid, AV, Knox, ii. 1) Jesus had said, Tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high. (St. Luke xxiv. 49) Because they believed Him and trusted His promise, the Holy Ghost came upon them, and they began the work of spreading the Gospel Truth to the nations.
But how can we be shaken and moved by the same work that the Holy Spirit began in the lives of the Apostles long ago? The Holy Ghost intends that we should abide in Christ’s love and yield the fruits of His righteousness, and yet it seems in our own time that men’s hearts have grown cold to the Gospel. Jesus says to us today, If ye love me, keep my commandments. If…then. So, we must ask ourselves this: Do we love Jesus enough to keep His commandments? If not, or, if we hesitate [to obey Jesus], it is because we love something else in competition with Him, i.e. ourselves. (My Utmost…, p. 307) But we believe that Jesus is God’s own Loving Word and Articulated Intention for us. Through this Wisdom, by the Holy Ghost, we are created and sustained every moment of our lives. Through this Wisdom made Flesh in union with the Holy Spirit, we believe that our sins have been destroyed and our salvation won. Does it require such a leap in faith to believe that we can abide in Christ’s love by the indwelling of His Spirit who shares their victory over sin, death, and Satan? We cannot abide in Christ’s love unless we allow His Spirit to take possession of our lives. His presence was overwhelmingly effectual at the First Pentecost because the Apostles’ watching and waiting were characterized by their longing to abide in Christ’s love and experience His effectual presence at work in their souls. If our watching and waiting are tempered by the same obedient desire, the Holy Ghost, even the Spirit of Truth, will abide with us forever. (St. John xiv. 16)
So today, we must pray that the infinite and eternal Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who workest all in all…will pardon all our resistance to His motions…and will fan the flames which He ever enkindles in our breasts. We pray that He may…enlighten our minds and purify our hearts that we may be fit to receive and entertain Him, as the Guide and Comforter of our souls, working mightily upon our hearts, fitting and suiting our souls to that glory which is unspeakable and everlasting. (B. Jenks, 354) At the first Pentecost, the irresistible force [of the Holy Spirit]…was compressed into a single narrow compass; and the result was a kind of flood, a kind of explosion. (Sermons, Knox, Ign. Press, p. 477) That flood or that explosion is the rushing mighty wind of Christ’s Spirit who still longs for us to abide in Christ’s love as He carries us into that work that will bear both us and others to His Kingdom. With the poet let us pray that the work of His love will ravish us.
With all thy Heart, with all thy Soul and Mind,
Thou must him love, and his Beheasts embrace:
All other Loves, with which the World doth blind
Weak Fancies, and stir up Affections base,
Thou must renownce, and utterly displace;
And give thyself unto him full and free,
That full and freely gave himself for thee.
Then shalt thou feel thy Spirit so possest,
And ravisht with devouring great Desire
Of his dear self, that shall thy feeble Breast
Inflame with Love and set thee all on fire
With burning Zeal, through every part entire;
That in no earthly things thou shalt delight,
But in his sweet and amiable Sight.
Ascension-tide is the briefest liturgical season in the Church Year. It lasts only ten days. We believe that on the fortieth day after Easter Christ ascended to the Father. Ten days later the Holy Spirit was sent into the womb of the nascent Church on the feast of the Pentecost or Whitsunday. So, we have but a few days to examine the significance and meaning of the Ascension for us.
The Ascension is Jesus Christ’s return to the eternal state that He shares, as Son, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Yet there is a real difference. In the Ascension, Christ Himself as the Word made Flesh returns to God human nature as redeemed and recapitulated to the Father. It seems rather difficult to think about this. But we believe that the Ascended Christ is the New Adam. In and through Him, human nature has conquered sin, death, and Satan. In and through Him we have a restored and even more powerful union and communion with God the Father. In Him, we can participate in His victory over sin and death and live in and through His Resurrection and Ascension. In Christ the Son of God, we can rise, ascend, and dwell with God the Father once again.
