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 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 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. God in Jesus Christ, in the Person of the Son, has come to us 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 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’s desire comes down, 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 to us in order to return us to our proper end.
Christ’s beginning with us in Conception is the beginning of God’s purest approach or coming to His people. In it He takes manhood into God, a manhood that had hitherto had rejected and removed itself from His presence. Man had willfully rejected the nearness of God’s perpetual presence, and so had secured for himself a false freedom bereft of the rule and governance of God’s goodness. Man’s forfeiture had ensured a life of suffering, sin, and death. Now in Christ God had crossed the man-made borders and frontiers of alienation. 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.
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 yielding all manner of goodness. There is pure love offered as the perfect sacrifice to be implanted and rooted in all men as death and new life. For even in the unjust death, gladly assumed, there is the never-ending flow of desire for man’s salvation. The same love flows up out of death and the grave, and for forty days illuminates and enlightens the hearts of believers, old and new. In Eastertide the faith is made new, knowledge is increased, hope is enlarged, and love is made strong. Inwardly and spiritually the followers of the Risen Lord come to grasp, know, and penetrate the mystery of God’s salvation love. Jesus Christ the God-man is moving. He is alive. He is lifting the hearts of men into the eternal and immovable spiritual center of man’s true meaning and happiness.
So with the Ascension we are being moved back into the sound of silence and the movement of stillness. Ascension mirrors the stillness and silence of the Conception in the Virgin’s womb. The invisible Christ takes His friends into a place and space of new conception, new life. 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) Mary was lifted up then and we are being lifted up now. Jesus takes his friends to a high place. He came down into the lowly earth, and into the depths of man’s sorry state, far removed from Heaven, some thought, into the Virgin’s womb. 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 follow me to this high place, far above the mundane and earthly space of your alienation from God. Come with me, up, higher and higher. I will vanish from your physical sight. But follow me, remain close by my side in spirit and in truth. Come, we are moving into the Father’s presence. 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 your 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 join His source and origin. 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 begins with God and ends with God. Christ teaches us that we are made to be caught up into the unbreakable knot of this Heavenly fire. 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 our longing for true meaning and definition, true happiness and joy that must be at the heart of our created natures? What is this fire but a determined passion to embrace and obey whatever we must in order to discover that love that overcomes our sin? For Jesus does not wish for us to have Him and to hold Him externally, visibly, and temporarily but inwardly, spiritually, and eternally. He is our desire for God made flesh, and that desire is to be made flesh in us. 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 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) Christ ascends and so too must we ascend.
As Cardinal von Balthasar puts it: The Transfigured One took the Apostles’ heart 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. Our home is in heaven. We have come from God and must return to God. In this Ascension tide let us with deepest desire begin the journey home. 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. And let us know, that if we are following Christ, inwardly and spiritually, indeed we shall suffer in the world. But then remember His words to us: Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (St. John 16. 33)