A modern icon of the Ascension
Thursday 21 May 2009, The Ascension Day: 5 p.m., The Holy Communion:
Acts 1: 1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1: 15-23; Luke 24: 44-53
May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Ascension Day is one of the 12 great feasts of the Church.
On this day, we celebrate the culmination of the Mystery of the Incarnation.
On this day, we celebrated that Christ, by ascending into his glory, completed the work of our redemption.
On this day, we celebrate the completion of the work of our salvation, the pledge of our glorification with Christ, and his entry into heaven with our human nature glorified.
On this day, Christ ascends in his glorified human body to sit at the right hand of the Father.
On this day, we are given the final visible sign of Christ’s two natures, divine and human.
On this day, we see the completion of Christ’s physical presence among his apostles and the consummation of the union of God and humanity.
On this day, we are shown that redeemed humanity now has a higher state than humanity had before the fall.
On this day, as Saint Matthew reminds us in the account of the Ascension we read at Morning Prayer this morning, we receive our commission for mission, the command to go out, to make disciples, and to baptise.
But, on this day, are we like the disciples, left standing and staring and not knowing what to do?
Or, on this day, do we listen to the advice to head off, to expect the promise of the Father and the gift of the Holy Spirit?
As so often throughout the Gospels, it is easy to imagine in today’s readings from Saint Luke’s Gospel and from the Acts of the Apostles that the disciples have still not caught on to the sort of Messiah that Jesus is: they are still wondering whether they have arrived at the moment when Israel is going to be restored as a kingdom, to become a regional power once again.
The disciples kept their heads in the clouds, even though Jesus has told them to go back to Jerusalem. They have their heads in the clouds, and while their feet rooted to the ground, they are feet that should have been walking, walking back to Jerusalem, ready to step out bravely into the world in mission.
The two men in white who appear beside them are like the two angels at the grave on Easter Morning. They remind them to get on with doing what Christ has told them to do.
They are being sent back to Jerusalem not to be passive but to pray to God the Father and to wait for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In time, the Holy Spirit will empower them, and they will be Christ’s witnesses not just in Judea and Samaria, but to the ends of the earth fulfilling that commission in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.
In an old Ascension Day tradition in the Church of England, parishioners carried a banner bearing the symbol of a lion at the head of the procession, and a second banner bearing the symbol of a dragon at the rear. This represents the victory of Christ over the devil.
For many Christians, the meaning of the Day of Ascension is found in the sense of hope that the glorious and triumphant return of Christ is near. It is a reminder of the Kingdom of God within our hearts, and of the ever-present Spirit of God, watching over and protecting us as we spread the light of Christ and his truth throughout the world.
The disciples who are left below are left not to ponder on what they have seen, but to prepare for Pentecost and to go out into the world as the lived Pentecost, as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
But, like the disciples in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we can be left looking and wondering, being without doing.
When the exams are over next week, will we be left standing and staring, some wanting to cling onto the joyful life of students? I jest not, for in time some of you will look back on your three years here as happy days.
But those three years here, including the exams these weeks, are not about academic standards and achievements. They are first and last about preparing for that moment when the Church prays “earnestly” at your ordination “for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on these persons” (Book of Common Prayer 2004, p. 557).
The Holy Spirit, as the Apostle Paul writes in our Epistle reading, is the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, the Spirit that enlightens the hearts of disciples, is the Spirit that gives knowledge of the hope to which we are called, the Spirit that gives us knowledge of the Christ’s glorious inheritance among the saints.
This is precisely what the bishop prays for you at your ordination as deacons, when it comes to laying hands on your heads and praying for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
After the bishop lays hands on you, praying for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon you for the office and work of a deacon, he then prays that you will be given grace and power to fulfil your ministry, making you faithful to serve, ready to teach, constant in advancing the Gospel, praying that you have “full assurance of faith, abounding in hope, and being rooted and grounded in love,” and that you “may continue strong and steadfast” in Christ (Book of Common Prayer, p. 559).
The bishop will pray that you will be filled with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Spirit will make you faithful to serve, ready to teach, constant in advancing the Gospel, that the Holy Spirit will empower you to work in faith, hope and love, that the Holy Spirit will give you wisdom and discipline.
Already, you have received those gifts in large measure. But they are not for your benefit. They are for the sake of the Gospel and the sake of the Church. They are more important, more to treasure, more to be desired than good exam results, a good curate’s house, or a choice parish.
May you exercise those gifts constantly and confidently, in faith, hope and love. Without exercise, every gift and ability wears thin. Look forward to the kingdom, and be signs and tokens of the love of God, the grace of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Community Eucharist on the Ascension Day, 21 May 2009.