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. Yet there is a real difference. In the Ascension, Christ Himself is now one with human nature, and so in Him human nature has been redeemed and returned to the Father. It seems rather difficult to think about this. But we believe that the Ascended Christ is the New Adam. In and through Him we now have access to our Heavenly Father. In and through Him we can participate in His victory over sin and death and live in and through His Resurrection. In Christ the Son of God, we can rise, ascend, and dwell with God the Father.
Faithful man in all ages has been yearning to ascend back to God. And yet, as the Jews remind us, he has found it all the more difficult because he lives 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 and so God seemed hidden. But as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, this is no excuse for despair. 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) The whole of the world may abandon God, but the prophet remains faithful and true. Israel might be spiritually undone, but the prophet lifts up his eyes unto the hills from whence cometh his help (Ps. cxxi. 1).
With Psalmist, he acknowledges that he is powerless to fight against spiritual principalities that seek to undermine his faith. O help us against the enemy, for vain is the help is man. (Ps. lxiv. 12) Spiritual desire is stirred passionately within him, 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 lute and harp call him into the song of praise and thanksgiving. He thanks God anticipatorily for what shall surely soon 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) The glory that saves must come down from above from the one who sits at God’s right hand.
Christians believe that what Isaiah reached out for in hope was the Incarnation of God’s right hand Man, even His own Son. What Isaiah desired 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 every man might once again become a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable unto God. (Romans xii. 1) Man was made to transcend the limitations of the external and visible world, to obey God’s will, and to become clay in the hand of the potter so that he might one day return to his Maker.
To return to our maker, we must be placed into the kiln of the potter. This cannot be done without Jesus Christ. He must take us into the kiln that burns off all the impurity and defilement of sin. His suffering and death are the effects of entering God’s kiln. God the Father is the Potter who is firing up the clay for new life through a Sacrifice that will begin on earth and ascend 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 becomes the clay that will be fired up in Sacrifice to God. Throughout the whole of His life, He denies Himself so that He might become clay in the hands of God the potter. The fiery furnace of the Fallen creation is for Him the kiln in which human nature must be tested and tried, purified and perfected. The Ascension is the moment when our perfected human nature in Jesus Christ returns to the Father. From His seat in Heaven Jesus Christ desires that should participate in His Redeemed life. 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 Heaven, the Son of God will send His Spirit into our hearts and thus begin to remold, remake, sculpt, fashion, and perfect us.
But before the Holy Spirit’s descending fiery love can incorporate us into the new life, the new creation, the new humanity of Jesus Christ, 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 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 lifts Christ’s Sacrifice up from the earth and back to the Father. True Sacrifice is the gift that returns itself to the Giver. 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.
Our minds and hearts must follow Jesus upward and into the Eternal Beginning Point of all making and remaking. In the flame of spiritual love we 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 new every morning 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 we cannot be remade without rising above and beyond this sinful world. Thus, our attachments to old, earth-bound smoldering darkness must die. Christ who now sits at God’s right hand, interceding and pleading for us, longs for us to enter the unending Sacrifice of His Ascended Love for the Father. We pray 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 completed His Sacrifice for us to the Father. We must be therefore sober, and watchful unto prayer. (1 St. Peter iv. 7) We must discern and overcome the evils that threaten to drag us down and away from the fire of Christ’s love. 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 so that we might humbly confess all our sins and rise into Christ’s healing fire. We must pray for the steadfast courage to battle 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 ascend in Him are summarized nicely 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)