Faithful man in all ages has been yearning to ascend back to God. And yet, as the Jews remind us, he has found it most difficult because he lives in the midst of a godless and idolatrous people. There is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. (Is. lxiv. 7) The ancient Jews were conscious of how their sin handicapped their relationship with God. But as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, this is no excuse for despair. But now, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. Be not wroth very sore, O Lord, neither remember iniquity forever: behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people. (Ibid, 8,9) The whole of the world may abandon God, but the prophet remains faithful and true. Israel might be spiritually undone, but the prophet lifts up his eyes unto the hills from whence cometh his help (Ps. cxxi. 1).
With the Psalmist, he acknowledges that he is powerless to fight against spiritual principalities that seek to undermine his faith. O help us against the enemy, for vain is the help of man. (Ps. lxiv. 12) Spiritual desire is stirred passionately within him, as he sings the song of faith and hope. O GOD, my heart is ready, my heart is ready; I will sing, and give praise with the best member that I have. Awake, thou lute and harp; I myself will awake right early. I will give thanks unto thee, O LORD, among the peoples; I will sing praises unto thee among the nations. (Ps. cviii. 1-3) From the ground of his soul, the fire of faith envelops, informs, and consumes his heart. The music of the lute and harp calls him into the song of praise and thanksgiving. He thanks God anticipatorily for what shall surely soon come to pass. For thy mercy is greater than the heavens, and thy truth reacheth unto the clouds. Set up thyself, O God, above the heavens, and thy glory above all the earth; That thy beloved may be delivered: let thy right hand save them, and hear thou me. (Ibid, 4-6) The glory that saves must come down from above from the one who sits at God’s right hand.
Christians believe that what Isaiah reached out for in hope was the Incarnation of God’s right-hand Man, even His own Son. What Isaiah desired has come down to the earth in the Mission and Ministry of Jesus Christ, God with us and for us. The Word of God’s promise was made flesh and dwelt among us. (St. John i. 14) And yet the chief purpose of Jesus Christ’s Incarnation was that every man might once again become a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable unto God. (Romans xii. 1) Man was made to transcend the limitations of the external and visible world, to obey God’s will, and to become clay in the hand of the potter so that he might one day return to his Maker.
To return to our maker, we must be placed into the kiln of the potter. This cannot be done without Jesus Christ. He must take us into the kiln that burns off the impurities and defilements of sin. His suffering and death are the effects of entering God’s kiln. God the Father is the Potter who is firing up the clay for new life through a Sacrifice that will begin on earth and ascend into Heaven. As Paul Claudel writes, Jesus Christ, the Man-God, the highest expression of creation, rises from the depths of matter where the Word was born by uniting with woman’s obedience, toward that throne which was predestined for Him at the right hand of the Father. From this place He continues to exercise his magnetic power on all creatures; all feel deep within them that summons, that injunction, to ascend. (I Believe…159) God’s Son becomes the clay that will be fired up in the kiln as a Sacrifice to God. Throughout the whole of His life, He denies Himself so that He might become clay in the hands of God the potter. The fiery furnace of the Fallen creation is for Him the kiln in which human nature must be purified and perfected so that in the same fire He might ascend fully and completely back to the Father. The Ascension is the moment when our perfected human nature in Jesus Christ returns to the Father. From His seat in Heaven, Jesus Christ calls us to join Him through the Holy Ghost. When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of me. (St. John xv. 26) From Heaven, the Son of God will send His Spirit into our hearts and thus begin to remold and remake us in the kiln of His fire.
