by Fr. Blake
The following sermon was preached in the Lady Chapel at St. Stephen’s Church, during an evening celebration of the Ascension of the Lord at 5:30pm on Thursday, May 14. A small section of the S. Stephen’s Schola sang the plainchant “Missa VIII” (“De Angelis”) and Dulos Couillart’s “Viri Galilaei.”
Collect: O Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abideth with his Church on earth, even unto the end of the ages; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
The feast of the Ascension has some extra significance for me personally: in 2011, I was ordained a deacon on the Saturday following the Ascension. I have often reflected that it’s an odd time to be thinking about deacons. Deacons exist for the nitty-gritty, the daily realities of life in this world. They are charged with a ministry of loving service, to interpret the world to the church and the church to the world. And the Ascension, for the disciples, is the exact opposite: it is Jesus’ departure from their daily lives and from the world. They are left with an odd few days to wait, as the Lord commanded them, for the Holy Spirit to descend on Pentecost — and only then do they get on with their lives as apostles.
But the longer I’m in ministry, the more I’m conscious of the diaconate at the foundation of priesthood, and the more I’m starting to see the importance of the Ascension — both for myself personally, and for all of us in the Church.
Think back to Easter Sunday. Mary Magdalene has found the tomb empty, and she runs back to tell Peter and John. Peter and John run with her back to the tomb, and in their excitement, the two of them go back home. But Mary Magdalene is disconsolate in grief. Her Lord is gone, and she does not know where he is. She stays in the garden and weeps. The resurrected Jesus himself appears to her; she supposes he’s the gardener, and asks where he has laid Jesus’ body. But when he says her name, she recognizes him, and she moves to embrace him. Jesus, though, backs away, and says, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
In art, this scene is often called, “Noli me tangere,” “Don’t touch me.” And it has always been somewhat cryptic to me. But the implication seems to be, that only after Jesus ascends are we really able to embrace him in the way we might want. Only after he is gone can we relate to him properly. This is extremely counterintuitive, and flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Married couples, for example, don’t grow closer with extended absence; friends can’t either; and families change, too, when their members are scattered or when one of them dies. Greater intimacy is never the direct result of separation. And yet this seems to be what Jesus is telling Mary Magdalene. There must be something more here.
Our collect today asserts that Christ “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” Something more is indeed going on here. When the Son of God took human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary, he assumed the created order into himself. When he offered himself on the Cross, and descended into hell, he broke the power of death and carried its captives into life. Now, at his Ascension, He carries all of it with him into the presence of his Father. There is a sense in which Our Lord’s ascension is also our own ascension; and our Lady’s Assumption is the Type that, by God’s grace and her intercession, will be ours also.
We cannot trap Jesus on earth; he is not meant to stay here, but came to carry us with him into his Father’s presence, in whose glory is our eternal home.
Ministry, especially that of the diaconate but also of every baptized Christian, exists to order our common life on earth towards the heavenly Glory to which we belong. Our Lord’s Ascension teaches us that we cannot settle merely for earthly criteria of success; we cannot settle for merely a personal, possessive relationship to our faith. We love Jesus as we love any member of our family, even more, but we cannot hold onto him. His physical departure from us is not, in the end, our separation from one another. In leaving our physical presence, He draws us together into the nearer spiritual presence of his Father and ours, of his God and our God.
Our work here on earth must always be to love him; and it must always be to be witnesses to his glory, both in the world and in the church. The unity of the Church consists in the Glory of God — as deacons are the servants of that Glory, priests are its ministers, bishops are its icons, and as all Christians everywhere are its witnesses, workers, and members.
We serve a risen, ascended Lord. He is with us closer than ever in the life of his Church. In him we are closer than ever to the throne of God, and behold it day by day in our prayer and worship and work. Let us work always for his glory. Let us rejoice as we draw ever nearer together. And let us love him whose presence fills all things forever.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.