Thursday, 21 July 2011

Ascension 2011 - posted a bit late, I fear

"God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises!" +In nomine...

Fitting, that I should preach this sermon facing the great statue on the East wall. Our Lord may have been rather better dressed at the Ascension, but otherwise, our statue fits St Luke's description well: "He lifted up His hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while He blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven."

But why? Why should Our Lord ascend to share God's throne in heaven when He could have ruled so effectively here among us? The sort of earthly rule, perhaps, that David prophesies in his last words: "When one rules justly over men, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning." But Jesus, typically contrary, rises up instead into the clouds.

Of course, we have the theologian's textbook answer: Christ ascends blessing creation in order to unite heaven and earth. Ah! So there we go, the end. Amen. Sorry: you haven't got off that lightly. Because quite clearly, that isn't the end of the question. We are still right here on earth, and even the delights of Selwyn College are not enough to make us think that we're in heaven yet.

Excuse the platitude, but summer in Cambridge is a time of transition. While you're sitting in libraries writing up dissertations or cramming for exams, as like as not your mind is all too often elsewhere. In the future. Dreaming up exotic holiday plans, worrying about starting your new job (or getting one), imagining curtains for your swanky new pad.

There is something of this ambivalance, this double-mindedness, about the Ascension. Our glorious Reformer Archbishop Cranmer clearly had this ambivalence in mind when he drafted the Collects, for Ascension Day, and for today, the first Sunday after. The former leaves us like those first Apostles who witnessed the Ascension, feet on earth but hearts and minds gazing into the firmament; while the latter tells of loneliness and separation, yet pleads for later comfort.

The Collect for Ascension Day, which Cranmer modified from the Gregorian sacramentary, has a mystical edge quite alien to the general proclivities of the Reformation: 'Like as we do believe thy only begotten son our lord to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell.' Note that again: we pray to ascend 'in heart and mind' to be with Christ in heaven. No trifling request, given where Christ is: seated on the heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father. We are to rise with Him, as Ephesians has it, "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named:" to the heavenly Kingdom beyond even David's prescience.

Protestant orthodoxy tends to emphasise the unbreachable divide between our fallen world and the perfect realm of the Divine. Yet this Collect expresses a desire for mystical union between the two. Now, Cranmer would not have us pray for anything if it did not have firm scriptural support. And this he finds, a little further on in Ephesians, in the crucial sixth verse of chapter 2: God 'raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.' If Anglican theology rests not so much on the principle of 'sola scriptura' as 'tota scriptura,' and we are to take Scripture in its entirety, then we, no more than Cranmer, have any right to ignore the implications of this verse. We must live with the paradox that while we remain on earth, we are at the same time and already in some sense ascended into heaven; our humanity deified by a man on God's throne, so that through the blessing of Christ ascendant, Creation and the uncreated are mystically bound.

The bit about 'minds,' it must be said, was Cranmer's innovation. The original Collect spoke purely of the heart's ascent. And so it seems to me that the locus of this mystical union lies precisely there. The author of the Cloud of Unknowing puts it succinctly: "Therefore saith Saint Paul...: Although our bodies be presently here in earth, nevertheless our living is in heaven. He meant their love and their desire. (...) And surely, as verily is a soul there where it loveth, as in the body that doeth by it and to the which it giveth life." Our soul is with the object of its desire as much as in our body: and that desire must ever be directed towards Christ on His heavenly throne. Love, desire, eros, yearning, of God for us and us for God, is the invisible cement that binds Creation to its uncreated source. --- Yet, at the same time, we must resist the temptation, like the Apostles, to stand gawping in mystic revery. Acts 1.11: the white-robed men (angels?) are sent to make a pointed reminder: 'Why do you stand looking up into heaven?' Or in modern parlance, perhaps, 'get your heads out of the clouds!' And this, in a way, is the message of today's Collect, just three days after the Feast of the Ascension; modelled by Cranmer on the antiphon for Vespers of Ascension Day supposedly uttered by St Bede on his deathbed:

'O God, the king of glory, which hast exalted thine only son Jesus Christ, with great triumph into thy kingdom in heaven; we beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send us thine holy ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our saviour Christ is gone before.'

No time for mysticism here. Christ is gone! And we are left gazing upwards, slack-jawed. Leave us not comfortless, O God!

With the benefit of hindsight, we, unlike the Apostles, know the rest of the story. And so Jesus' comments to them in Jn 16 and 14 are less obscure to us: 'I will not leave you desolate. I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth: you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.' We are not left staring, lost and dumb, at a God as unknown and invisible as before. We look to the hope of glory uncreated, incomprehensible, but are not left without the means of grace to find our way. The Christian faith is grounded even after the Ascension in the historic, concrete reality of Christ Incarnate; ours is a faith which embraces the material and the here-and-now. And so as Christ leaves, completing our redemption, He opens the way for Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit, for the gift of divine love and the establishment of its vehicle, Christ's Church on earth. 'You know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.' Our hearts ascended, we see Him still, dwelling within ourselves and each other. Our minds ascended, we know Him still by the breaking of the bread: and as the bread turns into His body, the wine into His blood, so our sorrow turns into joy and our hearts settle deeper in their true, heavenly home.

Christ ascended to reign: beyond the power of mortal reign, in the invisible kingdom of love. A rule not of compulsion and command, not contraining us to serve Him by demonstrations of power, but in the free response of love, the love of that Spirit which He had the Father send and plant in human hearts. Indeed, those who reduce our faith to external commandments stand against the Ascension of Christ: because they deny that His Spirit is now internal to us, indwelling, and that His true commandment is love.

"When one rules justly over men, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning," said David in his dying words. Christ rose into the clouds yet to reign as a brighter sun than any earthly king. Let me finish with some words by John Keble:

"We must not stand to gaze too long,
Though on unfolding Heaven our gaze we bend
Where lost behind the bright angelic throng
We see Christ's entering triumph slow ascend.

"No fear but we shall soon behold,
 Faster than now it fades, that gleam revive,
When issuing from his cloud of fiery gold
Our wasted frames feel the true sun, and live."


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