In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On Thursday of this week we celebrated the feast of the Lord’s Ascension into heaven, when he returned to the place from whence he came – though in a certain sense he never left that place. But at the Ascension there is something new, and what is new is that from the moment of the Lord’s Ascension into heaven, it is now and forever a HUMAN BEING who reigns as Lord of heaven and earth, as very God. Now a man is God; a man is exalted over all things. A human being has sat down on the throne of God.
But the reality of the Ascension touches our lives too. It is not merely an abstruse doctrine, or the description of an esoteric event that happened a long time ago. It means something for us. It touches our lives, it has changed things FOR US, opened new possibilities to us; it has made possible for us a new way of being and living. St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444 AD) sets out what has happened – what is made possible – in the Lord’s Ascension. Cyril writes:
It was necessary then to confer the height of blessedness on human nature, and not only to rid it of death and sin, but to raise it even to the heavens themselves, and to make man a companion of the angels, and a partaker in their joys. And just as by His own Resurrection Jesus renewed in us the power of escaping corruption, even so He thought it right to open out for us the path to heaven, and to set in the Presence of the Father the human race, who had been cast out of His sight [because of sin]. (Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book X)
The Lord’s Ascension, and his exaltation over all creation are therefore not realties that pertain only to himself, but they are realities which he makes accessible to us, because we have been incorporated into him – we have become members of his body – by our faith in him, and by our baptism into his death and resurrection. In short, as St. Cyril says, in Jesus “we all have our being, because he manifested himself as a man.”
So the reality of the exaltation of Jesus’ human nature, of its being taken into God, is a reality that extends to the humanity of all who have been incorporated into him – through faith and baptism. As the epistle to the Hebrews says: Jesus “entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking… his own blood, [and] thus securing an eternal redemption,” (Hebrews 9.12). We are exalted with Jesus, who St. Paul said “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things,” (Ephesians 4.10). In the ascended Christ we are made rulers over all creation – and so the mandate of dominion God gave us in Genesis, is fulfilled in Jesus. At last, with Jesus’ ascension into heaven, mankind has filled the earth and subdued it (cf. Genesis 1.28).
One might well ask: if we have been incorporated into Christ, if we believe in him and have been baptized in his name, then why do we so seldom FEEL exalted? Why do we not EXPERIENCE this reality that is supposed to have been given to us? Part of the reason is what is sometimes called the “already-and-not-yet” nature of the thing. And this “already-and-not-yet” is a consequence of our experience within time, within the world, of the realities of an eternal God – and of the fact that, as St. Paul says in Philippians, from heaven “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself,” (Philippians 3.20-21). There is yet one event in the history of salvation for which we are still waiting, and that is the Lord’s glorious second coming, which will herald the end of this world’s history. As he says, “when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also,” (John 14.3).
We “await a Savior” – we are waiting for the Lord Jesus to return and to bring to fulfillment for us what he has already accomplished in himself. The time between the feast of the Ascension and that of Pentecost – which is always nine days after the Ascension, a week from today – this time is an especially appropriate one within which to consider what it means to WAIT as Christians. Jesus gave the disciples instructions about this nine-day period, this “novena,” just before the Ascension. In the first Chapter of Acts, St. Luke says that after his resurrection Jesus stayed with the disciples and “charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to WAIT for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit,’” (Acts 1.4-5).
How do Christians wait for the Lord? In the grand arc of history, Christians have now been waiting for some 2,000 years for the Lord to return, and still we wait. But this waiting plays itself out in our lives as individuals as well, perhaps after we have a palpable experience of closeness to God, he will seem to withdraw, and leave us feeling alone and waiting, sometimes for we don’t know what. This can go on for years, even for much of a lifetime. A character in one of our recent Film Night films described the experience:
While [you’re] alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope for something good to come along. Something to make you feel connected, to make you feel whole, to make you feel loved. (from Synecdoche, New York)
That sounds despairing, and so it is. It’s an expression of unchristian waiting. So how is our waiting different? How are we to wait as Christians? Scripture points to three elements that characterize Christian waiting, and these three elements inform one another. They are 1) hope, 2) patience, and 3) prayer.
As disciples of Jesus we have hope. So St. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians enduring bereavement “not [to] grieve as others do who have no hope,” (1 Thessalonians 4.13). As I often point out at funerals: Paul doesn’t tell us not to grieve, but he says not to grieve like hopeless people grieve. Because we have hope. We have the promises of God. Again, the Lord spoke of this interim period of waiting when he said: “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you,” (John 16.7). And he said: “…the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
So we have hope in the promises of Christ, and in the gifts that he has given us in virtue of his Ascension – even his very own presence to the end of the age, though we are incapable at times of feeling it. But Jesus has not left us desolate. And this hope is the wellspring of our patience, or what Scripture often calls “longsuffering”, or endurance. We can do anything, we can endure any circumstance, we can get on with the mission with which the Lord has entrusted each and every one of us, because we have hope. So again Paul says, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me,” (Philippians 4.11ff). Because of our hope in Christ, we can walk through any circumstance patiently and with untrammeled peace. We do well to remind ourselves of this, daily if needs be.
Lastly, what do we DO as we wait patiently and in hope for God to manifest himself – with finality at the end of the age, or in our lives as individuals? In the meantime: We pray. We soak ourselves in God’s Word, allowing the Holy Spirit to bring to our remembrance what God has promised us in Christ – this we do by means of a disciplined and mature prayer life. Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus told the disciples to return to Jerusalem and to wait. The book of Acts says, “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem… and when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying… [and] with one accord [they] DEVOTED THEMSELVES TO PRAYER, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1.12ff)
This is our task between the Ascension and the Lord’s coming in glory: to wait and pray in patience informed by hope, in the company of the saints, that when the Lord makes himself known, we may be able to say with the Psalmist: “I waited patiently upon the Lord; / He stooped to me and heard my cry. / He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; / he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure. / He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.