But before the Holy Spirit’s descending fiery love can place us in the kiln for purification and cleansing, our eyes must pursue and follow persistently and diligently the flame of fiery love that lifts and carries Christ back to the reason for His Sacrifice. Bishop Westcott reminds us that we are meant to penetrate the passion of the ascending Jesus. We are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things, all of us, capable of consecration. Then it is, that the last element in our confession as to Christ’s work speaks to our hearts. He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. (Sermons…) Beneath the surface and into the heart of this spiritual matter we follow the fire of love that consecrates Christ’s Sacrifice as the Father’s plan for us. True Sacrifice is clay in the hand of the potter. True Sacrifice becomes the Giver’s Intention. Austin Farrer describes the movement nicely:
Christ was now, indeed, somewhat further from the Apostles than He used to be; further, even, than He had been from Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration. There they had overheard His prayer, though He knelt beyond them up the hill. Now He was further still ahead, they could not see or hear Him. But the further He was from them, the nearer He was to the heart of God; further from those who prayed but nearer to the Mercy to whom all prayer ascends. (A. Farrer: Weekly paragraph…)
The Father intends our salvation always. His eternal mercy is the reason for the salvation that Christ has won for us. Our minds and hearts must follow Jesus upward and into the Eternal Beginning Point of all Redemption. In the fiery flame of spiritual love, we must tend upwards and burn towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire. (A. Farrer: …paragraph for Ascension) We pray that the flame of our own sacrifice might be blended to that of Christ who is always active and longing to make us supernaturally new as we encounter the fire of God’s mercy. We pray that in faith we shall lift our hearts up unto the Lord because in the blazing fireof Heaven’s light we are beginning to see that we cannot be remade by the potter without rising above and beyond this sinful world. Over and against our old, earth-bound smoldering darkness we encounter the life, light, and love of the Father’s intention for us. Christ who now sits at God’s right hand, interceding and pleading for us, longs for us to enter the unending Sacrifice of His Ascended Love for the Father. We pray that our love might burn towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire and be wholly consumed in it.
St. Peter tells us this morning that the end of all things is at hand because Christ has completed His Sacrifice for us to the Father. We must be therefore sober, and watchful unto prayer. (1 St. Peter iv. 7) The fire of Christ’s Ascension must stand in sharp contrast to those little fires that burn in our hearts for insignificant and unsatisfactory joys. Trusting that Christ now reigns in the power of His glorious majesty, we must have our conversation with Him in Heaven, to love His appearing, and to be dissolved into His love. (Jenks, 352) We pray that the Holy Spirit will seize our hearts so that we might humbly confess all our sins and rise into Christ’s healing fire. We pray for the steadfast courage to battle Satan through the power of Christ’s fiery Sacrifice. We contemplate the Ascended Jesus so that we may feel the powerful attraction of Christ’s Grace and Holy Spirit, to draw up our minds and desires from the poor perishing enjoyments here below, to those most glorious and everlasting attainments above where Christ sits at the right hand of God. (Idem, Jenks) Christ’s power to attract, absorb, and asphyxiate our hearts as we suffer and die to ourselves in order ascend in Him are captured powerfully in the words of the poet:
Lord, when the sense of thy sweet grace
Sends up my soul to seek thy face.
Thy blessed eyes breed such desire,
I die in love's delicious Fire.
O love, I am thy Sacrifice.
Be still triumphant, blessed eyes.
Still shine on me, fair suns! that I
Still may behold, though still I die.
Though still I die, I live again;
Still longing so to be still slain,
So gainfull is such losse of breath.
I die even in desire of death.
Still live in me this loving strife
Of living Death and dying Life.
For while thou sweetly slayest me
Dead to my selfe, I live in Thee.
(A Song: Richard Crashaw)
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 little attention in the post-modern world. Like His Conception –celebrated on the Feast of the Annunciation, Christ’s Ascension is a celebration that too many people avoid to their great peril. It would seem that our Lord’s beginning and ending are not heeded with sufficient spiritual interest. The Conception marks the union of God with Man; God came down from heaven and was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary as Man. The Ascension marks the return of Man to God or the reconciliation of our humanity with God the Father. God in Jesus Christ, in the Person of the Son, has come to us to recapitulate and generate new life for all Mankind with God; and now He carries that new life back to the Father. The beginning and ending of God’s mission of mercy and love manifest the invisible source of God’s desire for us. They reveal completely the encircling motion of Christ’s descent and return to the Father. God comes down to be made Man in the Person of His Son, is enfleshed, reaches out, is rejected, suffers, dies, rises, and now ascends back to the Father. And so what we celebrate is one movement of Divine Love in and through the Word that is always descending or coming down to us in order to ascend and return us to our proper destiny and eternal communion with God in Heaven.
