Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ascensiontide -- Risen, Ascended, Glorified!

The period from the Eve of the Ascension to the Eve of Pentecost forms a special part of Easter Season, with its own character and gifts for contemplation and refreshment in the faith we proclaim.

Ascensiontide commemorates a number of things. First, it recalls Christ's bodily ascent to heaven--something found in Scripture, affirmed in all the Church's Creeds from the start, and often indicated in the Liturgy by moving the Paschal Candle from its place near the people to a position next to the altar from Ascension Day through the Day of Pentecost. 

The Ascension, on top of relying on the Resurrection as a physical phenomenon for its meaning, uses imagery speaking of heaven in a physical and directional sense (e.g. beyond and above us). Perhaps because so many have imbibed the simplistic and childish contemporary materialistic mindset that texts must be limited to only one level of meaning (either absurdly literal or vacuously figurative), the Ascension has become difficult for many to accept. With so many--even in the Church--trying to turn the Resurrection into something akin to a mere resuscitation or a shadowy "feeling amongst the Apostles,"  the Ascension is likely to be viewed almost as a reverse form of parachuting. But, it is not.

The Ascension is a revelation of how God is saving us: not by rejecting our physical world and bodies, but by drawing all things up to heaven and his presence in Christ and there enthroning it. This is completely unexpected. Our era, with its continuous drumbeat of depressing and negative messages about the state of the Creation, needs the news that Christ is the vanguard of a universal renewal and healing in which we may participate. 

By being "in Christ," we begin to share--in the here and now--that glorification and dignity, that renewed purpose and identity he has declared through the Paschal Mystery. Such an identity and purpose may be assaulted and may undergo trials, but it can never be taken away; it is a birthright given in baptism and treasured by its recipients. Such people see the holiness of God in the Creation, in the Sacraments and sacred places, in other people, and in God's work within us. This is one way to tell those who understand the Christian faith from the inside from those who either do not understand it at all, or whose understanding is only external.

Ascensiontide also commemorates the Session or seating of Christ at the Right Hand of the Father. Here, once more, we enter into language of profound power that has multiple--not just one--level of meaning. Its literal meaning is derived from royal courts and ceremonies conferring authority. Its spiritual meaning focusses on Christ, our Great High Priest, making intercession continually (and knowingly, compassionately) for us and the whole Creation. 

Our prayers find their meaning in his prayer before the Father. Our weakness grows powerful in his strength; our limited affection becomes generous in his Love. Such is the power of the heavenly worship as seen in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 5, where only the Lamb of God, whose self-giving love has been offered for the whole world, is worthy to bring about the final reconciliation between God and Creation. Indeed, the whole of Ascensiontide is soaked in the significance of worship.

And this matter of worship is the final point I wish to make. The lessons from Scripture used in both the Daily Office and at the Holy Eucharist for Ascension strongly emphasize transcendent, glorious, unitive experiences in worshipping God. Christ ascends to the Father blessing his disciples--a "present continuing" experience of blessing and communion that continues today in the Church's relationship to its Risen Head. He tells them to await the gift he has prepared for them so that they may do the work he has commissioned them to do "clothed in power." Their response is to return to Jerusalem "in great joy" and to worship God in the Temple, blessing him and thus being blessed by God.

This centrality of worship to the Christian never changes. Our ability to speak "truth to power," or give comfort to the afflicted, or to serve Christ in our midst, or even to grow in sacred knowledge and love, is always the direct result of divine grace, and that grace is most powerfully experienced in the two-way street of worship. The disciples set the pattern: led by Christ's command, they worship God in community and await divine guidance; the Holy Spirit acts upon the assembly, and they are sent out to proclaim the Kingdom and do works of power in Christ's Name. The connection between worship and ministry is solid and unbreakable.

Like the long span of a beautiful bridge over a deep gorge or a wide bay, Ascensiontide speaks of the ongoing connection between the Church in heaven (completion, perfect communion, perfect doing of God's will) and the Church on earth (with all its imperfection, trials, and struggles). Worship is the central and most important means by which that connection is sensed, experienced, and shared. We need to be unapologetic about this in our output-focussed, utilitarian culture.

So, we gather to worship God on Ascension Day (in those few places that still do during this tepid, distracted era) and during the nine days of Ascensiontide, not as a quaint practice inherited from another era, but as a counter-cultural challenge to a world of disconnection, "do-it-yourself" spiritualities prone to becoming messianic ego-trips, and materialistic accounts of being that exclude beauty and transcendence. 

Ours must be a faith opposed to so many of the currents of the society around us; but opposition for the Christian is not a decent into an ugly bitterness; rather, it is an ascent into the risen, ascended, and glorified life our Lord lives still, and through participating in that life at each and every Eucharist, we are able to show forth--"clothed with power from on high," where he makes intercession for us continually--that life which alone is truly Life.

The Collects for Ascension Day

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 abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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