We live in a world in which ‘up’ is better than ‘down’. Singers want to be at the top of the music charts, athletes want to be on top of their game, and students want to be at the top of the class. Everyone would rather have an up day than a down day. No one wants to be at the bottom of someone’s list. Many of us in our lives have worked to climb, not to descend the career ladder. We hear and read about mountain climbers but not much is said or written about valley descenders.
The reality is that we want to live ascended lives. We want to break free from the things that hold us down and rise above it all. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is right. Something within us knows that we are more than earthbound creatures.
In a few minutes time, probably without really thinking too deeply about it (in the main because the words are so familiar to us) we will affirm in the Nicence Creed that “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father.” It is that central tenet of our Christian faith that we celebrate on this first of four weekends of celebration in the life of the Church, that Jesus having risen from the dead, ascended to his father in heaven.
Saint Augustine, one of the great teachers of the faith, writes about this day like this: “The Feast of the Ascension,” he said, “is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together… For unless the Saviour has ascended into heaven, his nativity would have come to nothing… and his passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy resurrection would have been useless.” In our Christian thinking the ascension is the culmination of all that Jesus has done for us.
In the story of the birth of Jesus we come face to face with the reality that God loves us so much that he comes to be amongst us, so that we can truly say that God has dwelt amongst us. God brings himself to us so that we can see and experience what God is like through Jesus. But through his life (amongst people like you and me) Jesus not only shares a vision of God with us, we share the experience of humanity with him – the joys and the happiness, and the pain and the suffering. Yes, at the heart of our faith we believe – amazing as it is – that the one beyond all creation, the source of all that we are, comes to us to share himself with us, and so that we might share our humanity with him; because Jesus not only brings an experience of God to us, but he embraces (through his life and his death) our experiences too. This flow of experience is going in two directions, not one.
Through the cross, Jesus comes to bear what we will all ultimately have to bear: the journey to death, and the risk that after our death we will be forgotten, and that all that we have stood for will mean nothing to anyone. Through his resurrection we see not only the vindication of all that he has shared with us, we see also a glimpse of the hope that our lives too (in him) will have an eternal consequence, in the eternal life of God’s love.
I have absolutely no idea what this story of the ascension of Christ points to in physical terms. I find it hard to imagine (although of course it may well be the case) that Jesus really did take off from the earth, and keep going up past the sun and the stars, but I am happy to concede that I may be wrong. But this I do hold on to with all of the faith that I can muster: that as Christ ascends into the eternity of God’s love, we ascend with him. Our experiences ascend with him, our dignity ascends with him, into the experience, the heart of God. And so we can say that it is the ascension of Jesus that makes the incarnation concrete for us; because through the ascension the circle of the life of Jesus is made complete.
Jesus comes to earth as God-made-man to share an experience of God with us, and in so doing he experiences our lives too, so that when he is ascended he takes all of the experiences of humanity with him back into the God head, into the holy of holies. Although we see him no longer, as his body here on earth, we remain in a mysterious and hope-filled unity with him, which enables us to be joined with him in the love of God.
He has not left us alone, we receive his Spirit. He does not lose interest in us, he intercedes for us his Church continually at the right hand of the father. The eternal hope that by faith we express in this ascension story, is that God loves us so much that he came to share himself with us, and he allowed us to share ourselves with him. And now those experiences are held together in the very heart, the very being, the very reality of God for all eternity. What were once just our experiences, are now God’s experiences forever. God shares in our joy, and in our pain.
Jesus’ ascension is not about his absence but about his presence. It is not about his leaving but about “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” It is not about a location but about a relationship. Presence, fullness, and relationship must surely be what lie behind the question of the men in white,
“Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” It is as if they are saying to us, “Don’t misunderstand and disfigure this moment. Don’t deny yourselves the gift that is being given you.” The ascension of Jesus completes the resurrection. The resurrection is victory over death. The ascension, however, lifts humanity up to heaven. Jesus’ ascension seats human flesh, your flesh and my flesh, at the right hand of God the Father. We now partake of God’s glory and divinity. The ascension is more about letting go than it is reaching and grasping. The question for us is not, “How do we ascend?” That has already been accomplished. The question is: “What pulls us down, what is the gravity that prevents us from ascending with him?” And that is a challenging question to ask, and perhaps not one that we came prepared for to this Eucharist today. But what I ask of you, I ask also of me.
What do I need to let go of, what do we need to let go of, to live in the reality of the ascended life of Christ? Fear, anger, or resentment often weigh us down. The need to be right or be in control is a heavy burden. For some self-righteousness, jealously, or pride is their gravity. Many of us will be caught in the chains of perfectionism and the need to prove we are enough. For others it may be indifference or apathy. Far too many lives are tethered by addiction. Gravity takes many forms and I wonder, what is the gravity that denies you Jesus’ ascension?
I hope you hear a word of hope in all of this. The hope that we have ascended with Christ, that we can overcome, that we can live in the knowledge of his love. But there is a word of responsibility as well. At the beginning of our great Easter celebrations we lit a fire outside this Church building – at our Easter Vigil – a sign for all of our neighbours to see of the light of Christ’s resurrected life in the world. From that fire we lit this Easter paschal candle which has burned brightly throughout this Easter season, symbolising Christ’s close presence amongst us, as we have reflected upon his resurrection encounters with his disciples each weekend.
At the end of our Eucharist today, the Easter candle will be extinguished, as a reminder that Christ has ascended into heaven. I have to say to you that I find the extinguishing of the paschal candle rather a sad experience. Our paschal candle will no longer be lit, except when we baptise children and adults into the Body of Christ, and when we commend those who have died in Christ to God’s everlasting love. But before the Easter candle is put out we will light candles from it ourselves, as a very visual and physical reminder that that light – the light of Christ – has now been transferred to us. Christ’s light still shines, but it shines through this Church… through us. Because the other reality of our ascension celebrations is that God in Jesus has now passed the baton on to us. To shine as Jesus did when he was in the world.
One of the Early Church fathers reminds us that Jesus came to earth without leaving heaven, and now returns through the ascension to heaven without leaving earth. That wisdom points to the coming of the Holy Spirit that we await at Pentecost. It is also points to the commission placed upon us all, to live as Christ for others.
I say to you on this first of our four weekends of celebration: be filled with joy, celebrate the feast, for where Christ our head has preceded us in glory into the very heart of our loving creator, there we, the body are called in hope to follow, and between now and then, we are nourished by the sacraments to shine in his way, in his name, as a light in the world.
Alleluia! Christ has ascended to his throne in glory. It is now time for us to shine as his light in the world, to the glory of God the Father.
Live ascended lives.