Christ’s beginning coming to us in Conception is the beginning of God’s redemption of human nature. In it, He takes our Manhood into God, a Manhood that had hitherto rejected and removed itself from God the Father’s will. Man had willfully rejected God’s will and way for human life, and so had secured for himself a false freedom that ended up divided between good and evil. Man’s forfeiture of the good life earned him a life of suffering, sin, and death. Now in Christ, God had entered the man-made land of alienation from God. God had blasted through the wall of separation and division to open the door to His presence once again. God had come down from heaven and joined Himself to the sorry predicament of lost human nature. Silently and invisibly the reconciliation of Manhood to God began in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Between Conception and Ascension much had happened. Our liturgical memory in the life of the Church is an ongoing meditation upon it. There is the Christ-event, the activity and motion of God in Man, going about and yielding and generating all manner of goodness. There is man’s rejection, abandonment, and betrayal of it. There is then pure love offered as the perfect sacrifice to be implanted and rooted in all men’s hearts as the seed of a new kind of death and new life. For even in the unjust death of God’s own Son, gladly assumed and suffered by Christ, there is the never-ending love, yearning, and desire for all men’s salvation. The same love flows up out of Christ’s death and the grave, and for forty days illuminates and enlightens the hearts of believers, old and new. In Eastertide the faith is made new, knowledge is established, hope is enlarged, and love is made strong. Inwardly and spiritually the followers of the Risen Lord come to believe, grasp, and penetrate the mystery of God’s salvation love in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the God-Man is forever moving towards men and catching them up in the net of His Salvation Being. He is alive. He is lifting the hearts and souls of believers into the eternal and unchanging moving spiritual center of God’s desire for Man.
So with the Ascension, we are being moved back into the sound of silence and the movement of stillness. Ascension moves Man back into the stillness and silence of the Conception in the Virgin’s womb. The visible Christ returns to the Father. The invisible Christ takes His friends into a place and space of new conception and new birth. 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.
My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. (St. Luke i. 46) Mary was lifted up then and we are being lifted up now. Jesus takes his friends to a high place. He came down into the lowly earth, and into the depths of Man’s sorry sinful state, far removed from Heaven, some thought, into the Virgin’s womb. Now He leads His friends to a higher place. 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 my eagle’s wings will lift you up into this high place, far above the mundane and earthly space of your alienation from God. Come with me, up, higher and higher. I will vanish from your physical sight. But follow me, remain close by my side in spirit and in truth. Come, we are moving into the Father’s bosom. He shall come unto you, even into you, into your souls, and will be with you. 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 the 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 far above your sin and death. My prophet Moses went up into a high mountain to receive the Law that I am. A greater than Moses is here. Elijah was lifted up on high and taken on a chariot of fire into heaven. A greater than Elijah is here. Austin Farrer says 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 to heaven with and in Him. The fire of His love has always burned upward toward His Father. It leaps up to our Beginning and our End. It rises to find consummation in the Father’s heavenly embrace. It extends from His new humanity, our humanity, to find its true home and spiritual rest in Heaven. It begins with God and ends with God. Christ teaches us that we are made to be caught up into the unbreakable knot of this Heavenly fire of Love. Creation and Redemption are the evening and morning of one day. Christ desires to spread His love abroad in our hearts. He intends for us to be as on fire as the Apostles were long ago. He has forgiven us, broken down the wall of partition separating us from God. Now He will lift us into the blaze of unending longing and passion for God and salvation.
