Ascension Day – May 21, 1998
The Ascension is in some ways a cruel event. For a period of forty days after the resurrection the Apostles and the community of faithful followers enjoyed the assuring and strengthening presence of the risen Christ. He appeared to them, ate with them, instructed them, and in large measure healed the terrible memory of his crucifixion and the awful emptiness of the three days that followed. And now, just when they had gotten used to his being around again, albeit in a new and risen way, he up and leaves them. To be sure he has promised that the Holy Spirit will come upon them, but here they are again thrown back upon their own meager resources, having to wait for what is yet to come.
In scripture, periods of time involving forty are seasons of preparation for some new or fuller expression of divine intent. Noah, Moses, the Children of Israel, Elijah and Jesus were all prepared for the stretching demands of God’s desire by forty days or forty years of testing and being made ready. Christ’s forty day sojourn with the apostolic community after the resurrection was such a season.
It was a time for the Apostles to be drawn more deeply into Christ’s risen life with all its risks, demands and unimaginable possibility. It was a time in which they experienced over and over again that burning of heart which the disciples on the road to Emmaus experienced when the risen One opened the scriptures and made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread.
It was also a time in which the question was asked of Peter, and doubtless of the others as well, “Do you love me?” The very question itself provoked a “yes” which overrode the guilt and shame of having denied him and run away into the night: a “yes” which rose up from the very depths of each of the Apostles in response to the summons of Christ’s deathless love. Their “yes” was then greeted with a command: “Feed my sheep.”
As the forty days unfolded, the risen Lord met the deepest and most personal truth of his close friends with the livingness of his own truth. Christ thereby prepared them to receive the confirming and enabling Spirit: the Spirit of truth who, as Jesus had told them, would guide them into all the truth. “[The Spirit] will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:12-15).”
Here we are faced with a paradox: What the Apostles perceived as Jesus leaving them once again, this time not by way of the cross but by way of ascension, was in fact a prelude to a deeper, fuller and more substantial knowing of the risen One mediated by the Spirit.
Knowing Christ is not therefore confined to an encounter with the historical Jesus — “If only I had been there and seen him and heard him speak!” — but can occur anytime or in anyplace through the agency and quite unpredictable imagination of the Holy Spirit. For it is the Spirit who works the presence of Christ in us using the events and circumstances of our lives and experience. And by virtue of the Spirit’s driving yet subtle motion, we find ourselves caught up into what William Law, an 18th Century Anglican Mystic calls “the process of Christ.”
The ascension spells the end of the Apostles’ knowing Christ as a physical presence, a fixed object that they can “touch and handle.” It leaves them on the threshold of a new kind of knowing in which Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life is known inwardly and with such force that they will, in time, be able with St. Paul to cry out, “The life I now live is not my own, but the life Christ lives in me.”
Here I am put in mind of an observation made by Carl Jung that “the Western attitude, with its emphasis on the object, tends to fix the ideal — Christ — in its outward aspect and thus to rob it of its mysterious relation to the inner man.” “Too few people,” he observes, “have experienced the divine image as the innermost possession of their own souls. Christ only meets them from without, never from within the soulâ¦”
Christ’s ascension opens the way for a new mode of being present, being with. And the agent of that presence is the Holy Spirit. “It is to your advantage that I go away,” Christ told his apostles, “for if I do not go away, the Advocate — the Helper, the Spirit of truth — will not come; but if I go, I will send him to you.” “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” What the Spirit takes from Christ is not information but life, life expressed as love and realized in the intimacy of communion whereby Christ dwells in us and we in him. In this way the Spirit works the “process of Christ” in us, not all at once but over time. Again and again we are shaped and shattered, transformed and conformed, by the events which overtake us, the choices we make, the struggles we endure, the responsibilities we bear, the joys that surprise us. “By means of all created things, without exception, the Divine assails us, penetrates us and molds us.” This sentence from Teilhard de Chardin bears witness to the ever unfolding process of Christ unleashed by the Ascension and carried out unremittingly by the Spirit, in us, in others and in the whole of creation.
Christ’s going away does not stand on its own; it is part of the larger reality of resurrection whereby all things, including our lives in their complexity and ambiguity, are caught up into Christ. Rising from the dead, ascending to the Father and sending the Holy Spirit are all one continuous act of being present to, with, and through the apostles. And it is as Christ’s disciples live out Christ’s command to “Feed my sheep” that they, in the very act of speaking or acting in Christ’s name, know that Christ is with them and that they are in Christ.
One hundred and fifty two years ago, in the one hundred and forty ninth year of the life of this parish, on May 21, being the Feast of the Ascension, this great building was consecrated. Its primary purpose then as now is to stand as a witness to the Christ who is, and to provide a place where men and women and children can encounter the risen One. This encounter takes many forms. The baptismal font and the altar bear witness to Christ’s relentless insistence that, according to Paul, we become limbs and thereby extensions in time and space of his risen and ever active body, and that our life be “hid with God in Christ” in such a way that the healing, reconciling, truth revealing Christ is present in and through us. The eucharistic meal deepens and strengthens this fundamental and ever unfolding relationship, as Christ takes to himself all that we are and have yet to become, and makes our lives the medium of his ongoing self-disclosure. Christ does this by incorporating and making use of our limitations and imperfections, and when we protest he gently but firmly informs us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” It is not our perfection, but our availability that Christ seeks.
This building contains other signs of encounter as well: the lectern and pulpit where the risen One meets us in the proclamation and opening of scripture and causes our hearts to burn within us as the word which is “alive and active and sharper than a two-edged sword” pierces us and speaks to our heart. Then there are the people and the various ministers of the liturgy who together represent Christ’s risen body, and are ministers of Christ’s real presence to one another. The exchange of the Peace bears witness to this truth: it is a ritual way of saying, “I greet the Christ in you in the name and power of the Christ who dwells in me.” The Peace is also a way of reminding ourselves that as important as this magnificent building may be we are, by virtue of Christ’s dying and rising and all that flows from it, “living stones” being built into a “spiritual house.” This means that the church is us and is constituted and built up by what we allow the risen and ascended Christ to in live out in us.
As we keep this feast and give thanks for the dedication of this church, and for all the life and faithful ministry that have flowed from it, may Christ draw us anew into the full force of his risenness, give us the courage to welcome his presence in all its paradoxical and ever stretching and expanding forms, and may he imbue us through the Spirit with his own urgent longing to heal and make whole the broken world in which we live. Amen.
The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA