Thursday, May 29, 2014

29 May 2014 -- Ascension Day

Ascension Day  — 29 May 2014
Trinity, Iowa City – 12:15 pm

Acts 1:1-11  |  Psalm 47 or 93  |  Ephesians 1:15-23  |  Luke 24:44-53

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  [Ephesians 1:20-21]

There’s a piece in the current Christian Century (some of you may be familiar with that magazine – it’s been around for a long time, and represents what I suppose we might call a progressive ecumenical mainstream viewpoint), and in this piece the author writes about how he and a committee were planning  a service of worship for Ascension Day, and the question arose as to whether the Paschal Candle should be extinguished after the reading of the Gospel.  They were Lutherans, so they didn’t have the Book of Common Prayer to tell them that no, the Paschal Candle continues to burn throughout the 50 days of Easter through the Day of Pentecost!  I won’t accuse any of you of being old enough to remember, as Fr. Hulme and I do, that we also back in the Olden Dayes used to put out the Paschal Candle after the reading of the Gospel on Ascension Day.  I recall as an acolyte responding “Praise be to thee, O Christ” after hearing St. Luke’s account of Jesus being carried up to heaven, taking the candle thingy, and extinguishing the flame.  “’Bye, Jesus!”

Which of course is exactly wrong, and why the Prayer Book now has it right.

(Some of you may recall one or another versions of my infamous “Toes” sermon for Ascension Day, but I promised I wouldn’t go there this year.  You’re welcome.)[1]

The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is a theme that runs throughout the New Testament.  Matthew and Mark certainly imply it, for instance when Jesus being interrogated by the high priest quotes Daniel 7 [Mt. 26:64; Mk 14:62].  In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus talks about his ascension to the Father, notably with Mary Magdalene after she discovers the empty tomb [Jn 20:17; cf. Jn 6:62], and in his long so-called “Farewell Discourse” to his disciples Jesus talks repeatedly about how he will go away and then come again [Jn 14 & 16, passim].  In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and the apostles speak to the Sanhedrin about how “God exalted Jesus at his right hand as Leader and Savior” [Ac 5:31], and later Stephen, witnessing before the Sanhedrin just before his stoning, cries out, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man [Jesus] standing at the right hand of God!” [Ac 7:55-56].  St. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, writes about “Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God” [Rom 8:34], and in Philippians he quotes what seems to be an early Christian hymn with the line “God also highly exalted him” [Phil 2:9].  In the Letter to the Colossians Paul (or whoever) writes, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” [Col 3:1], and in the Letter to the Ephesians that we heard in the Epistle today, “God put this power to work in Christ, when he raised him from the dead and seated him at is right hand in the heavenly places” [Eph 1:20], and again, “He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:10].  The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of how Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” [Heb 1:3]; he is the “one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” [Heb 8:1].  The First Letter of Peter talks about “the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God” [1Pet 3:22].  But note that all of these many references are to the ascension of Jesus and his seat at the right hand of the Father as a present reality;  they may imply, but do not narrate, an event

The only descriptions of the ascension of Jesus as an event are by St. Luke, which we have just heard in the readings:  in the Gospel, and before that in the Acts of the Apostles.  And perhaps you have noticed that these two tellings are not quite the same story.  Luke does that.  For instance, he tells the story of the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus three times, two of them purportedly from Paul’s own mouth, but the three stories are almost but not quite identical.  Of course Luke is, or at least is acting as, among other things, a Hellenistic historian, and historians in the Greco-Roman Empire did not have the kind of detailed documentary research resources that modern historians are expected to use.  They saw their task to be to tell the meaning of the story as they understood it.  They knew that a historian is not simply a chronicler.  Another example of this is the Jewish historian Josephus, who tells the stories of Jewish history and of the war with Rome the way he wants us to remember them!

 This does not mean that the event of the Ascension of Jesus at Bethany or on the Mount of Olives or wherever did not actually occur.  I don’t know whether it did or not.  If it did, then I think Archbishop Michael Ramsey was right in suggesting that it was an “enacted parable.”  What did not happen is that Jesus “lifted off into orbit.”  Jesus “ascended” into Heaven (how else would we say it?); but Heaven is not “up there,” and we know that.  “Up there” is billions of light years of the vast expanse of interstellar space; and God is there too, but neither more nor less so than right here and now, and it’s the “right here and now” that should matter to us.  Yes, Jesus had to leave us, in a sense, because otherwise his location would have remained fixed in first-century Jerusalem and therefore he couldn’t be in twenty-first-century Iowa.  He has “ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.”  

So the point of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is not that he has gone away – “’Bye, Jesus!” and snuff out the candle – but so that the Light of Christ may remain lit in us and among us in all places at all times.  It is St. Matthew who records the essence of what we celebrate this day:  “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”  [Mt 28:20].