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’s Word and Son came down from heaven, He humbled Himself, and was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary, as God became Man. The Ascension marks the return of Man to God, the exaltation of the Crucified and Resurrected One, or the reconciliation Redeemed Man with God the Father, as Man returns to God. God in Jesus Christ, in the Person of the Son, has come to us to recapitulate or reunite Man 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 into union with God our Heavenly Father 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, in Adam, had secured for himself a false freedom with a constant battle 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 generating all manner of goodness. There is man’s rejection, abandonment, and betrayal of Him. Through it all, Christ, the God-Man lovingly offers Himself as a pure and perfect sacrifice to the Father. He recapitulates human nature. But there is more. 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 conquers sin, death, and Satan from the Cross. In Eastertide, the Crucified One rises and 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 forever moving towards men and catching them up in the net of His Salvation. 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. 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) The Blessed Virgin Mary was lifted up at the Annunciation and Christ’s conception in her womb and we are being lifted up now. Jesus takes his friends to a high place. God became Man and humbled Himself in order to assume our nature and return it to God. 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. Christ vanishes from men’s sight that He might be embraced in all human hearts by faith. I will vanish from your physical sight. But follow me, remain close by my side in spirit and in truth, and in your hearts and minds you too shall ascend. 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 our 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 comes from the Father and returns to the Father. Christ teaches us that we are made to be caught up into the unbreakable knot of this Heavenly fire of Love, by Faith and with Hope. 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 the ascent of the soul’s passion and love for God in Christ that conquered all our sins? What is this fire, but the Love of Christ who intends not for us to have Him externally, visibly, and temporarily but inwardly, spiritually, and eternally. He is God’s Word of Love made flesh that desires to be made flesh in us. Not the Earth but Heaven has always held 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)
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. (1 Peter iv. 11) Christ’s Ascension means that here and now we can rise with Christ to rejoice in His Redemption of our souls and our Reconciliation with God the Father. So, with Cardinal Newman, let us
Set aside every day times for seeking Him. Humble yourself that you have been hitherto so languid and uncertain. Live more strictly to Him; take His yoke upon your shoulder; live by rule. I am not calling on you to go out of the world, or to abandon your duties in the world, but to redeem the time; not to give hours to mere amusement or society, while you give minutes to Christ; not to pray to Him only when you are tired, and fit for nothing but sleep; not altogether to omit to praise Him, or to intercede for the world and the Church; but in good measure to realize honestly the words of the text, to "set your affection on things above;" and to prove that you are His, in that your heart is risen with Him, and your life hid in Him. (Newman: Sermon 15)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: