“And truly great and unspeakable was their cause for joy, when in the sight of the holy multitude, above the dignity of all heavenly creatures, the Nature of mankind went up, to pass above the angels' ranks and to rise beyond the archangels' heights, and to have Its uplifting limited by no elevation until, received to sit with the Eternal Father, It should be associated on the throne with His glory, to Whose Nature It was united in the Son. Since then Christ's Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised, whither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly-beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven, and have gained still greater things through Christ's unspeakable grace than we had lost through the devil's malice.” -Leo the Great, Homily 73
A few years ago in Jerusalem, I tried to go up to the Chapel of the Ascension, high up on the Mount of Olives. This site is not administered by Christians, but by the Islamic Waqf of Jerusalem, as it has been since Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187. I was on foot, and found that by the time I finally arrived, the site was closed. All I could think as I stood there, winded and tired from the climb, was “that just figures.”
The Doctrine of the Ascension has been terribly neglected by Christians, theologians and the faithful alike. Indeed, Muslims often have more to say about the Lord’s Ascension than we do, since they believe in it and not His Resurrection, nor His bodily death. Christians in the West have tended to focus upon Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross or His Resurrection from the Dead. We forget that Holy Scripture points us to the Ascension as the fulfillment of all of this. Jesus says to Mary Magdalene on Easter Morning: “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17 ESV)
The Ascension is very good news! It is the news that not only is the perfect Son of God crucified for our salvation and raised for our redemption, but has ascended to the Father in His full human nature as a forerunner on our behalf, to pray and intercede for us, to make continual sacrifice of Himself before the Father on our behalf. Leo the Great was right. We have gained greater things through Christ’s unspeakable grace than we had lost through the devil’s malice. The Ascension of Our Lord shows us just how complete our salvation is: not just forgiveness of sin, not just a new bodily life free from death, but eternal life with the Father, above even the angels. The Christian conception of heaven, no matter what it has been, must always be, first and foremost, an understanding of the fulfillment of the divine image in us, that we were made and fashioned to like Jesus, behold the very face of God, not in some sentimental heaven, but with our own redeemed eyes. Heaven is, in short, the very dwelling-place of God.
I love what the Anglican Divine Lancelot Andrewes says about this:
“… as she [the Church] saw by His rising that He had ‘the keys of hell and death’, and unlocked those doors and came out from thence; so by ‘I ascend’ He tells her further that He hath the keys of Heaven-gates also, which He would now unlock, and so set up open the kingdom of Heaven to all believers.” Resurrection sermon 16
The Ascension also speaks, according to Saint Paul of how it is that the Lord Jesus Christ gives manifold gifts to his Church for her upbuilding:
“He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
(Ephesians 4:10–12, ESV)
The basis for the work the Gospel is not our own intelligence, or skills, or talents, but the intercession of Jesus, Risen and Ascended to the Father’s right hand, filling His Church with abundant grace, equipping us for the work of ministry. It is through this ministry of Jesus at the Right Hand that the Church is built up, therefore it is all the more important that the Church continually give herself over to the work of intercession and spiritual discipline as superior to any active work. In any age, the most powerful works of evangelism, the most powerful eras of renewal and dynamic witness in the Church, have all come because of sustained intercession, first in the Person of Jesus, interceding for us, second, in His Body the Church, and third, in the Church’s Eucharistic life, whereby she is granted participation in the Body and Blood of Jesus, and given grace to fulfill her holy calling. What makes the grace of Jesus so powerful is that it is given through this life of priestly intercession, the Lord being one with us and one with the Father.
Thus, we can understand how it is that Christians have spoken of being with Jesus at the Father’s hand, even in this earthly life, how we can say that He, though gone from our sight, is with us still. Paul called upon the Church at Colossae, since they had been raised with Christ, to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” (Col. 3:1) The Christian understands: I am, at once, with Christ at the Father’s right hand, and at the same time, where I am now. Every time in which I live, every place where I am, is itself a place where the Lord’s Kingdom has come, where I may diligently seek the face of the Father, and where I may make priestly intercession for my neighbor.
Having said all of that, let me say, hang in there! This time has been confusing and strange, but it is still a time in which the Lord Jesus is working. I am in awe of our parish’s steadfastness in prayer and worship, as well as faithfulness in financial giving.
This past Saturday, Ela and I, with our whole family, welcomed our daughter Catherine, born at home. She is precious and sweet, named for the great virgin-martyr of the early 4th Century. We pray that she will be a pure and clear child of the Lord and ask you to join us in that prayer.
Children’s ministry continues to be a substantial focus of our parish’s life, and with the number of babies born to our parish in recent weeks, one that is extremely prudent! Not only have our wonderful children’s catechists done a magnificent job of producing quality catechesis during this time through the magic of video, they are planning to have a number of catechists trained this summer through Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I ask you to pray about whether or not the Lord might be calling you to this ministry. The Vestry has worked, even during the shut-down, to expand the playground area fence, planting trees within that boundary, and ordering high quality rubber mulch to cover the ground. Let’s all look forward with joyful expectation to a day when our children will be able to gather there again!
As we enter this summer, I’m calling everyone at Christ Church to daily prayer and intercession for a powerful and abundant outpouring of grace upon our parish to meet the various challenges and opportunities we face with renewed vigor and faith in God, that we may build up the Church and continue to make disciples. May the power of the Lord’s Ascension be made manifest in us!