(Note: This is the short homily I preached at our Ascension Day Evensong last Thursday.)
“After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Acts 1:3
+In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
I can only imagine how confused the Disciples were. They had followed him for three years, putting up with all the traveling and the sweaty hordes of diseased-ridden pilgrims. They listened to all of his odd little sayings and the frustrating fact that he would never give you a straight answer. In as much as one can know God, they knew Christ better than anyone else in the world, only to have him brutally taken away one dark Friday at Noon, after a long night of beatings, bruises and betrayal at the hands of one of his beloved. Christ was taken away from them, nailed to a tree, bled to death and was buried in a borrowed tomb. They scattered and hid, denying anytime they were asked if they knew him.
I can only imagine how confused the Disciples were when the women frantically returned from the tomb with reports of Angels and empty rags. Then, I can only imagine their confusion as he appeared to them, coming through a locked door. There he stood before them, alive and well, giving them the convincing proofs that their minds struggled to understand, but their hearts knew to be true immediately: he made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread and he showed them his wounds, letting them touch them. Can you imagine the joy of the Disciples at the fact that not only had Christ been raised from the dead but that he stayed with them for forty days? Their fleeing forgiven and forgotten, they enjoyed listening to him speaking about the Kingdom of God. What joy must have filled their hearts!
Yet, the Disciples were not confused when he was lifted up into the clouds, blessing them. Here he was being taken away from them once again, yet they did not flee nor they did not cower in fear. God was taking away the love of their souls once again, yet they were not sad. In fact, as he was being taken up into the clouds, “. . . they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” (Lk. 24:53) Christ went up into the heavens, to the right hand of God, not with bitter wailing, but with the clapping of the hands, with a shout, with the sound of a ram’s-horn! (Ps. 47:1,5) What joy they displayed at the leaving of their friend, at the leaving of their Messiah, at the leaving of their God!
Why the change? Why did the Disciples find so great a joy at the Ascension? We must remember that during those forty days, when Christ presented himself as alive with many convincing proofs, he spoke to them about the Kingdom of God and “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” (Lk. 24:45) Perhaps during those forty days, he told them the secret of the Ascension. He told them why it was necessary that he must go to the Father, so that the Spirit could be poured out like cool water from a pitcher upon the hot Earth. Before he left, he told them to stay in Jerusalem and await the fire from heaven, the power of God, to fall upon them. This Spirit of wisdom and revelation would teach them all things: things about God, about Christ, about each other, the world around them and the Spirit would teach them about themselves. No wonder they worshiped him!
Perhaps Christ prepared them for his leaving, by telling them that the resurrection was a wondrous miracle, but it was not yet complete. Perhaps Christ told them that new life was not complete until that new life had been taken up into God. That miracles and new birth only have meaning when they lead to God. The resurrection, the miraculous gifts, even life itself is only given so that they might ascend into the heavenly places with God, just as Christ was doing before their very eyes. That salvation happens, not because God became a man but because they were becoming one with God in the Ascension. No wonder they returned with great joy!
And yet, here we are on a lonely, ho-hum and run-of-the-mill Thursday evening remembering the oft-forgotten final miracle of Christ: his ascent into heaven, to sit at the right hand of God. Perhaps Christ is saying the same thing to us, as he might have said to his Disciples during those forty days. “Remember you baptism?” he might say, “Remember when I marked you as my own forever? I did not do that just so that you may have new life. I marked you as my own so that I may be one with you.” Or perhaps, Christ is saying to us on this Ascension Day, “Remember those blessings upon blessings upon blessings upon blessings that I poured out on you? I gave those to you so that you might use them become one with me.”
He might be saying to us, “You have let these things become ends in themselves, these resurrections, these miracles, these blessings upon blessings. Yet, I gave them to you so that, through the Spirit, you may ascend into the Heavens and reign with me. I go, not to leave you as orphans but to prepare a mansion for you in heaven, next to me. I came back from the dead to take you into God with me. (Jo. 14:3-4) It is time for you to come up higher. Will you follow me into the clouds?”
We who have been given new life, it is time for us to come up higher.
We who have been given many blessings, it is time for us to come up higher.
We who have experienced the resurrection, it is time for us to come up higher.
We who have risen with Christ, let also ascend with Christ into the heavenly places,
into the temple not made by hands but into the very presence of God, world without end.