Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ascension Day

Recently, criticism was made on this blog of the "10-minute sermon". Ouch! All I can say in my defence is that as a scientist I like conciseness and getting to the point and as a homilist I tend to expand on what I have written when I'm at the pulpit anyway. Nevertheless, the fact is I'm not into long sermons as a rule. So, here's a relatively short one. :-)

“The end of all things is at hand, therefore be soberminded”. +

The Ascension of our Lord signifies many things. It shows that he has returned in his human nature to be with his Father in Heaven, in his unveiled, glorious presence. It shows that his own glory is bestowed upon that human nature which has been so elevated. It reminds us that our human natures too are destined to be glorified, “lifted” as it were, to that higher level of existence, to see God “face to face”. And the Ascension, far from being a mere motion away from the earth’s surface with dubious astronomical implications, is telling us that Christ is now “beyond” our natural physical cosmos but still looking “down” upon us, from a position of infinite strength. Strength to save. [Note that the Jews distinguished different “heavens” (1 Ki. 8.27: “the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee”, 2 Cor. 12.2: “caught up to the third heaven”). The place where God lived was not among the stars.]

But the Ascension says something else. Something that should fill us with both holy fear and joyful expectation – hope. As Christ ascended into heaven, the angels said to the Apostles, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will return in the same way you have seen him going into heaven.”

Jesus will return from Heaven. He will descend. This time, as the book of Hebrews tells us, not to deal with sin but to reward those who await him, whose sins have been forgiven already and who walk in His ways. This is cause for joy, there can be no doubt.

On the other hand, he also comes to “reward” with eternal punishment those who are the enemies of God and goodness, those who do not wait for him because they do not want Him. This is cause for holy fear, that we may take care always to be ready by being in that state of waiting for the Lord, our minds focussed on Him. This same holy fear should prod us to fear for the unrighteous, those without faith and love. And thus, fear joining with love, it should prod us to care for them spiritually by witnessing to righteousness and the Faith by word and work.

In other words, the ascended Jesus should not be considered to be far, far away, fading to irrelevance or forgetfulness. “[B]ehold, the judge stands before the door” (James 5.9). He is hidden, but we are not hidden from Him. He holds back, extending the time of mercy and second chances, but he will not allow evil free rein forever.

And yet, he also says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any one hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3.20). He is near, though invisible. He is present, through the Spirit and the Church. He waits, not in passive indifference, but with Divine love, power and wisdom pouring out upon us. And he waits with his own expectation, his own fervour, as we are supposed to wait for Him in Spirit-filled hope. Should not the Bridegroom and Bride yearn for one another? Should not the Church rejoice that its Lord and Saviour is so highly exalted and continues to operate “from a position of strength”, so to speak? Should we not also almost tremble with ardent anticipation since He is, while presently hidden, so close?

So, let us look at the Ascension with fresh eyes. It is a part of the Gospel that says a great deal that is often ignored nowadays: Judgement is imminent. Repentance is an urgent need. Jesus may be our friend, but he is also our almighty, risen Lord, radiant with glory, transcending our (often tame) conceptions of Him. (These are certainly reasons to be soberminded, i.e., serious, as the Epistle says.) But if we are penitent, have faith in God and love for Him and others, the Ascension is a reminder of something wonderful. For He returns from Heaven not to leave it but to bring it with Him, as it were, to renew all of Creation and exalt both us and it into something unimaginably and unutterably beautiful. Praise be to God! +


Fr. Robert Hart said...

The apparent critique of the ten minute sermon was simply part of an article I considered worthwhile to suggest, because it made several excellent points. A good preacher can say a lot in ten minutes, and a bad one can say nothing at all in an hour. Since most of my sermons have been posted here for more than a year, it is obvious that I am of the ten to fifteen minutes school.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Thank you, Fr. Kirby, for this edifying reading, this morning's inspiration for me, before I go work in the garden.

I prefer a pithy 10 minute sermon!