A REFLECTION ON ASCENSION DAY
Even in these times of ordeal, we must celebrate. All around us, people are lonely and afraid. They are suffering and dying. They are grieving, lost and sad. There isn’t a household in England that the virus hasn’t touched in some way. We could easily feel as forlorn as the disciples gazing at the sky Jesus has disappeared into. Like them, we could imagine he had abandoned us.
Yet as it says in the funeral liturgy of the Orthodox churches, ‘even at the grave we sing ‘alleluia’. Forty days after Easter, it is still the season of resurrection. Christ is risen. In our troubles it’s all the more important to celebrate and allow this marvellous springtime to help us say ‘yes’ to life. For death is swallowed up in victory.
And today, Ascension Day, we celebrate Jesus as Christ the King, our Sovereign enthroned in glory. It is as he has been proclaiming throughout his ministry, that God reigns. Ascension affirms that the exalted Christ ‘fills all things’, as the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, so that he may be in our midst and all around us, among us and within our deepest selves. Far from having left us orphaned and alone, he is Immanuel, God-with-us in time and eternity. And he invites us to embrace his reign and renew our citizenship of this glorious kingdom. Our hearts are full of joy.
Jesus’ ascension is of a piece with everything he has been to us in his incarnate life. In the New Testament his exaltation is spoken of in the imagery of the coronation of the kings of Israel. The Letter to the Hebrews quotes a chain of texts from the Psalms to show how the hopes and longings projected on to Israel’s human rulers are realised in Jesus who has sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’ (Psalm 2); ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever’ (Psalm 45).
But if we follow that imagery back to its source we find we are drawn to the duties of kingship as well as its privileges. The king is to be God’s servant, loyal to the covenant. He is to be the agent of peace and justice, the guardian of the vulnerable and poor. In another psalm (82), God sits in a cosmic court with the heavenly beings gathered round him. Are they worthy to be called gods, he asks? The test is simple. ‘Maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute; rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’
But these lofty princes fail dismally and are condemned. ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?’ ‘I said you are gods, nevertheless you shall die like mortals and fall like any prince.’ In high office they have forgotten who they are and why they have been raised up. They have forfeited the right to govern. They have ascended the hill of the Lord only to be toppled by the sin of pride.
Not so the exalted Christ. For he bears the imprint of the nails on his body, and takes us with him into God’s very heart. As we should have been singing today in the Ascension Day hymn:
See! the heaven its Lord receives
<span style="font-size: 1rem;">Yet he loves the world he leaves:
</span><span style="font-size: 1rem;">Though returning to his throne,
</span><span style="font-size: 1rem;">Still he calls mankind his own.</span>
The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of him as our great high priest who even in his exaltation is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters and to be with us. ‘We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect was tested as we are.’ That letter could not be more emphatic on this point that Jesus passes the test of what it means have ascended as the highest of the exalted ones, above all principalities and powers. High and lifted up as he is, nevertheless he is present to the lowliest of his family to deal gently with us, and especially with the needy whom he calls in St Matthew ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters’.
So humility and service, not pomp and pageantry, describe the ascension of Jesus. For he is the same Lord who healed the sick and spoke kindly to the neglected, washed his disciples’ feet, felt the agony of Gethsemane and went out to die. Any other messiah would not have been born in a stable with nowhere to lay his head, been executed between thieves, risen secretly behind the stone, or ascended on an obscure hilltop with only a handful of witnesses to tell of it.
But this Messiah has taken the form of a servant, never more to lay it by. His ascension is as ‘kenotic’ as his incarnation and crucifixion: an act of humble self-emptying, for this is how he is not only in time but in eternity. There is one glory for the Lord who took the form of a slave: one abasement, one lowliness, one meekness, even in his exaltation and enthronement.
Only this Messiah could still bear the marks of the nails as the risen Lord. Only this Messiah could be pictured as a Lamb upon a throne. Only this Messiah could be our great high priest who feels for humanity, intercedes on our behalf, and serves us by washing our feet. Only this Messiah could humbly come to us in bread and wine so that we might welcome him and exalt him in our hearts.
We want to know in these times that God is not far away from any one of us. It’s the marvellous paradox of Ascension Day that while in one sense Jesus has ‘gone away’ as he said he must, yet he is closer to us than our own souls. He walks alongside us to lighten our burdens and share our joys. We can trust him to comfort us and help us, answer all our longings and make us whole again.
Ascension Day 2020
Ephesians 1.15-23, Acts 1.1-11, Luke 24.44-53