Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Feast of the Ascension: 24 May 2009

Feast of the Ascension: 24 May 2009
(Acts 1:1-11/Psalm 47/Ephesians 1:15-23/Luke 24:44-53)
Going Away

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Christ the Lord has ascended into heaven: Come let us adore Him.

Though Trinity Church is neither Anglican nor Episcopalian, we nonetheless consider The Book of Common Prayer as our prayer book. From it we draw our daily offices, our collects, the Psalms, and large portions of various liturgies. This is true, in part, because The Book of Common Prayer[1] has a spiritually rich and theologically sound internal structure that embeds the life of the individual within the worshipping life of the church. “O Lord, open thou our lips. And our mouth shall show forth thy praise,” the book invites us to say as we rise from the nonbeing of sleep to the daily re-creation of dawn. We go about our business of business or school until the noon bell – or its equivalent – rings to remind us how little aware we have been of God’s presence and providence, distracted as we often are by the cares and concerns of the day. “O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us,” the book prompts us then to say as we recall Christ stretching out his arms on the hard wood of the cross at another noontime precisely to save us and to help us. Later that evening, home at last and surrounded by those given to us and those to whom we have been given, the book counsels us to “Seek him who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth: The Lord is his name.” There is marvelous and needed perspective in these words. While we have been about our affairs – and how important they sometimes seem as we strut about on the stage of our lives – God has been holding the universe together for us: constellations and orbits and tides. The Lord is his name. And though the One who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps, we must. So the book reminds us to die this small, daily death with the words of Jesus on our lips: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit; for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.” We know only this, that through the grace of God we shall awake – here in the presence of family and friends or there in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. It makes little difference, really; either way, as the book reminds us, we are in God’s hands.

Each day the book calls us to embed our lives in the prayer the church – on earth and in heaven – prayer offered continually from the rising of the sun to its setting, that God’s name may be great among the nations.

Each week the book calls us to embed our lives in the worship of the church: to lift up our hearts to Lord; to give him thanks and praise; to remember his work of redemption; and to offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving as we break the bread of heaven and lift the cup of salvation.

Each year the book calls us to embed our lives in the feasts and fasts of the church: Advent, Nativity, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Pascha, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints, and back around again.

And in the largest cycle of all, the book calls us to embed the whole of our lives – not just the individual days and weeks and years, but the whole of our lives – in the larger story of the church, calls us to see the whole of our lives as sacramental: baptism, confirmation, marriage, childbearing, sickness, death, and burial. All of these events are sacred moments of transition experienced within the larger story that is God’s: from death to new and eternal life, from childhood to maturity, from isolation to union, from barrenness to fruitfulness, from bodily vigor to physical decline, from dust to dust, from death to new and eternal life and ultimately to resurrection – a lifetime, and beyond, of sacred transitions.

This day marks such a moment of transition in Jesus’ life and in the life of the church: the feast of the Ascension. Like the moments of transition in our lives, the Ascension, too, is embedded in the larger story of redemption from which it derives its meaning.

Forty days Jesus has been among us following his resurrection, popping up here and there, almost at random it seems. We’ve gotten used to looking for him: the familiar stranger around a campfire, the unknown companion on the way, the Lord with wounded hands and side. He might be anywhere, so we look everywhere. This day he appears to all of us together and leads us out as far as Bethany. There, he lifts his hands in blessing and, as his grace descends on us, he is caught up out of our sight into the clouds of heaven, ascending to the right hand of the Father. We stand, gaping open-mouthed, up into the clouds until our reverie is shattered by two men in dazzling white raiment – angels we know them to be – speak to us: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Luke 1:11, NRSV). And that’s it; he is gone. We do now just what he told us; we return to Jerusalem and wait and pray and fast. Something is coming, he has promised – something good. And so we wait.

This is the story of the Ascension. It is a story of leaving, a story of going away. We all are familiar with such stories; we celebrate them routinely. A child graduates high school and prepares to leave home for college; with a mixture of pride and sadness, we throw a party. A friend is relocated for work; with a mixture of nostalgia and best wishes, we throw a party. A colleague retires; with pure, unadulterated envy we nonetheless throw a party. A relative dies; with a mixture of grief and hope we throw a party, a wake. We celebrate the goings-away of our lives. Or do we?

