Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension
St. Peter’s Cathedral, Charlottetown – Latin High Mass
May 24th, AD 2017
“Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?”
In nomine Patri, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.
This great feast of the Ascension is the day in which all other celebrations in our church find their consummation, completion, and fullness.
All other feasts days look to this celebration and depend on it, just as our salvation hinges upon Jesus’ ascension; without it everything we do here, everything we say, the scriptures, the church, every word of Jesus drifts away in the breeze and we are left with nothing.
And so this is a feast of great joy—it is the fulfillment of Jesus’ descending to earth at the Nativity, and it is the completion of his death upon the cross and resurrection from the dead. It is what he promised us would happen; it is part of our salvation.
And so be joyful, but know that this celebration is bound to disappoint us as well.
For through this Feast our worldly hopes, our desires, our ambition, and our loves will be crushed.
This is a disappointment and heart break that even the apostles felt, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye staring up into heaven?” asks the two angels of them.
And indeed, why stand staring, agape at Jesus’ departure if not for sadness?
Their grief was great because they saw him for whom they had left everything being taken away from their senses and sight. Their fear too was great because they were left as orphans…not yet strengthened by the power from on high.”
Writes Bernard of Clairvaux.
Jesus told the Apostles that he would, after a time go away, and in his place he would send the comforter, but the disciples were confused and afraid and did not understand what he meant.
Would any of them who truly remembered his words, “Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy,” stand staring up after him? So great is the apostles’ distress that the angels have to remind them of Jesus’ promise of return, “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go.”
The apostles’ pain is one that we all know.
We all know what it’s like to lose or leave someone who moves us, someone who through their presence, their conversation, their friendship, and their love, allows us to know beauty and goodness in a deeper way. The sort of person we cherish, the one in whom we see qualities and characteristics we admire and wish that we had ourselves.
The pain that accompanies the loss of this kind of friend is the kind of pain the apostles felt at the ascension.
Alongside their pain is also fear, and a lack of trust, and I suspect it is the very same that we often find in ourselves, and is the reason that the collect tonight reads as it does.
In the triptych that is the collect, epistle and gospel for each week and feast of our calendar, the collect is often used to distill the lections and offer us a pointed note on what this week is about, it teaches us what the thrust of the readings are by what it gets us to pray.
And through tonight’s collect we pray to be helped with the very thing that caused the apostles’ disappointment, “like as we do believe thy only-begotten son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so may we also in heart and mind hither ascend…”
But therein lies the challenge. It is the same challenge offered by Paul in Colossians, “If then you are risen with Christ, seek those things which are above.” For us, easier said than done.
The apostles stood standing and staring up in to heaven because with Jesus’ ascension came the death of all of their worldly loves, hopes, and desires. “They could not be filled with spiritual understanding”, writes St. Augustine, “unless the object of their earthly love should go from before their eyes.”
This is the disappointment to which the Ascension leads us.
Our hearts break at the ascension because through it we see how desperately our hearts need transformation; we see how little and seldom we seek those things from above.
But we rejoice because we are shown what is our spiritual destiny as the children of God. We rejoice because we are shown that our bodies will be, “fashioned like unto his glorious body.”
This is why we gather together on the Ascension: to pray that our hearts might be reborn, transformed; that God might take all of our desires and passions, our loves, our ambitions, and transfigure them. That our minds and our hearts might “hither ascend.”