The Sunday After The Ascension, Year B, 2015 – Acts 1:15-17; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
Now I come to you
The trumpets sound, the angels sing:
We come this week to the last Sunday of Easter, and on it we are crowned with joy.
This is the day the Lord has made, when Christ the Lamb of God becomes the Lamb upon the throne.
Now the great action that began on Easter day comes to its completion, and Jesus who rose against all expectation from the tomb rises again, into the heavenly glory of God.
It is, this week, the Ascension of the Lord.
It is only recently, to tell the truth, that I have gotten really excited about Ascension Day. For years I just did not get it: in the age of Interstellar it seemed opaque, the image of Jesus rising into the clouds a pretty myth, relic of a time before we could pierce the cloud-capped skies ourselves. What is this Feast of the Ascension supposed to mean, in our time?
Two things happened that began to open the meaning of Ascension for me—and I recommend them both to you. One was a book called For the Life of the World, by the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. The second was a trip to Venice.
Venice, La Serenissima. Most beautiful of cities, rising out of the water like a painting—exactly like a Canaletto painting, in fact—and crowned by a church, the golden and glorious domes of San Marco. In Venice it was the weekend after Ascension Day when Sarah and I and Caitlin arrived, and the whole city was throwing a party. Festa della Sensa, they call it; Feast of the Ascension. It is a weird and wonderful festa going back to the year 1000, involving doges in medieval costume and a royal ship called the Bucintoro—back in the day, painted entirely with gold—and a golden wedding ring thrown into the Sea, symbolizing the marriage of Venice and the sea, symbolizing Venice’s glory. The ship and the doges sail with cheering crowds from the Doge’s palace to the Lido, and there the festival comes to its climax, with the celebration of the Mass at the church of San Nicola, St. Nicholas. Gondola races close the day. We watched the Gondola races, and cheered for the manly men in their pink and lavender-striped suits. It was all great fun. But I kept thinking, Why Ascension Day? Why is THAT the big festival? Why is that the day on which to lift up to God this city and its glory? Would not Easter or Pentecost make more sense? Surely Ascension is not that big a thing.
And yet…listen to John’s Gospel. “Now I come to You,” Jesus says to the Father in the great high-priestly prayer we read today. “Father, glorify your son.”
This prayer is the climax of Jesus’ ministry. He prays it with his disciples on the night of the foot-washing, on that last night before the cross. It is the last thing he does with them before his passion. And running all through it like a golden thread is his glory, and the glory of God.
We are celebrating today nothing less than the lifting up of Jesus Christ into the glory of God the Father, the revelation of the glory that was his before the world began. If you are going to celebrate any glory on earth or in heaven, it is absolutely right to tie it to this day: because this is the day on which all glory begins.
And it begins here, unexpectedly, counter-intuitively, at this moment that points straight to the cross. Judas has gone out into the night to betray Jesus; Jesus knows exactly what is coming. In this moment he says to the Father, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your son so that the Son may glorify you” (John 17:1).
“Glorify your son.” Is that what is happening, in this shameful betrayal, in the travesty of a trial that follows; above all in the cross?
Here is all that is worst about the world; now it unfolds on Jesus’ body: friendship corrupted, truth turned on its head, and the God-given power of the government used to crush and to humiliate, used to deny the power of God.
Here is the wood of the cross, this sin of the world, on which hung the world’s saviour.
And Jesus says, “Glorify your son, so that the Son may glorify you.”
In John’s Gospel it is the cross, always, that is the moment of Jesus’ exaltation. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But for this I came to this hour…And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:27. 32).
His dying is the moment of his “lifting up”; in the cross strangely comprehended the whole glory of God.
“Now I come to you,” Jesus says on the night before he is crucified (John 17:13). “I am no longer in the world. They are in the world, and I come to you.”
It is in the moment of his humiliation for our sake that we see Jesus truly as Lord: rising now to the throne of God, revealed in unity with our Father who is in heaven. It is in the face of Jesus the crucified Christ that we see at last rising like a sun over the world the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.
This is who God is: this one who takes the lost and lonely world on his own back and suffers its lostness, and lifts us up once again and forever into the presence of God.
“And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Jesus’ prayer on this night of his betrayal, on this feast of the Ascension, is for our sake.
The Ascension is part and parcel of the great act of grace that began on the cross. That we should be lifted up: that is the end and purpose of Christ’s dying. In this man lifted up on the cross our humanity too lifted up, out of the sin that haunts us, out of the evil that binds us to purposes that lead only to tears; out of our God-abandonment, out of this long dying. That we should find ourselves once more in God’s presence; that we should be found.
“I have called you by name, you are mine,” God says to his people in Isaiah. “Keep them in your name, which you have given me,” Jesus prays on the night before his death (John 17:10). Jesus accomplishes on the cross the purpose of God: that we should be his. “Holy Father, keep them in your name.” Jesus goes to the cross so that we may be lifted once more into the holiness of God.
For God so loved the world. This is the love of God, that shines like glory from the face of the Christ. In the very human dying of Christ this world, our human life lifted up, so that we may again in this human life be holy.
“Sanctify them,” Jesus prays to the Father as he goes to the cross. “For them I sanctify myself.”
So that we may again be holy, lifted into the truth of God: that is the purpose that is played out in the trial where there is no human truth. That we may be holy: lifted again into truth, lifted again into righteousness, lifted again into the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.
And it shines from the face of Jesus the Christ.
It is nothing less than the change of the ages, this earth made new, lifted up into heaven. It is this that we celebrate this week as Easter comes to its completion in Ascension.
On the cross it begins, in the Son there lifted up. On Easter we see it: life springing its bonds, now the green blade rising from the buried grain. And on this day, this last Sunday of Easter, it is accomplished in the Ascension of the Christ.
For Christ is risen, and the cross is a throne, and we are lifted up: out of our death, out of our sin, out of all fear and failure and sighing, into the presence of God. Kaine ktisis! New creation! Paul says—in his excitement, leaping over all rules of syntax.
It is this we celebrate this Sunday, and each time we walk in procession into our church. Into the church, up to the altar, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving.
I love to watch the children—as we process into church, reaching out with glee to touch Fr. AJit’s hand as he walks by in his flowing robes, after the choir and the bronze cross lifted high. I love the way their faces are shining…this is for them the highlight of the day. And they are right. In this procession the priest is leading us up to the throne of God. This is humanity on its way out of the world into Christ, lifted in the prayer of the Christ, lifted in the cross of Christ, in the body and the blood, lifted out of our ‘own’ life into the life that belongs to God.
It is the new creation that begins, each time we come to the Eucharist. Each of us walking in Christ again into the garden, the church becoming the garden of God.
Now I come to you: we feast here with the angels
As with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia! Lord Most High.