If this fire is kindled in us, we shall begin to ascend. What is this fire, but our longing for our God-given meaning and definition, true happiness and joy that must be at the heart of our created natures? What is this fire but a determined passion to embrace and obey whatever we must in order to discover the Love that overcomes our sin? For Jesus is the Word of God who intends not for us to have Him externally, visibly, and temporarily but inwardly, spiritually, and eternally. He is God’s Word of Love for us made flesh, and that desire is to be made flesh in us. 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 dynamism of His own Holy Spirit. Our bondage to sense is transformed into service to God (Village Sermons), 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. (Collect) Christ ascends and so too must we ascend.
As Cardinal von Balthasar puts it: 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. Our home is in heaven. We have come from God and must return to God. In this Ascension tide, let us with deepest desire begin the journey home. Let us desire to do God’s will that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion forever and ever. And let us know, that if we are following Christ, inwardly and spiritually, indeed we shall suffer in the world. But then remember His words to us: Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (St. John 16. 33)
These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye might
have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation but be of good cheer;
I have overcome the world.
(St. John xvi. 33)
Today we find ourselves on the Fifth and final Sunday of the Easter Season. Today is called Rogation Sunday because our English word is derived from the Latin word rogare, and it means to petition, ask, or supplicate. The tradition of Rogation Sunday hails from the 4th century and was standardized in the Latin Church by Pope Gregory in the 6th. It was originally a Roman festival called Robigalia, which comes from robigo – meaning wheat rust, a grain disease, against which pious pagans petitioned the gods by sacrificing a dog to protect their fields. In England, on Rogation Sundaysome clergymen and their flocks process around the parish boundaries to bless the crops and pray for a fruitful harvest…and, with any hope, pray against soul rust that leads to Hellfire and Damnation.
But the original purpose of Rogation Sunday goes back to Jesus’ opening words in today’s Gospel: Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it you. (St. John xvi.) Jesus’ words follow the prophecy of His eventual Ascension back to the Father, where He says, In that day, ye shall ask me nothing. (Ibid, 23) Jesus was preparing His Disciples for that new risen life that He would win for them as they shall ask the Father in the name of Jesus. But both the petitioning and the rewards would depend upon the coming of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus teaches us today is that we must ask the Father in or through His Name for the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Word made flesh through whom we pray and supplicate the Father. For this reason, we end every prayer with through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus says today: Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. (Ibid, 24) Notice that the end of our asking is is that our joy may be full. (Idem)Eastertide is all about learning to ask for what shall fulfill our heart’s deepest desire – the fullness of joy. For what else is Eastertide about than how the resurrection from sin, death, and Satan begins to give us that joy that God has in store for us? But to begin to obtain that joy, we must set our sights on those things which are above and not things of the earth. (Col. iii. 2) In heart and mind, we must follow Jesus back to Heaven. Here alone we shall find that goodness that alone yields the perfect joythat will have no end.
But what is this joy? Christian joy is found in the sweet surrender of Jesus to the fulfillment of God’s will. True joy is found in that delight of the Father’s Word, Jesus Christ, that always emanates His Love. It is not found first and foremost in bodily health, through earthly ambition and success, by securing temporal riches and treasures, and not even in gaining converts and in seeing the success of God’s work! True joy is found in the vision of God the Father whose Love begets His Word, His Truth, His Wisdom. True joy is found in the experience of God the Father, begetting His Word, by the Love of His Spirit.
And to appreciate God in Himself, we must leave behind the cares of this world which choke our contemplative exercise. If we are consumed with this life and its earthly comfort, we shall never have the time to behold the Father’s Eternal Word of Love for us as the Ascended Christ enters our hearts. To get into right relation with God, we must follow Jesus, that where He is, there we might be also. (St. John xiv. 3) Bishop K.E. Kirk has this to say about contemplation:
Contemplation, or the Prayer of Simplicity or Quiet, is the highest interior activity of the spiritual life - indeed, it aims not at being an activity at all, but at reducing the soul to a purely passive condition in which it may listen, unimpeded by thoughts of self or the cares of the world, to the voice God alone.' As rest is the end of motion so contemplation is
the end of all other…internal and external exercises; for to this end, by long discourse and much practice of affection, the soul inquires and tends to a worthy object that she may quietly contemplate it and...repose with contentment in it.'
