16 May 2021
By Fr. Michael Cover
Greetings in the name of the Risen and Ascended Jesus!
It is good to be with you all again. Last week we had some microphone difficulties. I hope that my words are more audible today. I have also given a copy of last week’s sermon to Lee Coppernoll, and invited her to share it with any who are interested.
Over the coming Sundays, we will be observing three of the Church’s principal feasts: Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity. (Ascension was in fact on Thursday, but we have transferred it to today.) All three feasts invite us to look away from ourselves and toward the God who reveals himself as Trinity. Ascension, which we celebrate today, invites us to look for one last time on Jesus, before He disappears from our view. Pentecost focuses our attention on the Holy Spirit, the promised advocate who brings us “power from on high”. Last, on Trinity Sunday, we turn to the mystery of all three persons together: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God. How’s that for a first sermon series?
While some will delight in such a strong theological lineup, others may have their misgivings. The idea of considering all three of these doctrines serially—Ascension, Pentecost, and the Trinity— may sound more like an invitation to a headache, or at least to arcane theological speculation which bears little relation to our everyday lives. From this perspective, the Ascension may perhaps be the worst offender. What on earth can it possibly mean for us that Jesus has ascended into the heaven? Could we possibly invent a more befuddling, mythological, “otherworldly” spiritual idea?
And yet, here we are, recalling that on page 15 in the Book of Common Prayer, the feast of the Ascension is listed as one of the seven principal feasts of the Christian year, alongside Christmas and Easter. And not just in Anglicanism. So also among our German Lutheran cousins, who each spring on Ascension Day, or Himmelfahrt, pack their picnic baskets and head to the hillsides with family and friends for recreation and spiritual retreat. The Church throughout the ages has found this feast of Jesus’ departure to be of profound spiritual significance. At one time, Ascension were as prominent in public life as Ramadan is today in American culture (imagine, for a moment if you will, NPR doing a radio special about Ascension day on the radio!). Our challenge, then, like the good picnickers that we are, is to try and unpack the theological basket that the Ascension offers.
The first thing to say is rather obvious, but it is still worth saying: the Ascension means that we can now speak in a very definitive way about the “absence” of Jesus. He is not here. Of course, as Episcopalians, we affirm the “real presence” of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. How often, I wonder, to we also consider our affirmation of Jesus’s absence?
Viewed from this angle, a first pass at the meaning of the Ascension might run something like this: Jesus’s departure reminds us that He is not from here, and neither are we. Our home is in heaven, and like Jesus we will one day go there too. The old Baptist standard hymn, “I’ll Fly Away,” which is a favorite in the Cover household, rings readily at least in my ears. And there is some truth in this message. In the midst of the brevity and the “changes and chances” of this life, which this most recent season of COVID has so brutally driven home, it is a consolation for those of us who feel that things down here aren’t as they ought to be, to know that the Church agrees. Heaven presents an alternative order to earth, and Jesus’s going there reminds us that we are strangers and pilgrims seeking a better homeland.
And yet, this cannot be the whole story. The old myth of “I’ll Fly Away” too easily suggests a picture of the end, in which “our bodies rot in the earth, while our souls go to heaven.” This is, in fact, what many of my undergraduate students at Marquette come to college believing, after four years of private Catholic education. But this is the worldview of Plato, not of Jesus. What is most remarkable about Jesus’s Ascension is not that he is “carried up” to heaven, but that he goes there with his body. At the ascension, a human body, a Jewish body, a royal body in the line of David—a body that eats fish and drinks wine—sat down at God’s right hand and received the Kingdom.
Of course, the concreteness of this picture only leads to further questions: Has Jesus gone away forever, or is he coming back? How are we to participate in his heavenly Kingdom? While there are clues in the scriptures, Christians over the centuries have strained their minds to the breaking point trying to imagine how this will look. On one account, Jesus ascends to heaven only for a time; he will “come again” to judge the quick and the dead, and bring about his kingdom with us here on earth. In the interim period, which is now, Jesus is a kind of bodily visitor in heaven—a tenant in his Father’s “Air BnB”. We too, when we die, will take up spiritual occupancy in one of these many mansions for a little while, until Christ returns to reign at the general resurrection.
Another account holds that Jesus has gone to heaven permanently, and that he means to establish his kingdom there for all time. He will not come down to us; but at the resurrection, we will go up to him. It may be impossible completely to reconcile these two views, but there are certain synergies. At minimum, both accounts warn us off of thinking of heaven as a light, airy, and ephemeral country—a realm of pure spirit. Rather, if Jesus is in his body there, then heaven must be thicker, more tangible, and more embodied than the world we currently inhabit. It is as if, by ascending bodily, Jesus is saying: “If you think you see things clearly now, just wait for the color spectrum that you will see in heaven; if you fancy yourself a connoisseur in earth’s kitchens, just wait until you sample the sumptuous fare that is served in my Father’s house.”
So, the Ascension tells us that heaven is not a thin place, but a thick place. And it is that world that our new and resurrected bodies will be made for. But what about now? What does the dogma of the Ascension tell us about how to live our faith today? To get to the bottom of this, we will need to answer an additional question: what is Jesus doing in heaven now?
Again, certainty on this as on so many other intriguing questions likely eludes us; and it won’t surprise you to learn that each New Testament writer gives a slightly different answer to this question. Paul, as we heard in the Letter to the Ephesians, imagines Jesus enthroned in heaven as a king—the great King of Kings and Desire of the Nations. This is perhaps the most common understanding of the Ascension: it is an enthronement. Luke’s Gospel, however, gives a subtly different picture of Jesus’s ascension. In the final words of his Gospel, he writes:
Then [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Unlike the kingly vision of the Ascension found in Ephesians, Luke leaves us at the end of his Gospel with an image of Jesus as a priest. From the hilltop of Bethany, Jesus blesses the disciples, and then ascends, presumably to continue his work of priestly intercession. Much like the Jesus of the epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus enters into a heavenly “holy of holies”, both priest and sacrifice, to complete the work of atonement.
This image is one of great comfort. Unlike Mark, who ends his Gospel with nothing but the empty tomb and the women fleeing in terror; and unlike Matthew, who ends his Gospel with Jesus still on earth and promising that he will never leave his disciples until the very end of the age; Luke offers us with the image of a priestly Jesus ascending to plead our case before God the Father and to preside at a heavenly liturgy amid cherubic acolytes and choirs of seraphic fire. The disciples remain, not fearful, not sent, but gathered together “continually in the temple blessing God.”
This feast of the Ascension, we remember that the first part of our vocation as Church is to be “a priestly people” (1 Peter), “continually in the temple” offering our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. This is the very meaning of the word “Eucharist.” When we sing the Sanctus, we too become participants of that thrice-holy liturgy that Isaiah saw, carried up with the angels into the presence of God. What is different is that now that heavenly worship has as its chief officiant the Son of God who took on flesh and blood out of love for us; the God who has known our weakness and our infirmities, and borne them even unto death and hell itself with his unconquerable Life. Like those first disciples, let us continue to gather together “with great joy” and pray that he will yet pour out on our weak flesh Power from on high, even the Spirit of Truth. Come Holy Spirit.