What parent, having devoted eighteen years to love and worry and joy and struggle in the raising of a child, really wants to see that child grow distant? What person, having known true friendship, having shared a story and a history with another, really wants to see communion with the childhood friend and confidant reduced to infrequent, long distance phone calls or impersonal emails? What employee, having been mentored by a master, having been befriended by a respected colleague, really wants to see that trusted mentor leave the profession, laying aside the expertise and wisdom and grace with which he or she practiced the craft? What person ever wishes for the passing of another, for the ache that accompanies absence? Clearly, though we throw going-away parties, it is not the going-away that we celebrate, but the presence of the person with us in the past. Our going-away parties are really expressions of how very much a person means to us and of how very much we wish that person could stay.

And now comes the Ascension – Jesus’ going-away – one of the great feasts of the church. But why do we feast: to celebrate his leaving or to express how very much he means to us and how very much we wish he were still here? Given the choice, would you have Jesus visibly present with us as he was then, or visibly absent from us as he is now? Before you answer, consider how the Ascension is embedded in the larger story of redemption.

On the night he was betrayed Jesus spoke clearly to his disciples of his death and of his going-away.

4I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you.

5"Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, 'Where are you going?' 6Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. 7But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: 9in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; 10in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
12"I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (John 16:4-15, NIV).

“It is for your good that I am going away,” Jesus says, for “unless I go away, the Counselor [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you.” Why, in the economy of God, Jesus must be absent for the Holy Spirit to be present is a mystery beyond our knowing, but it is so. And it is needful for us that the Holy Spirit be present – more needful, and so better, than having Jesus physically present with us. This is one of the rare cases, then, when we actually celebrate a going-away precisely as a going-away. Embedded within the larger story of redemption, we celebrate the departure, the Ascension, of Jesus because it is the essential precursor of the arrival, the Descent, of the Holy Spirit. The victory that Jesus won through his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit now implements through the church. “It is for your good that I am going away,” Jesus says, and, though we miss him, we must agree.

When Jesus ascended, God

seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Eph 1:20b-23, NIV).

Embedded within the larger story of redemption, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus because it marks his exaltation to glory at the right hand of the Father and his appointment as head of the body, the church. And here, a great mystery unfolds. How can the head be where the body is not? If we are truly members of Christ’s body – and we are made so by grace, through faith, in baptism – then what is true for him must also be true for us. Where he is, there we must also be.

4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:4-7, NIV).

God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. Jesus’ ascension is our ascension. This is the Ascension embedded in the larger story of redemption – the reconciliation of man to God so that man might participate fully in the divine life of the Trinity, so that man might live in the very presence of God, so that God and man might abide in one another, sharing the divine nature and life. “It is for your good that I am going away,” Jesus says. “Amen,” we say.

And if we do not yet perceive our citizenship in heaven, our exalted position in Christ? No matter: the prayer Paul offered for the Ephesian Christians he offers for us, as well:

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places (Eph 1:17-20, NKJV).

Paul’s prayer receives its answer, in part, at every Eucharist.

“Lift up your hearts,” the Celebrant says in the Eucharistic Prayer, and the people respond, “We lift them to the Lord.” Closer to the theological reality of the Ascension is the Anaphora of Saint James, one of the most ancient of the Eucharistic liturgies.

“Upward, where Christ sits on the right hand of God the Father, let our thoughts, minds and hearts be at this hour,” the priest chants. “They are with the Lord God,” the people respond, acknowledging the truth of the Ascension – that our thoughts, minds, hearts, and lives are even now present with and in Christ where he sits at the right hand of God the Father. It is as much Ascension as the other movements in the story – death and resurrection – that makes Eucharist possible. Ascension finds it meaning in the larger story and in turn gives meaning to the larger story.

It is all mystery how we can feel so earthbound when our hearts and lives are with the Lord in glory. It is, for now, beyond our knowing, but not beyond our faith. And so, in wisdom and grace, Mother Church calls us to the feast of the Ascension and to the Eucharistic Feast of Heaven and Earth, calls us to embed our story in the larger story of redemption, calls us to ascend with Christ and thus be forever with the Lord.


[1] The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with The Psalter or Psalms of David According to the use of The Episcopal Church, The Seabury Press, 1979.

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