This sermon gives us a window into the thought of one of Western Christianity’s greatest minds. The meaning of the Ascension is considered, and then its implications explored—first by showing how the risen and ascended Lord is now everywhere available to us in a sacramental way (showing that sacramentality is a far greater thing than a mere “rite” of the Church), and then by illustrating how Christ’s ascension draws all Christian life up to heaven with him. This means that all of our life must be congruent with our divine purpose… thus, the sermon becomes quite frank about our need for personal holiness and the conflict with the world this brings (this section, tellingly, is often cut from modern versions of the sermon). Finally, the sermon ends with an exhortation to virtue and a giving of glory to God. It is, in miniature, a perfect example of the Patristic approach to preaching, something which stands behind all Classical Anglican preaching and use of scriptures, as well. May yours be a holy Ascension Day!
A Homily for the Feast of the Ascension
by Saint Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome (c. 400-461)
The mystery of our salvation, which the Creator of the universe valued at the price of His blood, was carried out in humility from the day of His bodily birth until the end of His Passion. And although, even while he was in the form of a slave, many signs of his Divinity shone forth, yet the events of that whole time served particularly to show the reality of His assumed humanity.
But after the Passion, when the chains of death were broken, weakness was turned into power, mortality into eternity, insult into glory. This the Lord Jesus Christ showed by many clear proofs in the sight of many, until He carried even into heaven the triumphant victory which He had won over death.
At Easter the Lord's Resurrection was the cause of our rejoicing; today the reason for our gladness is His Ascension. Today we commemorate that day on which our human nature, in all its humility, was in Christ raised above all the host of heaven, over all the ranks of angels, beyond the height of all powers, to sit with God the Father.
Because of the event we commemorate today, God's grace appears even more wonderful. At the Ascension, that which rightfully commanded human awe was removed from human sight. And yet faith did not fail, hope did not waver, charity did not grow cold. For it is the strength and the light of faithful souls unhesitatingly to believe what is not seen with the bodily sight, and to fix their affections where they cannot direct their gaze.
Whence should godliness spring up in our hearts, or how should we be justified by faith, if our salvation rested on only those things which lie beneath our eyes? Our Lord said to the Apostle Thomas, who seemed to doubt Christ's resurrection until he had tested by sight and touch the traces of His Passion in His very Flesh: “Because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are, they who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Therefore, in order that we may be capable of this blessedness, when all things were fulfilled which concerned the preaching of the Gospel and the mysteries of the New Testament, our Lord Jesus Christ, on the fortieth day after the Resurrection, in the presence of the disciples, was raised into heaven. He put an end to his presence with us in the body, to abide on the Father's right hand until the time fore-ordained by God has been accomplished, when he shall come again, in the same flesh with which he ascended, to judge both the quick and the dead.
At his Ascension, everything about our Redeemer that had until then been visible was changed into a sacramental presence. In order that faith might be stronger and more excellent, sight gave way to doctrine, the authority of which was to be accepted by believing hearts enlightened with rays from above.
This Faith, increased by the Lord's Ascension and established by the gift of the Holy Spirit, was not terrified by bonds, imprisonments, or banishments; by hunger, fire, or the attacks of wild beasts; or by the most refined torments of cruel persecutors. For this Faith, throughout the world, not only men, but also women, not only young boys, but also girls, have contended even to the shedding of their blood. This Faith has cast out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead.
Through this Faith, the Apostles themselves, who, despite being strengthened by so many miracles and instructed by so many discourses, had yet been panic-stricken by the horrors of the Lord's Passion and had not accepted the truth of His resurrection without hesitation, made such progress after the Lord's Ascension that everything which had previously filled them with fear was turned into joy.
After the Ascension, they lifted all of their thoughts to the divinity of Him who sat at the Father's right hand. No longer obstructed by the barrier of corporeal sight, they were able to direct their minds' gaze to the one who had never left the Father's side by his descending to earth, and who had not forsaken the disciples by his ascending into heaven.
The Son of Man and Son of God, therefore, then attained even greater glory when He returned to the Father's Majesty. In an indescribable manner he became nearer to the Father in respect of His divinity, after having become farther away in respect of His humanity.
A better instructed faith then began to draw closer to a conception of the Son's equality with the Father. It was no longer necessary to confront the material body, in which Christ is less than the Father, because, while the nature of the glorified body still remained, the faith of believers was called upon to touch the only-begotten Son, who is equal with the Father, not with the hand of flesh, but with spiritual understanding.
That is why the Lord, after His Resurrection, said to Mary Magdalene, who, representing the Church, hastened to approach and touch Him: “Touch Me not, for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” That is, he did not want us to come to him as if to a human body, or to recognize him by the perception of his flesh. He directs us instead to higher things; he prepares greater things for us. He means: “When I have ascended to My Father, then you shall handle me more perfectly and more truly, for then you will grasp what thou cannot touch and believe what you cannot see.”
When the disciples' eyes followed the ascending Lord to heaven with an upward gaze of earnest wonder, two angels stood by them in raiment shining with wondrous brightness, and said, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing into heaven? This Jesus Who was taken up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as ye saw Him going into heaven.” By these words the whole Church was taught to believe that Jesus Christ will come visibly in the same flesh wherewith He ascended, and not to doubt that all things are subjected to Him.
To him the angels had ministered from the first beginning of His Birth. An angel announced to the blessed Virgin that Christ should be conceived by the Holy Ghost; the voice of heavenly beings sang to the shepherds of His being born of the Virgin; and messengers from above were the first to attest His having risen from the dead. The service of angels was employed to foretell His coming again in the flesh to judge the world, so that we might understand what great powers will come with Him as Judge, when such great ones ministered to Him even in being judged.
And so, let us rejoice with spiritual joy, and let us with gladness pay God worthy thanks and raise our hearts' eyes unimpeded to those heights where Christ is. Minds that have heard the call to be uplifted must not be pressed down by earthly affections. Those who are predestined to things eternal must not be taken up with the things that perish. Those who have entered on the way of Truth must not be entangled in treacherous snares. The faithful must so take their course through these temporal things as to remember that they are only sojourners in the vale of this world. Even though we may meet with some attractions in this world, we must not sinfully embrace them, but bravely pass through them.
To this devotion the blessed Apostle Peter arouses us. He begs us with that loving eagerness which he conceived for feeding Christ's sheep by his threefold profession of love for the Lord, and he says, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you, as strangers and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.” But for whom do fleshly pleasures wage war, if not for the devil, whose delight it is to shackle our souls, which strive after things above, by the enticements of corruptible good things, and to draw us away from the heavenly home from which he himself has been banished? Against his plots every believer must keep careful watch, that he may crush his foe on the side whence the attack is made.
And there is no more powerful weapon against the devil's wiles than kindly mercy and bounteous charity, by which every sin is either escaped or vanquished. But this lofty power is not attained until that which is opposed to it has been overthrown. And what is so hostile to mercy and works of charity as avarice, from the root of which spring all evils? Unless that is destroyed by lack of nourishment, the thorns and briars of vices must necessarily grow in the soil of any heart in which this evil weed has taken root, rather than any seed of true goodness.
Let us then resist evil and "follow after charity," without which no virtue can flourish, so that by the same path of love whereby Christ came down to us, we too may mount up to Him. To him, with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.