Happy Feast of the Ascension! I know, it’s a weird greeting to our ears. Ascension is one of those important feast days that has, for all practical purposes, been forgotten in much of the modern Church. Oh, if you have some devout friends, you may see it mentioned on FB –my favorite meme today was how the Church has Ascension Deficit Disorder – but, I have weird friends, many of whom are clergy and have received a double portion of sarcasm as a gift of the Holy Spirit on the occasion of their ordinations. Some of your Roman or Eastern friends may mention it after this weekend. Heck, you may have friends in the Episcopal Church who will be in parishes that celebrate it this Sunday, even though it is not a movable feast.
Part of the problem, as you all know, is the timing. The celebration always happens two Thursdays before Pentecost. People are busy during the week. Add in a Predators’ playoff game, and it is hard to convince people to take time out of their schedules. The other problem, more significantly I think, is the meaning. Why do we celebrate it? What is the significance of the events memorialized in this feast?
Part of the reason we talked in Liturgy & Worship about re-introducing the celebration at Church of the Advent was that latter question. Pastorally speaking, the Ascension of Jesus is significant and speaks directly to some of those fears, spoken or unspoken, that we have about God when it comes to us. But before we speak to the pastoral significance of today’s events, I want to remind us all about just how important this event was in the life of the early Church and to God.
Put on your thinking caps for just a second. During the life and ministry of Jesus, how many events are attested by the presence of angels? How many times is the significance of an event in the life of Jesus witnessed by or described by the supernatural presence of angels? Come on. This is not a rhetorical question. Ok. Let’s try it a different way. When do angels first attest to Jesus? That’s right! The Incarnation. The angelic choir sings to the glory of God after the angels explain to the shepherds what has happened. The Incarnation, I think we can all agree, is fairly significant.
When’s the next time we see angels attesting to the work of Jesus? Baptism? Hmm. Is that angels, or is that God’s voice and the Spirit like a dove? Don’t apologize, it is a supernatural attestation. It just is not angelic. Here’s a hint: we just reminded ourselves on April 1. Easter. That’s right! The Resurrection! It is the angels who are present to explain to Mary the significance of what has happened. No one has stolen Jesus’ body; He has been raised from the dead!
Ok, when’s the last time we see angels testifying to the work of Jesus? That’s right, the Ascension! Luke, of course, tells the story of the Ascension as the beginning of the Church in the book of Acts. The angels explain that the disciples are wasting time staring into the sky and clouds, that Jesus will return in the same way He left, and that they have work to do!
Now, before we talk about the significance, you should have a pretty good idea as to the significance of the event we remember today, at least in the eyes of God. God the Father sent angels to explain to humans the birth of His Son, the Resurrection of His Son, and the Ascension of His Son. It puts the Feast of the Ascension in rarefied air in God’s economy. Other events are significant to us, but many do not find themselves attested by angels. Now, aren’t you glad you came tonight? Don’t you feel that maybe you were drawn to thank and praise God for this incredible work, and now you know why? It’s ok to laugh. It’s a wonderful and confusing event.
What makes it confusing, of course, is the question of what is going on. In truth, the Ascension touches on a great deal of our understanding of the Trinity, which means we flirt a bit with a Holy Mystery. The Son has gone back to be with the Father so that the Holy Spirit can come. In a way, Jesus’ Ascension marks a change in the relationship between God and His people. For a bit more than three decades, the God Incarnate Man Divine has dwelt, in time and space, in a particular location with His people. For 30+ years, God has literally tabernacled, enfleshed Himself, among His people, bringing healing and wisdom and blessing and whatever else upon which we would like to focus. While He was human, He was self-limiting in His scope. Where He went, so did the shalom of God. People could ask Him for provision, for healing, for instruction, or even to raise a loved one. Heck, as He walked by, one could touch the hem of His robe and be healed! Now, of course, He has gone back to be with the Father so that the Paraclete can come and empower us, the Church. Put a bit simpler, while Jesus was on earth, God’s focus was upon those things that came to the attention of Jesus. Now, though, the Spirit has been given to all His disciples, so that His work can be dispersed throughout the whole world. And, as the Son says, we will be able to accomplish greater things than He because of His empowering Spirit! I know. It’s mind blowing. That’s kind of the nature of Holy Mysteries.
But there is a deeper pastoral significance, I think to us, in this Ascension that we celebrate today, than the mere exercise of power and the teaching of God in His Name. We may even be in a better frame of mind to hear the significance thanks to the baptism of JJ last week, and our discussions of grafting into the Vine, and thanks to the fact that some of us are already looking forward to Pentecost, when we begin to focus on the gifts given to us for the purpose of glorifying God in our lives, and, of course, to the presence of the Paschal Candle and baptismal fount front and center in our liturgical life.
When we are baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, what happens to us? How do we describe the significance of the event to ourselves and others? Why do we pour the water over the heads of those seeking that sacrament? I heard it! Say it with confidence! That’s right, we are baptized into His death and raised with Him in His Resurrection! We will only skim the surface tonight, but think back to those words in the baptismal service as the clergy pour the water. In it we are buried with Christ in His death. By it we share in His Resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. In a mysterious way, the sinful part of us dies, the part of us that seeks to serve God with everything is raised, and we experience our own moment of Pentecost where we are given the charisms, gifts, necessary to glorify God in our lives.
Make no mistake, it is a profound mystery and promise. We commit to living to the glory of God, we reject our selfish ways and the ways of those spiritual forces that would lead us away from God’s blessing, we ask God for His forgiveness, and we are promised that we are inheritors, as first born sons and daughters, of our Father in heaven. From that moment on, once we are sealed, God sees His Son in us and us in His Son. Why do I bring this up in the context of pastoral care?
How many of us wonder if God is paying attention to us? How many of us think God has more important things to do like prevent nuclear war in the Middle East or nudge asteroids or meteors out of our path? How many of us think our problems, our needs, pale when compared to the so-called important people we see? How many of us listen to the whisper of the Enemy and believe that we are insignificant in God’s eyes? No, I don’t need raised hands. I know we all go through those valleys. Some of us probably wonder if we ever get to get out of our valleys. Heck, a few of us worry that we are the ones excluded from God’s promises, such is our seeming lot on earth.
The Ascension, of course, speaks against those fears and doubts and worries. If Jesus is in us and we are in Him, if we are nourished by His Body and Blood, and if we are part of His Body, is it not true, in some mysterious way that we cannot begin to grasp intellectually, that the beginning of the resurrected part of us already present with God? We rightfully focus on the fact that the Son now sits at the right hand of the Father making intercessions for us, empowering us, giving us opportunities to glorify Him in our life and work. But we should never forget that His presence there, in a similarly significant way, reminds us of the intimate relationship we now have open with our Father in heaven. Our concerns are not beneath Him. Our fears and doubts are not insignificant to Him when compared with the needs of others or the world. In a way, we are already beginning that process of sanctification and transformation which will make possible our eternal dwelling with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit! But even now, He is with us and we are with Him!
How do you know, absolutely know, that your needs, your hurt, your fears, are before God, that you matter to God? The Ascension speaks to that truth and the comfort which we should experience because of it. Nothing is ever beneath His notice, but each of us who have been baptized into the death and Resurrection of His Son our Lord, is already, in the participation of these Holy Mysteries, assured that we are, in a barest, shadowy way, there. Better than us He knows our needs. Better than us, He knows our strengths and weaknesses and foibles and hearts. But like a Father with a firstborn son or precious only daughter, our Father looks on each one of us, and knows us in His Son, and the plans He will accomplish for us. Brothers and sisters, Scripture teaches us that God never makes fun of our hurts, our pains, our doubts, our fears. In fact, if anything, we learn that He works in the midst of those to show us His love , His mercy, and His redeeming power in our lives, sometimes for our own benefit, but sometimes to the benefit of others. But most amazingly, at least in some sense, we remind ourselves on this day that we are called to an intimate relationship with Him, a relationship in which He sees His Son in us, a relationship where each one of us, through that Son, is invited to think of Him as Daddy. Just as we rightly marvel at the love that led to the Incarnation, just as we rightly marvel at the wonder and awe of the Resurrection, so this day we should remind ourselves of the love and redeeming power that leads to our eventual eternal communion with the God.
In Christ’s Peace,