Ascension I Sermon
Ascension Tide is one of the briefest liturgical seasons that the Church follows. In fact, 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 is sent into the womb of the nascent Church on the feast of Pentecost or Whitsunday. So we have but a few days to examine the significance and meaning of the Ascension for us.
The Ascension of Jesus Christ restores human nature back to the center of all reality and meaning, so that the Holy Spirit might come forth and begin to incorporate us into the life of the Holy Trinity. In the simplest of terms, Christ, the Son of God fully Glorified, as the Son of Man, returns to the Father to establish a permanent place or home for the Saved and God’s Elect. Every aspect of Human Nature in need of repair and restoration has been Redeemed in Christ and now sits at the Father’s Right Hand, interceding for us and pleading that we may join Him there forever. Jesus prays the Father that we might participate in His royal redemption, salvation, and glorification forever.
Christ Jesus had been preparing men of faith with hope for His coming love long before His Incarnation. In this morning’s Old Testament reading, we find that faith in Isaiah, who yearned and longed after a fuller manifestation of God’s real presence and power in a world that did not know Him. For, 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) But the prophet’s faith was solid and certain. He abandoned himself to God’s Ghostly Strength. 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) So having acknowledged his sin and the wickedness of God’s people, the prophet faithfully cried to God for deliverance and salvation.
We see this same faith and hope in the Psalmist this morning. He has no faith that his friends will aid him when confronting the assaults of his worst enemies. He confesses in all meekness and humility, O help us against the enemy, for vain is the help of man. (Ps. lxiv. 12) And so the fire of his heart is stirred passionately within, as he reaches out to sing the song of faith. 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. He is swept up out of himself by the music of heavenly delight. He thanks God antecedently for what he believes, and hopes shall shortly 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)
And if this faith and hope were alive in Isaiah and the Psalmist, think about the power of their presence in the souls of the Apostles on the Day of Christ’s Ascension. Very few human beings have ever come as close to God’s Word as those who experienced the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ as the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and His first followers. Few have experienced their sinful poverty of spirit more self-consciously in the presence of God with us and for us. Few have suffered and embraced the gift of the forgiveness of sins from the hands of the Giver more poignantly and acutely than the Apostolic band. Few have then been stirred with the same fiery faith and love to embrace the hope of Resurrection and new life that the Ascended Christ longs to impart to all men in all ages.
But this fiery trial and victory of faith and hope were never meant to be special gifts reserved only for holy men and Saints of long ago. This is the fiery faith that we too must recover and regain if we hope to be saved. Jesus Christ’s Ascension is the crowning moment in an ongoing history of the faith of men who fervently desired Him long before He came, and joyfully embraced His presence long after He had gone. You see, the Ascension is that moment when the burning bush and fire of man’s deepest desire for God are perfected and consummated, and then expanded and enlarged as Christ calls and summons all men into the wake and trail of His love’s upward blaze. As Paul Claudel writes,
Jesus Christ, the Man-God, 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)
What the Son of God made flesh offered to the Father in the fiery passion of pure Sacrifice, Death, Resurrection, magnetically draws our hearts up and away from the earth. Christ has conquered sin and death and lifts us up into the presence of the Father. Jesus says, 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. 3)
Jesus will come again to us next week at Pentecost, through the Descent of our Lord the Holy Ghost. But before Christ’s descending fiery love begins to penetrate our hearts for our ongoing earthly pilgrimage, we must contemplate His Ascent to the Father. We must diligently pursue the Divine flame of fiery love that lifts Christ’s living death and dying life back to God. In His Ascension, with Bishop Westcott, 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 of His flesh, within His Sacred Heart, He holds us. This Love has always moved Christ, as He stooped down from Heaven to wash, heal, teach, and forgive us. This is the Love that suffered our rejection, torture, and crucifixion of Him. This is the Love that rose from death, and now in the Ascension cries Come follow me into Resurrection and beyond. Austin Farrer says this:
WE are told in [the] Old Testament how an angel of God having appeared to man disappeared again by going up in the flame from the altar…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.
Like the flame, our desire must tend upwards and burn towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire. We pray that this flame will kindle the fire of Christ’s Love for the Father in us. We lift our hearts up unto the Lord and begin to sense the fire of His Love. We come into the presence of our heavenly Father through Christ and realize that the end of all things is at hand. (1 St. Peter iv. 7) In Heaven’s bright light, we see Christ, who has by himself purged our sins [and] sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. ( Hebrews i. 3) Christ has redeemed us and welcomes us to sit with Him in Heavenly Places. Our old sinful lives have died in Christ on His Cross of Love. His fiery Love has instructed us in forty days of Resurrection. The same intensity of Love pleads our cause at God’s Right Hand.
St. Peter tells us this morning that to ascend through Jesus back to God the Father we must live wisely, and keep our senses awake to greet the hours of prayer. (Knox: 1. St. Peter iv. 7) Too long in this low place we have been the slaves of gravity and the law of matter. Too long have we been at the mercy of chance and vanity. The time has come for us to take our flight, body and soul, toward our Higher Cause. (I Believe, 160.) Our spiritual senses must rise into the fire of Love’s journey to our end. Christ now reigns gloriously in the greatness of His power and majesty and desires us to have our conversation with Him in Heaven, to love His appearing, and to be dissolved into His love. (Jenks, 352) We must ask Him to begin to reign and rule as King Supreme from the thrones of our hearts, enflaming us with constant charity among ourselves that covers a multitude of sins (1 St. Peter iv.8) Let us pray today 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) And may our deepest faith and love find words most fit, in this:
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)
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