THE SUNDAY AFTER ASCENSION DAY
One of the most beloved moments in our Prayer Book liturgy is that phrase “Lift up your hearts.” This phrase, with its ensuing dialogue between priest and people, is one of the most ancient features of our worship. This marks the point where we go “into high gear,” as the Church, having confessed its sins and heard the message of forgiveness, now pleads our Saviour's promise of His presence in bread and wine. This moment begins the great Prayer of Consecration, and therefore it is altogether appropriate that we burst into song as this dialogue is solemnly chanted.
“Lift up your hearts,” but how high do we lift them? This simple admonition, let us remember, has everything to do with the great mystery we celebrate at the end of Eastertide, the truth of our Lord's Ascension into heaven, where He now sits at the right hand of His Father, reigning, interceding, preparing for His final Coming at the end of history. The answer makes this clear: “We lift them up unto the Lord.” That is, we lift them up to our exalted Saviour Jesus Christ, our Advocate with the Father.
On Easter Day itself, in the most joyful liturgy of the year, we proclaimed this truth: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.” On Easter Day we hardly do justice to those words, as we focus then on His appearances to the disciples and their joy in seeing Him alive and active in their midst. But now we need to hear the message—the Good News—of His Ascension into heaven.
Without the Ascension, the Resurrection itself would soon become meaningless. The Gospel history would shrivel up into a series of “Jesus sightings,” as He appeared here and there but never for long. Without the Ascension, we would not know what became of the Risen Christ. We have every right to ask: Where is Jesus now?
His Ascension into heaven, returning to the glory which He had with His Father “before all worlds,” surely does not represent a separation from us or a loss to us. He was taken up into heaven not to abandon us, but “to prepare a place for us, that where he is, thither we might also ascend, and reign with him in glory.” Putting it bluntly, the Ascension of Christ is not His ascension alone, but is the final destiny of every Christian believer. He was raised; we shall be raised. He was taken up; we shall be taken up. When we lift up our hearts at His eucharistic table, we are sending our innermost selves on ahead, to the place where we will spend eternity with Him, both in our bodies and our souls.
Although Ascensiontide (which began on Thursday past and runs until next Saturday) has never managed to command the attention we pay to Advent and Lent, it has been honored with a wealth of splendid hymns. Our local tradition is to start singing these soon after Easter Day.
My favorite is the great hymn by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth, No. 103 in our hymnal, "See the conqueror mounts in triumph." Our hymnal is parsimonious in giving only three stanzas of this hymn. The original was much longer and contained some interesting lines worth quoting:
He who walked with God and pleased Him,
Preaching truth and doom to come,
He, our Enoch, is translated
To His everlasting home.
Now our heavenly Aaron enters,
With his blood, within the veil;
Joshua now is come to Canaan,
And the kings before Him quail.
Now He plants the tribes of Israel
In their promised resting place;
Now our great Elijah offers
Double portion of His grace.
Those lines require more familiarity with the Old Testament narrative than most modern church-goers possess. They also assume the ability to understand that narrative as closely foreshadowing the life, death and resurrection of our Saviour. This accounts for their deplorable omission. It would take more space than we have here to explain how Enoch, Aaron, Joshua, et al., are all previews of Jesus.
The greatest line in the hymn, however, is one we really ought to find jarring: In Stanza 3, we are forced to sing, "Man with God is on the throne."
God sharing His throne with Man? Really? Out of context, that might sound like the most blasphemous humanism, the error which tells us falsely that "Man is the measure of all things." But Bishop Wordsworth was simply stating the Catholic truth that in Jesus Christ, the Divine Person truly took our Human nature. When Jesus was taken up, He did not leave that human nature behind. He continues forever to be God and Man in One person. Even now, in His heavenly glory, He retains His humanness. That is how He can be a sympathetic high priest and our "advocate with the Father." Because the human nature of Jesus, which is our human nature, has been carried into the skies right into the dwelling place of God, in His Ascension we see already our own eternal destiny.