(Some Principles of Moral Theology, p. 163)
Thus, stillness and quiet are necessary preconditions for the relationship that Jesus desires for us to have with our Heavenly Father. If in stillness and quiet we become passively open to God’s presence, we shall be postured spiritually to find eternal joy. Jesus says today, The time is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in parables, but I will tell you plainly of the Father. (Ibid, 25) In stillness and quiet, in a plain way, Christ the Word will lead us back to the Father. I came forth from the Father, He says. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that this was for three reasons: (1) That He might manifest the Father in the world: ‘No man hath seen God at any time; the Only Begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.’ (St. John i. 18) (2) To declare His Father's will to us: ‘All things that I have heard of My Father I have made known unto you.’ (St. John xv. 15) (3) That He might show the Father's love towards us: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him….’ (St. John iii. 16) [Easter Homilies: XII] Jesus the Word reveals the Father to us. In addition, He reveals the Father’s will for us. And, finally, He shows that the Father’s will for our salvation is the deepest expression of His Love for us through the coming of the Holy Ghost. This is God’s joy. In stillness and quiet, if we ask, Christ will lead us to the Father, disclose His will, and provide the way of Love that leads us home to Heaven. Christ must leave us because by His leaving He gives us an example. ‘Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.’ (1 St. John ii. 15) ‘Ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.’ (St. John xv. 19) Christ leaves us so that we might follow Him to that better and lasting place where true joy is to be found. He must leave us and ascend to the Father so (1) That he might intercede with Him for us: ‘I will pray the Father.’ (St. John xiv. 16) (2) That He might give to us the Holy Spirit: ‘If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you.’ (St. John xvi. 7) (3) That He might prepare for us a place with the Father: ‘I go to prepare a place for you.’ (St. John xiv. 2) To which place may He lead us. (Idem) Christ leaves us to plead our cause, to send His Spirit into our hearts, and to prepare a place for us. This should begin to stir our hearts for the journey after eternal joy.
God’s Word has been spoken through Jesus Christ in order that we might be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving [our] own selves, as St. James says this morning. St. James says that we must be willing to spend enough time – a lifetime in fact, with God’s Word, Jesus Christ, so that what we see in contemplation we might do in Love because it leads to true joy. We shall desire to obey because Loving the Father’s Word, we hope to find true joy. Monsignor Knox tells us that being a hearer of God’s Word and not a doer – the man who looks in the mirror and forgets what manner of man he is, is much like someone who listens carefully to a reading of Thomas a Kempis’ ‘Imitation of Christ’. He understands it and thinks that the book is really about Christians like himself – he finds a reflection of himself in it. [But] it is only if he will give a good long look at our Lord’s teaching that this self-satisfied person will see the real picture which it conveys, very different indeed from the ‘self-portrait’ that he first found in it! (Epistles and Gospels: Know, p. 138) Jesus the Word of God conveys to us a picture of Himself. God the Father sees us in Christ the Word, the picture of who we were made to become. Forsaking this, we become self-satisfied. Then we reveal that we are not in need of finding God’s true joy through the Father’s Word of Love in Jesus Christ. But the real picture that Jesus should convey to us that we should love neither in word nor in tongue but in deed and in truth (1 John iii. 18).In our self-portraits, we must begin to see what every man ought to look like in Jesus Christ. We must long to see ourselves in Jesus Christ, the Father’s Word, Plan, Purpose, and Intention for us. We must long to progress in being acclimated to this Word of Love to find true joy.
When contemplating the saving life of Jesus and hearing His Word that has overcome the world and given to us the perfect law of liberty that moves in and out of God the Father’s presence, we shall begin to find our true selves. This will be the substance of our joy. Again, to reach this place of joy, silence and contemplative stillness are all-important. What we must silence in ourselves is all superficial converse with other men. What we must silence is the earthly craving for impermanent joy.Then our spiritual stillness will lead us into a deep desire to imitate what we contemplate –Christ in union with our Heavenly Father through the Holy Spirit’s Love. For, as Mother Teresa tells us:
In the silence of the heart, God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself (–with His Holy Spirit.) Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.
