ASCENSIONTIDE is one of the briefest of liturgical seasons that the Church follows. In fact 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 is 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 of Jesus Christ restores human nature back to the center of all reality and meaning, so that the Holy Spirit might come forth, the third person of the Trinity. In the simplest of terms, Christ the Son of God, in a Resurrected and Supernatural Body, returns to the abode of His Father and in it one sees the culmination and crowning of God’s earthly revelation. Each word, thought, and deed that comes to us as Divine revelation through the Person of Jesus Christ is contrived and orchestrated to lead all believers upward and into God’s desire for their royal redemption and salvation.
Christ Jesus has been preparing men for faith in Him and hope for His coming long before His Incarnation. In this morning’s Old Testament reading we find that faith in Isaiah who yearns and longs after a fuller manifestation of God’s real presence and power in a world that that no longer calls upon the Lord. For, 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)
But the prophet’s faith is sure and certain. He is confident in the power and might of God. 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) So acknowledging his sin, and the wickedness of God’s people, the prophet faithfully cries out to God for deliverance and salvation.
We see this same faith and hope in the Psalmist this morning. He has no faith that his friends will aid him when confronting the assaults of the worst of his enemies. So with faith in God he confesses, O help us against the enemy, for vain is the help is man. (Ps. lxiv. 12) And so the fire of his heart 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. He is swept up and out of himself by the music of the spiritual lute and mystical harp. He thanks God antecedently and 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)
And if this faith and hope was alive in Isaiah and this morning’s Psalmist, think about the depth of its presence in the souls of the Apostles. Not many human beings have ever come as close to God before or after the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles, and intimates of Jesus of Nazareth. Few have experienced more truly the sinfulness and poverty of human nature in the presence of God with us and for us.
Few have suffered and embraced the gift of the forgiveness of sins from the hands of the Giver more poignantly and acutely than the Apostolic band. Few have then been stirred with the same fiery faith and love to embrace the Resurrection and new life that the Ascended Christ has desired always to ignite in the hearts and souls of all men.
But this fiery trial and victory of faith and hope were never meant to be special gifts of holy men and Saints of long ago. This is the fiery faith that we too must recover and regain if we hope to be saved. Jesus Christ’s Ascension is the crowning moment in an ongoing history of the faith of men who fervently desired Him long before He came, and joyfully embraced His presence long after He had gone.
You see, the Ascension is that moment when the burning bush and fire of man’s deepest desire and yearning for God is perfected and consummated, and then expanded and enlarged as Christ calls and summons all men into the wake and trail of His love’s upward quest. As Paul Claudel writes, Jesus Christ, the Man-God, 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) What was offered to God in the fiery pure passion of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension is the call of God to the faithful in all ages who follow the fire of His love as it ignites and carries their hearts home to Heaven. 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)
But before God’s descending fiery love begins to grow, broaden, deepen, and expand as our lives testify of Christ in our hearts, we must first focus on our ascent with Him back to the Father. Our eyes must pursue and follow persistently and diligently the Divine flame of fiery love that lifts, draws in, and pulls Christ back to the cause and motivation of His living death and dying life. In His Ascension, with Bishop Westcott, 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 will draw us up and into Christ’s reconciliation with our Father. With Him we must ascend. What we must desire to embrace is nicely summarized through the poetic imagination of Austin Farrer:
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 this flame will spark, kindle, and spread a fire of love for God that lifts us up and into the heart of Jesus. And so, we lift our hearts up unto the Lord and begin to find and discover ourselves for the very first time. We come into the presence of our heavenly Father, and through our Christ, we realize that the end of all things is at hand. (1 St. Peter iv. 7) We ascertain in Heaven’s bright light that it is finished because the burning love of Christ has emblazoned our path of faith’s new life right back to God. Our old ways, old lives, old false and unfaithful gods are darkened and dead. We realize that Christ now sits at God’s right hand not only to intercede and plead our cause, but to lift us into that fiery love which burns away the dregs and dross of death, that hearts might burn with love that lives anew to God through Him.
St. Peter tells us this morning that to ascend through Jesus back to God the Father we must live wisely, and keep our senses awake to greet the hours of prayer. (Knox: 1. St. Peter iv. 7) Our spiritual senses must be opened to the fire of love’s journey into our end. We must believe and know that Christ now reigns in the greatness of His power and majesty, that He desires us to have our conversation with Him in Heaven, to love His appearing, and to be dissolved into His love. (Jenks, 352) We must ask Him to begin to reign and rule as King Supreme from the thrones of our hearts, enflaming us with constant charity among ourselves that not only covers a multitude of sins (1 St. Peter iv.8), but awakens the hearts of other men to that love in us that burns toward the heart of heaven. Let us pray today 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) And may our deepest faith and love finds word most fit, in this:
Lord, when the sense of thy sweet grace
Sends up my soul to seek thy face.
Thy blessed eyes breed such desire,
I dy 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 dy.
Though still I dy, I live again;
Still longing so to be still slain,
So gainfull is such losse of breath.
I dy 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)