A Sermon for Ascension Day
by R. D. Crouse
St. Peter’s Cathedral, Charlottetown, P.E.I., A.D. 1994
“Our conversation is in heaven.”
Our conversation is in heaven. “Let us exult, Beloved,
with joy of soul, and rejoicing with fitting praise in God’s presence, lift
up the now free eyes of the soul to that place where Christ abides. Let not
earthly things hold here the souls that are called above; let not perishable
things fill the hearts that are chosen for external things. Let no false
allurements hold back those who walk in the way of truth”. Thus St. Leo the
Great [Sermon 74] addressed a Christian congregation fifteen centuries ago,
celebrating the festival of Our Lord’s Ascension.
The Scriptures tell us that Jesus ascended to the
heavens, and the Church has always celebrated that event as one of its
greatest festivals. But what does it mean? To begin with, the Ascension of
Jesus is an historical event, witnessed to by those “men of Galilee” who
were left gazing up into the sky – no doubt greatly astonished – as a cloud
received the Risen Lord out of their sight. What a strange and bewildering
time that must have been for Jesus’ disciples. An historical event, no
doubt, but of a very strange and wonderful sort. What could it all mean?
The Gospel lessons for the last few Sundays after Easter
go a long way towards explaining it. They are taken, as you will recall,
from St. John’s account of Jesus’ Last Supper discourse, in which he
explains to the disciples that he must go away. “It is expedient for you
that I go away,” he tells them, “for if I go not away, the Comforter (the
Spirit) will not come to you. But if I depart, I will send him unto you.”
That is to say, only in the loss of his worldly presence could they come to
know his presence as Spirit.
St. Augustine, in one of his Ascensiontide sermons
[Sermon 264], explains it this way: “He is taken away from their bodily
eyes, and they no longer see him as man. What was in their hearts that
arose from natural affections is now as it were mourned within them…When ten
days had passed he would send the Holy Spirit, to fill them with spiritual
love; taking away their earthly affection…They could not be filled with
spiritual understanding unless the object of their earthly love should go
from before their eyes.” All this grief, all the bewilderment, would be as
pains of travail, as new spiritual life came to birth in them. “That which
is born of the flesh is flesh,” Jesus told Nicodemus, “and that which is
born of the spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be
The Ascension is all about that spiritual birth. Jesus
takes humanity – his humanity and ours – and transforms it, elevates it,
endows it with new spiritual life. As an ancient hymn puts it:
Yea, angels tremble when they see
How changed is our humanity;
That flesh hath purged what flesh had
And God, the Flesh of God, hath reigned.
The Ascension of Christ proclaims and celebrates our
spiritual destiny as sons of God by adoption and grace. We are born of the
Spirit, and therefore we are spirit; and spirit cannot ultimately be
bound by worldly ends and earthly limitations. By the comfort – the
strengthening, transforming power – of the Holy Spirit of God, we are to be
exalted “unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before”.
“Our conversation is in heaven”.
“Our conversation is in heaven,” and in the Church’s
liturgy, we find ourselves engaged in precisely that conversation, “with
angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”. Here, in liturgy, all
the arts conspire to solicit mind and heart, to wean the soul from
worldliness. A door is opened into heaven.
In a secular age, and in an increasingly secularized
Church, such a liturgy as this perhaps seems anomalous, perhaps even an act
of defiance. Well, so be it, and so it should be. This festival defies all
our futile worldliness. Thank God for it. The Feast of the Ascension
affirms, and our liturgy today affirms a destiny and a spiritual calling
which can rest in nothing short of the infinite goodness and the truth and
beauty which is the very life of God. We find ourselves on the threshold.
Life up your hearts! Habemus ad dominum. “Our conversation is in
heaven, whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who
shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious
body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things
The morning shall awaken,
The shadows shall decay.
And each true-hearted servant
Shall shine as doth the day.
Then all the halls of Sion
For ay shall be complete,
And, in the Land of Beauty,
All things of beauty meet.