Three Wonders of Ascension
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham
Preached on 17th May 2007 (Ascension Day)
Three wonders mark this holy day. Today Christ is received into heaven and crowned as Lord and King. Today the gift of the Holy Spirit is promised to his disciples to empower them for their witness. Today the end of all things is proclaimed to creation in the coming of the Son of Man in glory.
Before the Precentor gets excited, I need to tell you that this is not a newly discovered antiphon from an ancient Eastern Rite proper to the Feast of the Ascension. Rather, it's my distillation of the three key themes of the Ascension story as St Luke tells it at the end of his gospel and at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. And it deliberately echoes another festival that has its three wonders. Epiphany, 4 months ago, has always been kept as a feast of three great mysteries: the revealing of Christ's glory to the magi, at the marriage at Cana in Galilee, and at his baptism in the River Jordan. We acted them out in the Epiphany Procession with the symbols of incense, wine and water. And in doing this, we learned, as only liturgy can teach us, how the truth of Epiphany is not simply three past events in the life of Jesus, but the threefold truth of who and what he is to us now as his people who are promised a share in his glory, what the New Testament calls ‘the inheritance of the saints in light'. Both Epiphany and Ascension mark high points at key moments in the liturgical cycle: Epiphany within the 40 days of the Christmas season, Ascension within the 50 days of Easter. Like Epiphany, Ascension celebrates the glory of Jesus not only as he was revealed then but as he is to us now. So it may not be fanciful to link the mysteries of Ascension to the mysteries of Epiphany. Let me try.
The first Epiphany wonder is the revealing of Jesus to the magi. They come from a far country to worship Jesus and bring him gifts of homage. Like the disciples at the Ascension, they too ‘look up into heaven' so as to see the star that leads them to the new-born king. It's a story with many layers of meaning, but one of them is to put the question, who is this that even the rich and the powerful from fabled distant lands come to worship him? It answers that he alone is the true king. His subjects are those of every place and time who acknowledge his lordship and his kingdom. And this, surely, is the first wonder of the Ascension. Just as at Epiphany, sovereignty is veiled in the child of Bethlehem, so now it remains hidden from the world, disclosed only to those who have met the risen Lord and now gaze in wonder into heaven and witness his return to his Father. It takes faith to see in the empty sky the throne-room of the King of kings. But to look into the sky is to look, not at a place of absence but at a sign of a glorious presence that fills all things. This vision of glory calls us to acknowledge his reign over us and over the whole life of this world. It makes subjects out of us, shows us whose we are: not our own, but the citizens of Christ's kingdom. And that is truly transformative, life-changing, as it was for the magi who returned home another way. In that birth they encountered a death - their own. They could not go back to old ways and old gods. You can never look back and retrace your steps once you have seen the King of Glory. We know from the Acts that the disciples were not the same after what they had seen on the mountain of the Ascension. Their transformation is an image of how we too can become new people as we look upon Christ the King and make him our reason for being alive.
The second Epiphany wonder is the turning of water into wine. It's another image of transformation: the old, brackish and stale giving place to what is new, fresh and life-giving. The gospel says that in performing this ‘sign', Jesus ‘revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him'. We need to recall the sheer abundance of best wine in those huge stone water-jars. And I link this extravagant generosity with the second wonder of the Ascension, the promise that the Holy Spirit will be given to the disciples. ‘Stay in the city' says Jesus ‘until the Holy Spirit is poured out upon you'. In one of the New Testament letters, the Ascension is likened to the triumphant return of the emperor, emblazoned with battle honours, who showers gifts on his grateful subjects (which is why we sing Kyrie eleison at the beginning of each eucharist - it's the cry of the people beseeching their glorious king for a share in the fruits of victory). And pre-eminent among these gifts is the Holy Spirit, God here among us, God within us, God between us, God before and behind us, empowering us for life, for service, for mission, for art, for science, for discovery, for holiness. The Spirit opens up to us all the wonderful God-given possibilities that lie beyond our dreams or our imagining - like ‘wine that maketh glad the heart of man', as the psalm says. Yes, the disciples were not the same after the Ascension. And neither can we remain unchanged by what we have seen and heard and tasted of this new wine of the kingdom.
The last of the three Epiphany wonders is the baptism of Jesus. This too is a story about the Spirit anointing a man for service: for the heavens are opened, and the dove descends upon him, and a voice proclaims who this is who is standing obediently in the water and undergoing this rite: ‘this is my Son, my beloved; in him I am well-pleased'. So at the outset of the gospel, there is a descent from an opened heaven and a divine voice to interpret the mystery to the bystanders. And at the end of the gospel, forty days after Easter, there is an ascent into an opened heaven, and another voice that is not a man's but an angel's to interpret to the disciples what this return to God means. All this ‘up and down' language is imagery of course. But we need to hear what it represents, how in both stories the opened heaven stands as a profound symbol of promise and expectation. Jesus' baptism inaugurates a new era: his next act is to proclaim that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand'. At the Ascension the same connection is made: ‘Why do you stand looking up to heaven? This same Jesus whom you see ascending will come again in the same way in which you saw him go'. The Ascension, then, looks beyond itself, beyond the coming of the Holy Spirit, beyond the missionary centuries of the church, beyond human history, beyond time itself. It looks to the consummation of all things, when what is hidden will be gloriously revealed, and the whole creation pays homage to Christ as King. We have arrived full circle from the great Advent antiphons ‘O come, O come'. It is one truth that the tenses of the liturgical year proclaim. He has come. He does come. He will come. He is King of Glory now. One day he will be all in all. Today is a day of hope.
Three wonders mark this holy day. Today Christ is received into heaven and crowned as Lord and King. Today the gift of the Holy Spirit is promised to his disciples. Today the end of all things is proclaimed to creation in the coming of the Son of Man in glory. The only proper response is the one we have been joyfully acclaiming during these great 50 days of Easter. It's the response we must always make when we glimpse the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It's our joyful acclamation in the offering we make both in liturgy and life. Alleluia!
Copyright © The Chapter of Durham, 2006-2011. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission
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