Preached at St Alban, Holborn
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, One God. Amen
Some years ago my mother and I attended the wedding of a cousin, whose father was a priest in the diocese of Manchester. During the reception which followed, Mother chatted to one of the suffragen bishops who, on discovering that my brother was an Anglican priest, observed that she must be very proud to have two sons who were both in holy orders. Coming from a family with more than its fair share of clergy, Mother is distinctly unimpressed. I’m afraid the poor bishop was somewhat non-plussed when she swiftly replied, “It’s got nothing to do with me” as if she had been accused of complicity in some questionable activity !
This in turn reminds me of a conversation I once had with a devout and enthusiastic young man who was telling me of his vocation to the priesthood founded on his burning desire to emulate our Lord in His priestly ministry. I gently reminded him that during His earthly life our Lord actually performed a diaconal ministry inasmuch as He became as t he servant who washed feet (John XIII: 1-17) and a messenger who preached good news to the poor; proclaimed deliverance to captives, sight to the blind and release for the oppressed (Luke IV: 18-19). “The Son of man came to ‘deacon’ and give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Having offered the sacrifice at Calvary He entered fully into His priestly ministry at His ascension.
Today, I would like us to focus on three aspects of the Ascension which deal with ministry, worship and God’s ultimate purpose for each of us because these are significant areas of convergence between the Orthodox tradition and your witness here at St. Alban’s, Holborn.
The Ascension Gifts of Christ
The Apostle Saint Paul in writing to the Church in Ephesus about the Lord’s Ascension, quotes from Psalm LXVIII (LXVII in the Septuagint): 18,
“When he ascended up on high
He led captivity captive
The image here is of Christ, as the victorious king, having overcome Satan, sin and death, leading his captives in chains in a triumphal procession, bestowing spiritual gifts upon mankind. Bishop Christopher Wordsworth’s Ascension Day hymn, See the Conqueror mounts in triumph, depicts this faithfully,
“See, the Conqueror mounts in triumph; see the King in royal state,
Riding on the clouds, His chariot, to His heavenly palace gate.
Hark! the choirs of angel voices joyful alleluias sing,
And the portals high are lifted to receive their heavenly King.”
We see also that these gifts are ministries given to men because the Apostle says, “He gave some (to be) apostles; and some prophets; and some evangelists, and some pastor-teachers.” There is a parallel with his Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians XII) where St. Paul enumerates the gifts of the spirit as well as the diversity of spiritual ministries. What is important about this passage is that is tells us clearly the purpose of these gifts. They are for “the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”
As with all Christian ministries they are rooted in the person of our Lord Himself. He is the Apostle and High Priest of our profession (Hebrews III:1), He is the Prophet in whom the message from God springs forth (John VI:14 & VII:40; Acts III:22 & VII:37); He is the Evangelist Who proclaims the good news (Luke IV: 18-19); He is the Pastor-Teacher, the good shepherd who lays down his life for his flock (Matthew XXVI:31 & John X:11)), the teacher “come from God” (John III:2). The wonder, however, is that He calls frail humanity to share in His ministry. St. Peter, the fisherman, who betrayed his Lord, is chosen as an apostle and throughout church history we see those called to these ministries – always inadequate to their calling – but empowered with divine grace given to perfect them for their vocations so that they can truly edify the body of Christ. The Church, which is His body, is built upon these foundation ministries (Ephesians II:20) so that her nature is always apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic and pastoral.
We must not fall into the error of believing that these ministries were given only for the first age of the church but were later withdrawn. They are the Ascension Gifts of Christ and the Apostle Paul tells us clearly that “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Romans XI:29). Indeed in Ephesians he tells us that they are given “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (IV:13). Through this diversity the Church is able to be built up and sustained but equally, the absence of any of these ministries means that the Church cannot adequately fulfil her vocation of achieving perfection or arrive at the unity of faith. Most of us are familiar with pastors and evangelists in the modern church but we are less familiar with apostles and prophets. Yet after the death of the XII Apostles we find there were apostolikoi or apostolic men, whilst the respect shown towards the occupants of apostolic sees was often matched by signs of apostolical ministry. I know that many Anglicans regarded the late Archbishop Ramsey as manifesting such characteristics, whilst the often uncomfortable admonitions of churchmen on moral and social ills of our day show that the Church’s prophetic ministry is still alive and well.
Christ’s High Priestly Ministry
We have already noted that the Lord enters fully into His High Priestly ministry at His Ascension. The sacrifice of Himself upon the cross is offered at the heavenly altar, where the eternal liturgy is celebrated outside of time or space. Unlike the Aaronic priesthood who performed the sacrifice once a year, Christ as “high priest of the good things that have come … entered once for all into the holy place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Hebrews IX: 11-14) Christ has passed beyond the veil of the Temple into the heavenly Holy of Holies and at His death the veil of the Temple is torn, symbolising the abolition of the separation between the earthly and the heavenly worlds. This heavenly liturgy is revealed to us in the vision granted to the Apostle John (Revelation IV & V), where the multitude of the heavenly host glorify God before the throne of the Lamb. The Church on earth is called to live simultaneously in two dimensions, the heavenly and the earthly, and her worship is focused on the heavenly realm. God may dwell with us but in the fullness of worship we go to where He is. One of the Byzantine Kontakia sung on the Feast of Ascension says: “ O Christ our God, upon fulfilling Thy dispensation for our sake, Thou ascended in Glory, uniting the earthly with the heavenly.”
In the Orthodox tradition we make no particular distinction between the Body of the risen Christ and His Eucharistic Body, that is, the Church in its two-fold nature, spiritual and sacramental. The Eucharist constitutes the Church, not the building or the administrative structure. The Eucharist is not of this world, it is of the Kingdom. It is the Body and Blood of Him Who rules in the Kingdom of God. To receive them, Christians must go to the Kingdom. That ultimately is the “purpose” of the Divine Liturgy. That is why the Liturgy is “divine” and why it constitutes an ascent to heaven. Through liturgical worship Christians are carried from this world into the dimension of the Kingdom where they partake of spiritual things, and participate in spiritual worship before the Throne of God!
It was this other-worldly experience which astonished the ambassadors of Prince Vladimir of Kiev. Having travelled through Europe to Rome they experienced dignified Christian worship but it was only at the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople that they were able to exclaim, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.” However, whilst there can be no doubt about the aesthetic impact of Byzantine ritual and its assailing of our sight, hearing and smell, this is not merely about the seduction of our senses. It is a cause of irritation to many Orthodox that the media has a tendency to describe anything about Orthodoxy in terms of dim, flickering candlelight reflected off gold and silver amidst sonerous chanting in smoke-filled sanctuaries. Yet I am able to recognise the same mirroring of heavenly worship in your less exuberant but grave and stately Western Rites and I cannot doubt that those celebrating Easter even in the Stalinist gulags, where they were denied any outward expression of worship, experienced a profound awareness of heaven and earth touching. In worship we Christians ascend to heaven, of which we are now citizens and to which we are ultimately destined. In this encounter, we commune with the Living God Who loves mankind and has shown forth His love. We worship Him and we receive His gifts. This is truly what worship was meant to be: the ascent to heaven in the company of the saints to worship and to know God.
Many of the liturgical texts which we share in common reflect these spiritual truths. The western Gloria and the Eastern Trisagion, the Byzantine Cherubikon and our common Sanctus and Benedictus, all echo the angelic praises: the acclamation of a single, united choir, comprising angels and men, in the praise and worship of God. I recall someone once telling me that she looked forward to going to heaven to enjoy some peace and quiet but I fear she may be disappointed as the scriptural vision of heaven in one of ceaseless, clamorous worship, with saints casting down their golden crowns amidst billowing clouds of incense.
Unlike most other rites, which begin with the invocation of the Holy Trinity, the Byzantine Liturgy begins with the words, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” Liturgical commentators explain that this is an announcement of God’s Kingdom which is present here and now. It is the beginning of our ascent into the heavenlies! Our destination is declared from the outset: into the Kingdom of God, to worship Him in spirit and in truth; to join the saints and the Host of Heaven in worship.
The late Father Alexander Schmemann wrote, “To bless the Kingdom is not simply to acclaim it. It is to declare it to be the goal, the end of all our desires and interests, of our whole life, the supreme and ultimate value of all that exists. To bless is to accept in love, and to move toward what is loved and accepted. The Church is thus the assembly, the gathering of those to whom the ultimate destination of all life has been revealed and who have accepted it. This acceptance is expressed in the solemn answer to the doxology: Amen. It is indeed one of the most important words in the world, for it expresses the agreement of the Church to follow Christ in His ascension to His Father, to make this ascension the destiny of man.”
Oneness with God
G.H. Bourne’s impressive hymn Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour encapsulates the Ascension doctrine of the destiny of man in his concluding acclamation, “risen, ascended, glorified.” This linking of the ascension with the resurrection and glorification of the Lord is the third aspect of the feast which I want to highlight, because it tells us something of our own future condition in God’s plan of creation and redemption; the drawing together of all His mighty acts to reveal His purpose for us in eternity.
At the incarnation, God – by whom all things were made – became one with us through taking flesh and dwelling among us; uniting Himself for ever to His creation. As the humanity of Christ is inseparable from His divinity so, at His ascension, He carried our humanity into the heavens. Even as the baby Who was born in that stable was God and the man Who died on the cross was God, so is the God Who is enthroned in highest heaven a man. God redeems us in our entirety, not just our souls. In His divine Person, the Son was always seated on the right hand of the Father, being consubstantial with Him, but the lifting up of our humanity at His ascension is man’s first entry into that divine glorification for which he was originally created. Bishop Wordsworth’s hymn captures this truth,
“He has raised our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand:
Jesus reigns, adored by angels; man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension we by faith behold our own.”
The Apostle Paul, in explaining the significance of the resurrection describes Christ as the “firstfruits” of the resurrection, “Christ the firstfruits; afterwards they that are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Corinthians XV: 20). You will remember that in the Old Testament the Levitical Priesthood were directed to wave the first sheaf of corn before the Lord as a promise of the greater harvest to come. The original Hebrew, however, conveys not only the sense of the first and the beginning, but also the best, the main part and applies not only to crops but also to the beginning of a period of time. Hence the firstfruits represent the whole: the entire blessedness of the harvest is concentrated in them.
St. John Chrysostom comments, “For as it happens in a field full of corn, when a man takes a few ears of corn and makes a small sheaf and offers it to God, he blesses the whole cornfield by means of this sheaf, so Christ has done this also, and through that one flesh and firstfruits has made our race to be blessed.”
Although our humanity is already in the heavenly realm, we must await the coming of the Lord for the full manifestation of this glorious vocation, what a second-century writer called “the springtime of the body.” The link between Resurrection and Ascension is there in patristic writing, but it is Chrysostom again who highlights something significant, “In the Resurrection they saw the end but not the beginning, and in the Ascension they saw the beginning but not the end.”
Saint Peter speaks of this end when he reminds us that man was created with the potential to be a “partaker of the divine nature” ( 2 Pet I:4). It is this participation in divinity, called theosis in Orthodox theology (which literally means deification or divinization), that the ascension of Christ has fulfilled for humanity. Saint Athanasios the Great asserts that man is called to become by grace what God is by nature, “God became man that we might be made gods.” In the Lord Jesus we find man’s rightful place, sharing in the divine Life “on the right hand of the Father,” an expression which denotes nothing less than equality with the Father, because our human nature has been deified in Him; but, as with the two natures in Christ, though man has been called to be united with God without division or separation of any kind this is also without mixture or confusion of any kind, for we never cease to be His creatures, since He alone is Uncreated.
Saint John Chrysostom contemplates how Christ’s Ascension brought about an extraordinary change in man’s condition, “But we who appeared unworthy of earth have been led up today into the heavens: we who were not worthy of the pre-eminence below have ascended to the Kingdom above: we have scaled the heavens: we have attained the royal throne, and that nature, on whose account the Cherubim guarded paradise, today sits above the Cherubim.”
The Apostle St. Paul, identifies the divine purpose of the Incarnation with our adoption as sons of God: “But when the fullness of the time was come. God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons. God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Gal. IV:4-7). In Christ Jesus, therefore, we encounter both true and perfect God and true and perfect man. In other words, we see in Him not only the great God and Saviour (Tit. II:13), but also what or who we have been called to become: sons and heirs of God the Father. A Byzantine ode expresses this truth in poetic form,
“O Christ, having taken upon Thy shoulders our nature, which had gone astray, Thou didst ascend and bring it unto God the Father” and “Having raised our nature, which was deadened by sin, Thou didst bring it unto Thine own Father, O Saviour.”
The doctrinal meaning of the ascension is the glorification of human nature, the reunion of man with God. It is indeed, the very penetration of man into the inexhaustible depths of divinity.
Man has been restored to communion with God, to a union which is far greater and more perfect than that given to man at the Creation. “Eye hath see, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” (I Corinthians II: 9)
However, if you consult the psalm you will see that it actually says “Thou hast received gifts for men” or more accurately, “Thou didst receive gifts among men.” Biblical scholars point out that the Syriac translation of the Bible (the Peshitto) and the Jewish Targum, or Aramaic translation reflecting rabbinic interpretation, support St. Paul’s rendering. Saint Jerome makes the distinction that the Psalm spoke of a promise in the future but whereas St. Paul wrote after its fulfilment.