(Mother Teresa, In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers)
As we contemplate Christ in glory today, let us long to be filled with Christ, the Word of God’s Love. Let us find in Him that self-emptying that is always filled with the Father’s Love and Desire for us. In both let us discover the joy that knows no end.
And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. (Ephesians v. 2)
In Eastertide we walk with Jesus in two ways. In one way, we walk back through our memories to the historical facts of Jesus life. We try to remember what Jesus said and did, how the Apostles responded to Him, and what was accomplished once long ago in time and space for the purposes of man’s future salvation. We shall remember also, I hope, that the point of our memory's exercise is for history to open with promised power onto the horizon of heavenly desire. The earthly life and witness of Jesus Christ is offered to us as the means by which we can move from history into eternity. He invites us to become one with Him, members of His Body –the Church, so that we who live in the ephemeral and passing nature of time and space might be taken up into the Kingdom of God. Christ tells us today that, It is expedient that I go away. (St. John xvi. 7). He must go away in one way so that He might come to us in another and thus ensure our translation to Heaven.
So Eastertide is all about looking back and looking forward. We must walk as the Apostles walked looking backward on the Parables and Miracles, and yet walking forward in the hope offered by His Resurrection. If we look back on the history of His life, we begin to see who and what He was all about. His final departure from this world in the flesh can make sense only if we see what He intends to do through us now for the future. If we look back, we begin to see that His whole life seems to have been a history of coming and going. He came down from Heaven. He came to teach and preach to His Apostles through parables. He came to bring Divine power to men through wonders and miracles. Yet, He was always going from them also. He left His Mother and Step-Father to go back to the Temple in Jerusalem. He had gone away from His Apostles to fear for their lives in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee. He seemed to have gone away when Lazarus had died. He had gone away, in the end, to become His Father’s Sacrificial Lamb on the Tree of Calvary. And yet, in all of His coming and going He made some deep impression upon the souls of His followers, the seal and imprint of a Love that though going away in one way would come again with power in the hearts and souls of his faithful friends.
In today’s Gospel, we look back to the time when Jesus spoke to His friends explicitly about His coming and going. I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away. (St. John vi. 7) The Apostles did not grasp His meaning. Their ignorance was spawned from earthly expectations and human hopes. They were saddened because Jesus said that He would have to go away. They wanted Him to remain in the flesh forever. Peter, at one point, enjoying the mystical Transfiguration of Christ on the Mount, had wanted to make booths to preserve and mummify the glorified Christ with Elijah and Moses. Mary Magdalene wanted to embrace and cling to the Risen Christ. The Apostles had hoped that the Resurrected Christ might never leave them. What none of them understood was that Jesus came so that they could find lasting friendship with the Father through Him in Spirit and in Truth.
But the Apostles had been motivated by an urge for immature fleshly reassurance. Rather than being moved by the God that informed Jesus, they wanted the Christ who had come to them never to go away, treating Him like a kind-of idol. They wanted Him to remain with them as the one who would secure and shield them from all spiritual danger. But they had it all wrong. Like all of us, they remained stubbornly attached to the ephemeral nature of things rather than the permanent essence of the spiritual good. So, they were not ready for Christ to come alive in them in a more lasting sure and spiritual way.
