Thursday, May 21, 2009

Feast of the Ascension

This is an edited version of my Ascension Day sermon

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Ascension Day is an interesting event to celebrate, and I will admit that this is a feast which carries some complications for those of us who grew-up in the Space Age (when's the last time you heard that phrase?). We have a different understanding of the universe than did the original audience of the story of the Ascension. The people of that era believed in what we call a three tiered universe: there was the underworld, then our world, then the heavens. They believed that the ground separated the underworld and this world, and that something similar to a large curtain separated this world from the heavens. This curtain had little holes in it, and God’s glory shone through those holes, and that is what we call the stars. In a three tiered universe, certain beings were capable of moving between the three worlds. Greek mythology was full of stories of heroes who visited the underworld, and in our Nicene Creed we say that Jesus "descended into hell." The Church also teaches that he "ascended into heaven." The story of the Ascension appears in the three synoptic gospels, and in the second part of Luke’s work, the Acts of the Apostles, but in John’s gospel the Ascension happens of the day of Resurrection and apparently there were no witnesses to the event. Now, when we read Luke’s two versions of this event, and the versions in the other gospels, for that matter, one is led to believe that Jesus floated up in the sky until he got to heaven. In the second ending of Mark’s gospel it reads: So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. In a three tiered universe such a thing is possible, as one simply passes through that curtain which separates the two worlds and one will be at the Throne of the Father in no time. We, however, live in a different time; most of us can remember the trips to the moon made by the astronauts of the 1970’s. We live in a time in which the sky is filled with satellites which make it possible for us to communicate with the other side of the planet in seconds. We live in a time when we have seen photographs of the planet taken from outer space. We live in the time of the Hubbell Telescope which has enabled us to see far across the vast expanse of space. This knowledge of the universe, and this perspective of the universe, makes it difficult for someone like me to think of Jesus as floating up to heaven, since I just see him rising up and up and up and up past the moon, past the asteroid belt, past Jupiter and the large planets, past our solar system, past the galaxies; I guess he would just keep rising and rising forever!!!

But fortunately, that is not what Ascension Day is about; that is not the meaning of the Ascension. There are reasons for the stories about Jesus floating up into heaven, but that is not what the theology of the Ascension is about. If the Ascension is not about Jesus floating up to heaven, what is it about? It has to do with several theological points, it has to do with the theology of the Holy Trinity. The Ascension is the moment when Jesus, the Son, the Redeemer, the Second Person of the Trinity, came into the presence of the Father, the Creator, the First Person of the Trinity. This is the moment when the Son came into the presence of the Father because he had accomplished the task given to him by the Creator. It is a theological event, not what we would consider an historical event.

The theology of the Ascension has been an important part of Jesus’ story from the very beginning of the Church. It has always been an important part of the Christology of the Church for several reasons. The first reason is that the Ascension represents the culmination of the earthly mission of Jesus. His death and resurrection could not have their full effect until Jesus ascended to the presence of the Father, to whom he presented his finished work of atonement. We teach that Jesus had two natures, that he was fully human and fully divine, and it was at this moment that the humanity of Jesus was taken up to God and glorified. This aspect of the Ascension, this aspect of the Resurrection, was very important to the early Christians, and St. Paul speaks of it several times in his letters to the Christians around the Mediterranean. The Ascension is also important because it tells us that the earthly body of Jesus is no longer present within time and space. The earthly body of Jesus now belongs to the Son of God in eternity, that is why the stories have him floating up into the heavens, so that there was no question of Jesus’ body being left behind, otherwise people might say that he wasn’t resurrected, he was revived somehow and then died later. Some people actually do make such a claim; There is a tomb in Japan and a tomb in Pakistan which are supposed to hold the body of Jesus.

The Resurrected and Ascended Jesus is not present to us in the way he was present to the disciples. We now seek the presence of Jesus within our gathering, because he told us that when two or three are gathered in his name, he is in our midst. We now seek his presence in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, where he is present in the sharing of the bread and wine. We now seek his presence in the faces of the poor, in the faces of the meek, and in the faces of those assembled here.

Another important aspect of the Ascension is that the Son had to come into the presence of the Father so that the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, could be sent to us. Jesus promised that after he ascended to the Father, he would send the Comforter, the Advocate, but the Holy Spirit could not come to do its work among us until the Son had ascended to the Father.
We will be celebrating the Feast of Pentecost next Sunday, the birthday of the Church, the celebration of the coming of the Comforter, the celebration of the Spirit’s descent like tongues of fire, the celebration of the Spirit’s presence like a wind. Because Jesus ascended to the Father, the Holy Spirit was sent to us, and we are now able to follow Jesus’ commandments, because the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to do what God wants us to do. We are unable to do these things on our own, and since Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, he fully understands our weakness. Because the Son knows of the weakness of the flesh, because the Son knows of the difficulties of our earthly existence, he ascended to the Father so that the Holy Spirit could descend and give us the strength we need. And because the Son ascended to the Father, the Spirit has descended, and we are no longer alone, we have the Comforter to guide us, to give us strength, to lead us as we follow the commandments of our Lord. In last Sunday’s gospel reading, Jesus said that if we are his friends, we will follow his commandments. We want to follow his commandments because we are his friends, we want to love one another as he loves us, we want to love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind, we want to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner and welcome the stranger, but we can only do this with the help of God, and that is why God the Holy Spirit is here with us. The Son has ascended to the Father so that the Spirit could descend.

This is why Ascension Day is important, because today we commemorate the Ascension of the Son to the Father. Today we remember that Jesus was completely obedient and fulfilled the task given to him by the Father. Today we do not commemorate Jesus floating into the air, but we commemorate the fact that his mission was completed successfully, that the way was made ready for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and now we are never alone, that the presence of God is always with us.


Mary said...

Thank you. That post really helped me understand the theology of the Ascension.

Saint Pat said...

Bravo! Now I have a much fuller understanding of the Ascension.

Fred Preuss said...

No, there are thousands of people who help others without believing in god; it's not true that "we can ONLY do this with the help of god".
I'd compare my police record and my charitable giving with any randomly picked church goer. And I'm gratified by the low percentages of atheists in prison compared to the percentage of atheists in the general population.
God and good aren't equivalent.

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