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. In the Ascension, Christ restores human nature back to the origin of its being and meaning, so that out of His perfect reunion with the Father the Holy Spirit might come down from heaven and begin to incorporate all men who believe into new life. In the simplest of terms, Christ the Son of God, in a Resurrected and Glorified state, returns human life to communion with God the Father. Each word, thought, and deed that facilitate man’s return to God in Christ will now be shared from Heaven with all men through the ever-descending and transforming Holy Spirit.
Faithful man had been yearning to ascend back to God since the time of Israel’s primordial Fall. But he found himself 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) Sin had enslaved the ancient Jews; God seemed concealed and unconcerned. But the prophet confesses his sin in order to be lifted up above it. 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) Acknowledging his sin, and the collective wickedness of his people, the prophet faithfully cries out to God for deliverance and salvation. Israel may have unmade herself, but God can and will fashion her anew if only she lifts up her eyes unto the hills from whence cometh her help.
With Psalmist, he insists that he is powerless to fight against spiritual powers that have the advantage over him. O help us against the enemy, for vain is the help is man. (Ps. lxiv. 12) And so spiritual desire 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. The music of the spiritual lute and harp call him into the song of praise and thanksgiving. He thanks God anticipatorily for what he believes and trusts 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) Deliverance comes only from above. The glory that saves must come down from above from the one who is God’s right hand.
Christians believe that what Isaiah reached out and hoped for was the Incarnation of God’s right hand Man, even His own Son. What was desired from above 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 that was held in faith and embraced in hope then was made flesh and dwelt among us. (St. John i. 14) And yet the chief purpose of His Incarnation was that man’s human nature might once again become a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable unto God. (Romans xii. 1) Man was made to live above Himself, conformed to God’s will, and always longing to become clay in the hand of the potter.
Yet, in Christ we are not only called to be remolded but also placed into the kiln of the potter. This cannot be done until Christ does with our humanity what we cannot do. He must take it into a first suffering and death. His suffering and death constitute the first motions of His Sacrifice of our human nature back to the Father. His suffering and death are the kiln in which the Potter is firing up the clay for new life through a Sacrifice that will begin on earth and ascend up 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 was always called by the Father into Ascending Sacrifice. Throughout the whole of His life, He suffered and died to Himself and in so doing became an ever Ascending Sacrifice to the Father. Since the time of His Ascension, He has called all men to do the same through the Sacrifice that He shares with us. 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 His Ascension seat in Heaven, the Son of God sends His Spirit into our hearts so that we may bear witness to or testify of His Sacrificial Offering to the Father as we suffer and die to ourselves and come alive to God the Father through Him.
But before the Holy Spirit’s descending fiery love begins to enable us to be made one with the offering of our humanity back to the Father in Jesus Christ, we must first focus on Christ’s ascent back to the Father. Our eyes must pursue and follow persistently and diligently the flame of fiery love that lifts and carries Christ back to the meaning and reason for His Sacrifice. Bishop Westcott reminds us that we are meant to penetrate to 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 draws Christ’s Sacrifice up from the earth and back to the Father. True Sacrifice ascends back to God. Austin Farrer describes the movement nicely:
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.
Like the flame, our desire must tend upwards and burn towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire. We pray that the flame of our own sacrifice might be blended to that of Christ’s so that we too might begin to become supernaturally lighter as the fire of God’s love lifts us into the Heaven of His life. We pray that in faith we shall lift our hearts up unto the Lord because in the blazing fire of Heaven’s light we are beginning to see that the truest offering of man to God is found in Christ’s Ascending Sacrifice. Thus, old earth-bound notions, customs, and ideals must die. Christ who now sits at God’s right hand, interceding and pleading for us, longs for us to unite with the unending Sacrifice of His Ascended Life to the Father 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 ascended to offer His Sacrifice for us to the Father. We must be therefore sober, and watchful unto prayer. (1 St. Peter iv. 7) Our spiritual faculties must be wise to resist the dangers of each day in the ever-ascending sacrifice of prayer. Trusting that Christ now reigns in the greatness of His power and majesty, we must have our conversation with Him in Heaven, to love His appearing, and to be dissolved into His love. (Jenks, 352) We must pray that the Holy Spirit will descend into our hearts and bring us to a forthright confession of our sins, admission of our weaknesses, and desire for His help. We must pray for the steadfast courage to persist in the battle against Satan through the power of Christ’s Sacrifice. We must pray 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 to come alive to Christ’s perpetual Sacrifice to the Father is nicely summarized 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)
Christ's Ascension is therefore also our own, upon the glory of the Head rests the hope of the body. On this holy day, we have received not only the assurance of entering into possession of eternal glory, but we have already entered into the heights of heaven with Christ Jesus.
(Leo, Sermon 1 De Ascensione Domini c. iv)
This is the first Sunday after the Ascension. We find ourselves situated between our Lord's Ascension back to the Father and the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost or Whitsunday, which we celebrate next Sunday. Today we must meditate upon the Ascension and find in it a necessary devotion that prepares us for the promise of a new coming made to the Apostles in today's Gospel. Ascension is that day on which the church celebrates the return of the Son of God to Our Heavenly Father. On Ascension Day our Lord's earthly sojourn comes to a close. His earthly life and mission began when He was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. He lived, He taught, He healed, He was rejected, He suffered, He died, and He rose again from death. Nonetheless from the time of His Resurrection to His Ascension His human nature is transfigured. He is in possession of a spiritual body, transparent, obedient to the Spirit, unconstrained and lightsome, an apt and natural instrument for the salvation He now intends to foment in all others. (The Meaning of Man: Mouroux, p. 89)
Romano Guardini tells us that in Christ’s death on the cross, Jesus’ temporal life comes to an end, but not His life itself. He had been incorporated into terrestrial existence, submitting to its conditions, bound by its limitations. When He is in one place, he is not simultaneously elsewhere; what he does at one moment is not done also at another. Event follows event. (The Lord: R.G. p. 427) Easter’s Resurrection changes all of that. The concrete human is now joined to an indestructible essence. (Idem) Jesus is with His friends again but not subject to terrestrial power, the laws of government, or the laws of nature. He is here and there; He appears and disappears. He is unrecognizable and then recognized in an as earthly [and seemingly insignificant] gesture as the breaking bread. We feel in the lines how He pauses on the sill between eternity and time. (Idem) Christ is transfigured, and now temptation, evil, and corruption cannot touch Him. He is Risen Man. He moves at once in and out of events that are concurrent but isolated, united to all simultaneously in the event that He is.
Christ has been the victim of the best that sin in man can do, and now He has broken its chains, condemned its curse, and reversed the course of its rule in human life. Therefore, in His Ascension which we contemplate today, human mortality is redeemed. Christ has won the victory over sin, death, and Satan. Man’s end is found in His beginning, in the Father who is the source and origin of all truth, happiness, and joy. St. Peter says today that The end of all [other] things is at hand. (1 St. Peter iv. 7) In Jesus Christ, the power of human sin – the devil's deceit, is overcome, subdued, and brought to an end. The desire to tamper with God's eternal law for all creation (although never possible) is revealed to be futile, impotent, pointless, and ephemeral. In Jesus Christ, God has brought all sin to death. Satan flees and men’s hearts [should fail] them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven [are] shaken. (St. Luke xxi. 26) Now the relationship between the Apostles and their Lord must change. Now there is no excuse for disobedience to God. Now there is no justification for sin. God Himself has confronted and crucified sin in the human flesh of His own dear Son. Through that resolute and passionate determination to come closer than any man ever had or could to the corruption of sin, He has felt its power acutely, and because He is God in Man, has overcome it perfectly. In Jesus Christ alone, the eternal life, light, and love of God have endured sin and revealed it to be utterly absurd and unsatisfying. In Jesus Christ alone sin is brought into death, death is brought into death, and Satan becomes progressively ineffectual and insignificant in the lives of the faithful.
In His Resurrection, Christ’s soul took back His body, penetrated it through and through, and made it spiritual. Instead of the body of lowliness, Christ now has the body of glory. The body sacrificed is now the body glorified. (The Meaning of Man: Mouroux, p. 89) Now as Christ the God-Man ascends to sit down on His throne in the Heaven of His Father, He will begin to become the Word made flesh in all times and all places, in one heart here and simultaneously in another heart there. He sits in heaven and yet will come alive in the hearts and souls of those who fear and love Him. He is in eternity yet in time, though differently from before, in an intimacy of becoming. (Guardini, Idem) Christ desires to become the effectual and operative principle – the way, the truth, and the life, that carries all men to their Divinely intended destiny. And yet whether He is accepted as such or not, the Ascension establishes His role as Judge. His innocent human life alone has earned Him right to weigh and measure all other men’s lives in relation to the Word made flesh that He is. Jesus says: Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. (St. Matthew xii. 36, 37) Christ is God’s Word made flesh and for all flesh. From the seat of His ascended glory His Holy Spirit will reprove the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. (St. John xvi. 8,9,10)
Again, with St. Peter:
The end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. Use hospitality one to another without grudging. As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God…that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion forever and ever.
If we hope to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we must believe that our lives are now hidden with Christ in God. (Col. iii. 3) We must be vigilant and sober for [our]adversary the devil walketh about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. (1 St. Peter v. 8) The Ascended Christ sings to us: Lift up your hearts! Our chorus replies: We lift them up unto the Lord! He yearns to embrace us in the arms of His ascended love so that the contagion of His benevolence might grow into forgiveness that is neither resentfully nor reluctantly offered to others. He longs that His ascended truth might be articulated through us as the oracles that tell of His future coming and judgment. For if His Holy Spirit is to descend into our hearts and souls, we must be lifted up above all things earthly and mundane, seeking those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. (Col. iii. 3)
Ascension tide is all about worshipping and adoring the Saviour who invites us into intimate communion with Our Heavenly Father. Christ has completed His Father's mission. And now a new relationship emerges between His friends –the Apostles, their successors, you and me, and our God. As Father George Body, sometime Canon Missioner of Durham, has said:
‘They worshipped Him,’ - His very withdrawal from among them, His very elevation to the throne of God, was the development of new relations between the disciples and their Lord. As long as He was on the earth the worship was not the principle feature of their life; but as soon as He was withdrawn from them and seated at God's Right Hand in the heavenly places, the adoration of the Lamb - the worship of Jesus Incarnate, Crucified, Risen, Ascended, Enthroned, - the distinctive worship of the Christian Church, - began to be… where the Ascended Jesus is ever adored.
Ascension tide is the time of Adoration. In this time we worship and adore God’s own Son who has reconciled in Himself man to God and God to man. Today Christ tells us: 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: and ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning. (St. John xv. 26, 27) So we must prepare our hearts for bearing witness to the glorious truth of Christ’s Ascension. From His seat on High He shall move us here below that others may come to see and understand His triumphant victory over all that hinders us from communion with the Father and that others might also find in His Person their own redeemed humanity. O God, my heart is ready, my heart is ready; I will sing, and give praise with the best member that I have… I will give thanks unto Thee, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises among the nations. For thy mercy is greater than the heavens; and thy truth reacheth unto the clouds. (Ps. xviii. 1-4) Man and God are united once again. Heaven itself is stirred by the irruption of the Ascended God-Man. Angelic worship and adoration is radically refined. The Ascended Christ takes His seat with the Father and a new light illuminates the intellects of angels and men, a new adoration fills their spirits, a new song bursts forth from their lips, a new worship is begun, the worship of Jesus Christ. (Body, Idem) God is gone up with a merry noise: and the Lord with the sound of the trump. O sing praises, sing praises unto our God: O sing praises, sing praises unto our King. (Ps. xlvii. 5,6)
Today we find ourselves in that space between Ascension’s glory and Pentecost’s calling. Let us end with the poet’s desire for both:
But since he
That brightness soil'd,
His garments be
All dark and spoil'd,
And here are left as nothing worth,
Till the Refiners fire breaks forth.
Then comes He!
Whose mighty light
Made his clothes be
Like Heav'n, all bright;
The Fuller, whose pure blood did flow
To make stain'd man more white then snow.
And none else can
Bring bone to bone
And rebuild man,
And by His all subduing might
Make clay ascend more quick then light.
(Ascension Hymn: Henry Vaughn)
Acts 1:11. — ” Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven ?”
The Angels, in these words –firstly, reprove the wonder of the Apostles ; secondly, they assert the Ascension of the Lord; thirdly, they predict His return once more to earth
I. On the first head it is to be noted, that the Angels reproved the wonder of the Apostles in the words, ‘Why stand ye gazing up into heaven? Concerning which four points are to be noted:
Firstly, the Apostles were amazed at the Ascension, which was accomplished with so great glory and power, and about which also the Angels themselves were so zealous, asking Who is this?’(Isa 63:1). And remark the excellence of this Ascension, His difference from others who were taken from the earth. How great, indeed, is the contrast between our Blessed Lord and Enoch and Elijah.
The Apostles are amazed as what they have never before experienced. Christ is lifted up into Heaven. He assumes the nature of the old Man to bring sin, death, and Satan into their respective spiritual deaths. He is the new Man. He is more than Enoch and Elijah. He has been ‘here and there’ simultaneously in a transfigured body. He has been simultaneously in one place and another. Man’s experience of him differs according the respective natures that needed to be converted to His new and glorious being. He is supernatural and yet He eats and drinks. He is seen as Man and yet through the simple and commonplace breaking of bread His transfigured nature is seen and sensed. He is God and Man. He is no longer subject to the conditions of the temporal world. He is Man. He is more. He is God. The angels are more astounded than they were at His Incarnation. They have forgotten Adam’s original communion with God. They are astounded that God transfigured as Man can leave the earth and ascend into Heaven. But as they watch, they comprehend what is happening.
Secondly, the Apostles were grieving at His departure. The Great Comforter was going away from them. ‘Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice.’ (John 16:20); ‘Woe, woe is me, my son, why did we send thee to go to a strange country; the light of our eyes’ (Tobit 10: 4).
The Apostles are men who grieve at His going from them. They have just become accustomed to His Resurrected nature. They are getting used to His new real presence in their midst. And yet they cannot hold on to Him in this way. This way is at home only in Heaven. This is the way that they too must be given at the General Resurrection and on the day of Judgment. But for now He must leave and they must remain. They must grieve the loss of Him in one way before He comes to them in another. For them to subsist spiritually in the Person of the Son, they must be one with Him in the Person of the Spirit. The Apostles are reproved, however, since once the Angels realize what is happening, they must prepare the Apostles for their future life in and through the Ascended Christ, as He becomes their Head in order to make them the members of His body in time and space.
Thirdly, the Apostles were fearing because of the persecutions which they expected from the world, since they were left alone amidst those tribulations of the world which Jesus had already spoken to them about. ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation.’ (John 16:22).
The Apostles fear because they have no strength in themselves to help themselves against the promised assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They have not yet learned what true union with their Master and Lord means. They must be weaned from His material tangibility and all the benefits which have issued forth from it. But they are preparing for a wholly new and unheard of existence. They are preparing to be one with God’s Word in a way that has not been experienced by man since before the Fall. They are naturally afraid and fearful because they have not yet learned to embrace Jesus Christ in their hearts and souls.
Fourthly, the Apostles were confiding in their Lords promises to them. ‘I go to my Father’ by the substruction of My Body: ‘I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice’ (John 16:22). I will come again to you through the mission of the Holy Ghost: ‘I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter’ (John 16:16); ‘Lo! I am with you always, even unto the end of the ages.’ (Matt 28:20).
The Apostles are reproved because they have forgotten what Jesus had said to them during His earthly ministry and particularly in His Last Supper discourses. They should remember that Jesus has already told them of His ultimate departure. That He would not leave them comfortless. That they would see Him again. That He would send another Comforter. That He would never leave nor forsake them. And, yet, they have misunderstood His meaning. They thought that He was talking of His Resurrection. They did not understand that His Resurrection is a precursor to His Ascension.
II. On the second head it is to be noted, that the Angels assert the Ascension of the Lord: ‘This same Jesus Which is taken up from you into heaven ;”’about which four things are to be noted.
Firstly, Jesus ascended from earth in the sight of the Apostles, who represented the earth.
The Angels assert that Christ has ascended into heaven. From the Apostles standpoint He indeed goes up and disappears. But the Angles describe and explicate the nature of this ascent. The Apostles are of the earth, earthy. And so the Angels must tell them that the same Christ who ascends will come to them in life manner as He has ascended. What they mean is, first, in a spiritual sense, that the Holy Spirit lifts Him into Heaven and the Holy Spirit will bring Him back to them, though in a different form, inwardly and spiritually. Second, what they mean is that Christ will come again in glory, in His transfigured state, to judge both the quick and the dead.
Secondly, Jesus ascended into heaven. ‘Two men stood by them in white apparel.’ These Angels were the representatives of and witnesses from heaven.
Once the angels understand what is happening, they witness to the truth. They understand what is happening since their natural habitat is heaven. So they are aware of and have sensed the entry of Christ into their midst. And thus they reveal this truth to the Apostles who could not see beyond the clouds.
Thirdly, Jesus ascended through the clouds. ‘A cloud received Him out of their sight.’ This cloud represents the Almighty Father into Whose presence the Son ascended. The cloud is the witness of God the Father.
The cloud is the presence of the Father into which Christ is now moving. This represents God’s nature. Beyond and into it no man can go as yet. Christ must lead the way. The way that He is, is the only way into the Father’s cloudy presence. ‘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) So Christ returns to the Father in order that from within the unity of man with God in Himself, He might begin to work out our salvation.
Fourthly, Jesus ascended in the act of blessing. ‘He lifted up His hands and blessed them; while He blessed them He was parted from them and carried up into heaven’ (Luke 24:51). Our Lord was so His own witness that He ascended in His flesh — in that very flesh in which He had been crucified, and in which also He rose from the dead.
Apart from the Angels’ testimony and the perceivable facts, Christ has blessed His friends in departing. He not only moves back to the Father but only after He has blessed them with His wounded hands. In so doing, He is leaving them with that portion of His Holy Spirit that will give them patience, and an increase of faith, hope, and love as they wait for His immanent coming at Pentecost. They are blessed by His wounded hands that they might be stirred all the more to repent prior to His Holy Spirit’s descent.
These four witnesses — earth, heaven, God the Father, and God the Son— establish the truth of the Ascension of the Lord.
Men are the earth and they witness the Ascension. The Father is the Clouds, and He embraces His Son’s Ascension. The Son Himself blesses the earth and goes into the clouds and thus joins earth to heaven, and Man to God.
III. On the third head it is to be noted, that the Angels predict our Blessed Lord’s return to earth. ‘He shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven.
Of our Lord’s coming to judgment four things are to be noted as in regard to His Ascension.
Firstly, the earth shall witness it, for the Judge will be seen alike by the righteous and the wicked. ‘They shall see the Son of Man’ (Matt 24:30).
At the Second Coming the Lord will come to judge both the quick and the dead. The Angels thus predict the finality of Christ’s Incarnational Mission for all men. All men will be judged. Those who have obeyed Jesus will ascend into the life eternal. Those who have disobeyed Jesus will descend into the life infernal.
Secondly, God shall bear witness to it, for the Judge will be ‘coming in the clouds.
Christ will come from and through the Father to judge all men. The Father’s will is to be accomplished completely and fairly. It must be accomplished completely since every act of will in a man’s life matters and thus must be measured it the scales of eternal truth. It must be accomplished fairly since God must reward His rational free-willing creatures with precisely what they have longed for, desired, and chosen. God will never force His salvation on anyone. Thus those who have desired to become His sons through the Sonship of Christ will receive salvation, and those do not want Him and have rejected His love will receive an eternity of life without Him.
Thirdly, with His hands raised for smiting sinners. ‘With power and great glory.’ (id.)
With His own wounded hands Christ will witness to His Ascension. Upon those who desire His sanctification His wounded hands will bless and save. Over those who have rejected Him, the hands of blessing will smite the sinners and carry them into Hell. The power and great glory that His hands have won for man’s redemption will be the means of either saving and embracing some for Heaven or smiting and banishing others into Hell.
Fourthly, with holy Angels as His witnesses standing around Him, ‘Whom they shall precede, bearing the insignia of His Passion.’ ‘And He shall send His Angels with a great sound of a trumpet.’
The angels shall go before Christ to herald the final truth of His Passion and Resurrection. They will herald the good news of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and Satan. They will sound the trumpet, and the dead shall be raised, some to Heaven and some into Hell. Both groups shall be raised from the temporal to the eternal. Some will be raised up into an eternity of joy and the other into an eternity of misery. It is said, ‘they shall be raised’ because eternity, no matter what the type, is final and most perfect.
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