But Christ’s coming and going are part and parcel of a patient process that will in the end yield fruit in the hearts of those who believe. In the days of His Resurrection the Apostles were being led through fear to wonder, through wonder to faith, and through faith to worship. (The Resurrection of Christ, p. 38) St. James tells us that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (St. James i. 17) The good and perfect gift that is coming down from the Father of Lights is Jesus Christ Himself. That divine gift that was made flesh and dwelt among us (John i. 14) is coming to reveal the Father’s will to all men. His coming in Resurrection reveals victory over sin, death, and Satan. His coming and then going from them in Ascension reveals true reconciliation with the Father that is only just beginning. Christ comes and Christ goes. He will come once again in Pentecostal fire as His Spirit molds and shapes His friends into members of the new Body that He is making. Of His own will begat He us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures. (St. James i. 18) God [is] a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship [Him] in spirit and in truth. (St. John iv. 24)
So how do we allow this to happen? We must discover the Resurrection faith that stirred the Apostles. St. James speaks for all when he writes: Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted Word, which is able to save your souls. (St. James i. 19, 20) In other words, in all humility of heart we are called to receive…the engrafted Word of God, Jesus Christ, who desires to come into us to save our souls. Jesus says, If I go away, I will send the Comforter unto you. (Ibid, 7) Christ goes away from us so that He might come to us through the Holy Ghost. Through the Holy Ghost, Christ the Word will come to us to be implanted in our souls. Through the same Spirit He will make us partakers of His Resurrection.
But to allow Christ to come to us in such a way that His Spirit will make us true members of His Resurrected Body is no easy affair. Think about the coming and going of so many in the Church. Think about how many people come to Church to go through the motions. Their coming and going seems to bear no witness to the God’s coming and going in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit at all! They come to church for fellowship and perhaps a little bit of religion. They go back into the world not much better for it. Or there are others whose coming and going resembles St. Peter’s immature relation to Jesus Christ. They are obsessed with mummifying and preserving their Christ by needing to be uplifted at all times by Transfiguration moments. And so their religion is all about the external form, the shell, the husk, or the outside of the spiritual cup in all of its safe pristine purity and respectable religion. Their religion is all form and no substance. They forget that the only brilliant moment in Christ’s life was the Transfiguration, and that the rest of it was occupied in the demon-possessed valley of human sinfulness. (My Utmost: O. Chambers) They forget that Christ’s coming and going was really all about a self-emptying, a laying down His life to do the will of His Father, that was meant to become the pattern and model for those of us who would become His friends.
Christ says today that, When the Spirit is come, He will reprove the world of sin. (John xvi. 8) Christ will come to us again through His Holy Ghost to shed light on the filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness that we are in danger of indulging when we are not receiving with meekness the engrafted Word which is able to save [our] souls. (St. James i. 20) The Holy Ghost will come to convict us of our sins. The same Spirit will come to convict the world of righteousness. (John xvi. 10) He will come to show us that Christ’s righteousness has overcome all sin and will overcome ours also if we let Him.Finally, When the Spirit comes, He will convince the world of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. (John xvi. 11) Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to remind us that Christ has conquered Satan and will come to judge both the quick and the dead. The Holy Ghost comes to establish the Divine order and rule in our hearts. True friendship and communion with Jesus Christ is found when the Spirit, who binds Him to the Father, comes to guide us into all truth. (St. John xvi. 13)
Jesus Christ’s coming and going is of utmost importance for our ultimate destiny. Archbishop Ramsey summarizes neatly what happens when Christ’s coming and going began to rule and sway the hearts of those who are becoming His Apostles and Disciples. Dying to their own self-centeredness, the Christians enter a new life wherein the center is not themselves but the Risen Christ. No longer do they think of Christ only in terms of His existence in history as an isolated figure: for they think of Him as Risen, and Contemporary, and Embracing His people as a very part of His own life. (The Resurrection of Christ, p.94) Christ’s coming and going is all part of His desire to invite us into His Resurrection, here and now, and to embrace us with the love that will transform our lives.
Christ can generate His new life in us only by going from us in the flesh and coming to us again through the Holy Spirit. Do we long to become part of this Divine movement of Heavenly Love? We are just passing through this vale of tears and, in the Spirit of Christ, let us pray,
Love, lift me up upon thy golden wings
From this base world unto thy heavens hight,
Where I may see those admirable things
Which there thou workest by thy soveraine might,
Farre above feeble reach of earthly sight,
That I thereof an heavenly hymne may sing
Unto the God of Love, High Heavens King.
(Hymn of Heavenly Love: Edmund Spenser)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: