05 May 2008

Sermon: Ascension Day

Ascension Day
Acts 1.11; Eph 1.15-23; Lk 24.49-53
1 May 2008
Holy Communion

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I stopped by the Hallmark store earlier today to buy an Ascension card for my wife, along with some of those great Ascension Day chocolates. Would you believe it, they were out!? But of course they weren’t actually sold out; they never had any. You can by Christmas cards, you can buy Easter cards. In the Hispanic section, you can buy Epiphany cards. But no Ascension cards. Well, there may be no cards, but there is tonight and this great feast. And while the Ascension may have dropped out of the culture’s consciousness and evidently holds no commercial appeal for the Hallmark folks, it would be a great shame were we to leave the Ascension of our Lord out of our lives, out of the pattern of our devotion. To leave out the Ascension would be much like building a large, spacious, beautiful home, but never moving in.

In fact, it is the Ascension of our Lord that gives his Nativity, his Cross, even his Resurrection their power. If it sounds like I’m overstating the case, I’m only following – actually plagiarizing – St. Augustine. Preaching this feast some 16 hundred years ago, he said that the Ascension "is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished."[i]

Now, if that is so – if the Ascension “confirms the grace” of all those mighty acts whereby God has acted in Christ to redeem and save us – then we might well ask, Why aren’t there any Ascension Day cards in the Hallmark store? And why aren’t there any great Ascension Day candies – that’s what I want to know. Why is this only sung mass on a peninsula chock full of Episcopal churches? Why, according to something I read yesterday, have many Catholic dioceses in our country dispensed with Ascension Day as a day of holy obligation due to poor attendance and transferred the feast to the following Sunday (and I have to say, eliminating Mass strikes me as a really swell way of dealing with the problem of poor Mass attendance)?[ii]

Why should this be the case? Well, probably for many and complicated reasons, but maybe by looking at just two we can find our way back in to the Ascension’s glory.

First of all, it does seem like the Ascension is just a little too primitive and magical, a little too pre-Copernican, a little too, shall we say, “flat earth” – does it not? We read, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him,” and immediately our imaginations jump to Jesus with a divine jet-pack,[iii] zipping up, up, and away! to some Heaven in the clouds – as if the opposite of the Ascension would be to dig a hole down to Hell.

But of course neither the ancient Hebrew people like Jesus and his disciples gathered that day in Bethany nor educated Greeks like St. Luke who recorded the event for us believed in a three-tiered universe, and the Jet-pack Jesus idea would have seemed at least as silly to them as it perhaps seems embarrassing to us, and to entirely miss the point as well. Which is not to deny, but rather to affirm, that Luke records for us an actual historical event, involving the actual human body of Jesus Christ, forty days after he had actually been resurrected on the third day after he had actually “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.”

If we can put it this way, the Ascension describes an historical event, not a geographical one.[iv] This cloud that takes Jesus from view is always in the Scriptures the sign of the Father’s Presence, the “symbol of divine power” – as at Sinai, as in the Tabernacle set up in the wilderness, as on the mount of Tranfiguration.[v] What Luke shows us, what the Ascension asserts, is that the Incarnate, Crucified, and Risen One is received back whence he had come, to the right hand of the Father, and from there to reign, and to reign precisely as the Incarnate, Crucified and Risen One. He did not leave his body, his humanity, his scars behind. Rather, the Ascension tells us that the full humanity of Jesus, body included, has been taken forever into the life of the Most Blessed Trinity.

Which brings us to the – or at least “a” – second reason we may be tempted to give the Ascension short shrift: its truth is just too big, too wonderful, too foreign, takes us too far in to the very life and being of the infinite God, for us easily to relate to our everyday lives.[vi] We have no easy hook to hang this hat on.

After all, birth and babies and bodies we know and can relate to from our own experience. Suffering and death and dying we know and can relate to from our own experience, only too well. And knowing something of those things, we can even relate to Resurrection, and even begin to experience something of its grace and power here and now in this life.

But Ascension? Our humanity – our full, embodied humanity – joined intrinsically, integrally, inseparably, ontologically to the life of God – this theosis, this deification, as Fr. Clarke showed us this past Sunday, is a wonderful prospect. But at present (and maybe here I should only speak for myself) it is a lot of faith and precious little sight. Ascension in large degree must remain an abstraction until we ourselves are risen and ascended. We will see it only “through a glass and darkly” until we see the Ascended One face to face and are made like him.[vii]

Even so, as difficult as it is to get at, the Ascension can and should change us, and change us here and now, and change us in the best way. After all, it changed the disciples who witnessed it. Luke tells us that after Jesus ascended, the disciples returned to Jerusalem – not feeling bereft, as we might expect; not grieving an absence and loss, as would seem appropriate – but instead they returned with “great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.”

Here are a small band of brothers and sisters with every reason to feel, so we might suppose, abandoned and fearful and alone. We might even expect to find them again, as in those couple days before the Resurrection, back behind locked doors for fear. But instead, just the opposite. They are bold, they are joyful, and they walk at large in the world.

So how did the Ascension change them? Again, back to the thing itself: Jesus returns, and his embodied humanity is raised up into the life of God. He is taken in to a cloud which is the only way the Biblical writers ever found to describe the mystery of the divine Presence, there to reign at the Father’s right hand. There to reign. If the Resurrection is victory over death, the Ascension is victory over history. It is the establishment of the Lordship of Christ over all things. As St. Paul has it as reflects on the Ascension in today’s epistle lesson, when God drew the risen Lord back to himself,

he made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and made him the head over all things for the church.

Jesus is “head over all things for the church.” The Ascended Jesus is for the church. He is pro-ecclesia. You see what this means. The promise that “God works all things for good to those who love him” is grounded in the Ascension. The promise “that the One who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” comes courtesy of the Ascension. The promise that nothing – “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” – that promise is sealed by the Ascension.[viii] That is why the disciples had great joy, that is why they were continually in the temple praising God, and that is why we also “lift up our hearts,” here at this Altar.

Do you look out at the world and find yourself unsettled by what you see? Do the times look troubled – socially, culturally, morally? Well, it looked much the same if not worse that day Jesus was taken by the cloud. In the first century AD the most respected philosophers and intellectuals of the day were gravely counseling suicide as man’s best option.[ix] But the disciples of Jesus had a kind of rollicking optimism that overcame persecution and hardship and loss, because of the Ascension, because the same Lord who suffered for them now ruled and rules for them and for us, so that one great day we and all the church will be raised up with him, ascended into the very life of God. That is a joy and a power that can be, should be, ours now. So why are we standing around, looking into heaven – or gazing at our navels? This Jesus, who was taken up into heaven, who is “head over all things for the church” – he will come.

Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.

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Image: Guariento d'Arpo, "Ascension of Christ" c. 1344

[i] St. Augustine, Sermo 53.4.

[ii] Fr. Richard John Neuhas, http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=267

[iii] Jesus didn’t need one, but you can buy a jet-pack from this guy:


[iv] Hans Urs von Balthazar, Credo.

[v] Ex 19.16-20; 40.34-38; Lk 9.28-36

[vi] Barbara Brown Taylor, ”The Day We Were Left Behind” in Christianity Today, 18 May 1998.

[vii] 1 Cor 13.12; 1 Jn 3.2

[viii] Rom 8.28,38-39; Phil 1.6. Leaning here on the exposition of Tim Keller, Redeemer Presbyrterian Church, New York.

[ix] J.I. Packer, The Apostles’ Creed.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Buy her the chocolates anyway.

05 May, 2008 20:04  

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