Thursday, 25 May 2017

Keeping our heads in the clouds, or
keeping our feet on the ground?

The dome inside the Daniel Pantanassa Church in the Ihlara Valley, Cappadocia, Turkey, with frescoes of the Ascension (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Thursday 25 May 2017,

The Ascension Day:

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick,

8 p.m.:
The Holy Communion:

Readings: Acts 1: 1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1: 15-23; Luke 24: 44-53.

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 celebrate 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 his account of the Ascension, 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 realised 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 Christ has told them to go back to Jerusalem. They have their heads in the clouds, and while their feet are 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 empty tomb on Easter Morning. They remind the disciples 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 at Pentecost, 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 tradition in England, beating the bounds ceremonies took place in parishes on Ascension Day. It was an effective way of passing from one generation to another the traditions and memories of the precise limits of a parish. The care of the poor was the legal responsibility of a parish, and the parish was responsible for relieving the needy, supporting apprentice children and caring for the destitute in the parish.

Knowledge of the limits of each parish had to be handed down also so that liability for contributing to the repair of the church, and rights to be buried in the churchyard were not disputed. Parish poor rates were raised to pay for these responsibilities, and so it was important to remember the bounds of the parish.

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.

But caring for the poor, the marginalised and the excluded should not be the limit of our understanding of Christian responsibility.

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, the sense of hope that inspired people on the streets this week in response to horrors unleashed in Manchester on Monday night – and I hope to say more on Sunday about what happened in Manchester.

The meanings we find in Ascension are reminders of the Kingdom of God within our hearts, and of the ever-present Spirit of God, watching over and protecting us as we seek to 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.

Like the disciples in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we can be left looking and wondering, being without doing. But there is no choice for Christians between keeping our heads in the clouds and our feet on the ground. If we are people of the Ascension and we look forward to the coming of the Kingdom, then we cannot be bound by the limits of our parish and there can be no limits to our compassion for those on the boundaries.

And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for the Eucharist on Ascension Day, 25 May 2017.


Salvador Dali: The Ascension (1958)

Collect:

Grant, we pray, Almighty God,
that as we believe your only-begotten Son
our Lord Jesus Christ
to have ascended into the heavens;
so we in heart and mind may also ascend
and with him continually dwell;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

Jesus said, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives. John 14: 27, 28

Preface:

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who after he had risen from the dead
ascended into heaven,
where he is seated at your right hand to intercede for us
and to prepare a place for us in glory:

Post-Communion Prayer:

Grant, we pray, Almighty God,
that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ
to have ascended into the heavens;
so we in heart and mind may also ascend
and with him continually dwell;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Blessing:

Christ our exalted King
pour on you his abundant gifts
make you faithful and strong to do his will
that you may reign with him in glory:

A modern icon of the Ascension

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