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)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons