The Church teaches us that there are 7 Principal Feast Days that we are to observe. As instructed in the Prayer Book, they are to take precedence over any other day or observance. Can you guess what they are? They are Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity, and All Saints’. I have left one out. It is Ascension. May 25th was a Principal Feast Day but who knew it? How many observed it? Sadly the Prayer Book assumes that not many will do so and so it gives us a second shot on the following Sunday.
I suppose it is not all bad that this is a little known Holy Day. We don’t have to put up with advertisements of jolly elves drinking a coke while flying reindeer around the world. We go to pay for our gas only to be confronted with display of Cadbury Eggs. Nor do we have to fight with the ALCU who would want to change the name from “Ascension” to “Cloud Day” as to not offend the atheists. But it is unfortunate that this Holy Day is so little recognized because the Church has not made it a Principal Feast for no reason. In fact it is significant for a number of reasons.
But before we look at why it is so important, let’s clear up a bit of biblical cosmology. When the space race began, the Russians were the first ones to send a man into space. His name was Yuri Gagarin. After returning to earth he said, “There is no God; I’ve been up there, and I didn’t see him.” I don’t know if Yuri was looking for an old bearded guy sitting on a cloud but it is a misunderstanding of Scripture to think that when Scripture speaks of Jesus being taken up into the clouds that we are to understand that heaven is physically located directly above us. This is called phenomenological language. We use it too when we talk about “sunrise” and “sunset” even though we know that it doesn’t. It is descriptive not literal. C.S. Lewis said that heaven is not a distant place above but rather a “wholly new life.” That is where Jesus went. And unless Yuri repented of his atheism he won’t see Him there either.
Let’s go back to the significance of this Day of Ascension. Most significant for us, His ascension to the Father completes our redemption. That sounds like a bold claim but lets think through the redemption story.
Under the Old Covenant, on the day of the Atonement, animals would be sacrificed and their blood would be captured. But the death of the animal was only one part of the ritual. Next the High Priest would take the blood of the animals and enter into the Holy of Holies and pour the blood over the top of the altar, symbolically covering the sins of the people. This is how he made atonement for the sins of the people. So to complete a sacrifice there had to be both the shedding of blood AND the presentation of that blood to God.
In Hebrews we are told that when Jesus ascended on high, He entered a heavenly temple and as our High Priest He presented there not the blood of bulls and goats but His own blood as an atonement for our sins. Here is how it reads in Hebrews 9. “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own….But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” So Jesus fulfilled both the shedding of His blood AND the presentation of that sacrifice to God and that is why I say that that the Ascension completed His sacrifice. As we just heard from Hebrews, He ascended to “appear for us in God’s presence.” That alone would make this the most significant of events but there is more.
In John’s Gospel we see Jesus praying for His disciples but His prayers did not stop at His ascension. We learn this also from Hebrews. “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”
Because I am on the Standing Committee of the Diocese I get to see the Archbishop every other month or so. As a consequence I am frequently asked how he is doing. I always respond that he is doing remarkably well. If you have kept up with him then you know that he has a schedule that would kill ten normal men and yet I have seen him become more joyful and lighthearted and even more pleasant to be around. When I have asked him about it he attributes it to all the prayers that people offer for him and I truly believe it. Also I have heard from some of you that there are times when you can almost feel the prayers of others. I believe that too.
So if we believe that prayer works, then how much more can we believe that Jesus’ prayers work. And that should give us confidence. When you are having one of those days when you are irritable and uncharitable and downright hateful and you wonder if you are even truly a Christian, remember that Jesus is praying for you. And as a consequence of His prayers, as the writer of Hebrews says, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him…” You are going to make it not because you are good enough or smart enough or because people just like you. You are going to make it because Jesus is praying for you.
A third reason that the Ascension is so important is because it changes humanity’s position with God. Jesus being fully man and fully God also ascended as fully man and fully God and so when He was exalted on high, so were we. One of our hymns puts it this way. “Ascending to the Father’s throne, thou claims’t the kingdom as thine own, and angels wonder when they see, how changed is our humanity.”
This understanding is supported by Ephesians. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
It is a little difficult to try to wrap our minds around the fact that we are at the same time exalted with Christ in heavenly places and struggling to pay our mortgage here in the world. The tendency for many is to chose one or the other. Either they become so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good or they are so like the citizens of the world that their Christianity makes no perceptible difference. Allow me to offer an alternative.
As most of you know my family lived in Scotland. We were the only American family in our town and so we became totally immersed in the culture. I went to a Scottish Academy and played on the rugby team. My mother shopped in local markets and we ate Scottish food. We heated our home with a coal fireplace. It was my daily chore to fill up the coal bucket and get the fire going in the morning because that is also how we got hot water. It was a wonderful experience and I loved most things about the Scottish people….but I didn’t try to become Scottish. Unlike Madonna I didn’t get an accent after two weeks or even two years. I didn’t wear a kilt and while I made some great friends I didn’t get too attached because I knew that we would not be there forever. I was fully aware that I was an American and I was even proud of that fact. (Although I must admit that a couple of times, when I was around some very strong anti American sentiments, I claimed to be Canadian so I wouldn’t get beaten up.) I was a stranger in a strange land and I didn’t try to be any other.
I suggest to you that because of the Ascension we must work to strike a similar balance in our lives. Yes we are seated with Christ in heavenly places but we are also His Body on earth with work to do. We are not called to build a Christian bunker and wait for the Second Coming. Nor are we called to become so immersed in the world that we live just like they do. What is so wrong with living like the world? Let me give you a visual. The number one rated show last week in America was Keeping Up With the Kardashians. These are the ones who spent over $10 million dollars on a wedding and the marriage lasted 72 days and they are offered as icons of our society. Jesus calls us to nobler more abundant lives. The Scripture says that we are to be a peculiar people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. We are to continually remember that we are citizens of heaven and act like it as lights in the world. What would that look like? Recall the prayer of St. Francis.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
There are even more important consequences of the Ascension but let me touch on one more and we will see it fulfilled next Sunday. Jesus ascended to the Father in order to send us the Holy Spirit and in this way He fulfills His promise to be with us always, even to the end of the ages. When He was with us in the flesh His presence was localized. If the Scripture says that He was in Nazareth, obviously it meant that He was NOT in Jerusalem. But because of the Ascension that has changed. We are told in Ephesians, “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things.” Now His presence, glory, power and prerogatives are no longer localized. He will be present today at every Mass that will be said all across the globe. From magnificent gothic cathedrals to dirt floor homes the Ascended One will come as the bread of heaven to feed His people.
It also means that He is with us in joyous celebrations like a wedding or the birth of a child and He is with us in terrible times when the doctor brings us bad news or when our hopes and dreams have been shattered. He is with us in the midst of our worship and He is still with us even when it feels that God is a million miles away. Because of the Ascension we are never alone and this means that we are always, always, always immersed in God’s love. And St. Paul reminds us in Romans that nothing can separate us from that love.
I hope that this helps us understand why the Church has made Ascension one of the Principal Feasts of the year. It always falls 40 days after Easter and so it always falls on a Thursday. Next year it will be on May 10th, so mark your calendars and join us for Mass. Amen.