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The Ascension Day

Being the Fortieth Day After Easter Sometimes Called Holy Thursday
By W. J. Hankey
from COMMON PRAYER, Volume Six:  Parochial Homilies for the Eucharist 
Based on the Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer, 1962, Canada. (p. 80-82)
St. Peter Publications Inc. Charlottetown, PEI, Canada.  Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
"Christ ascended up on high and led captivity captive.” "I go to prepare a place for you that where I am ye might be also.” (John 14.3)
The Ascension of Jesus Christ is first a cause of pain, not joy.  Jesus warned his followers “Sorrow shall fill your hearts.” (John 16.20)  He promises “another Comforter,” (John 14.16) for the comfort of his own corporeal presence has passed into heaven.  As the Black Rubic has it, “the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here.” (BCP 1662) He is not here — the natural place of the resurrected flesh of the Son of Man is not here — but in heaven.  And so we who are ‘risen with Christ” are urged “to seek those things which are above where Christ is.” (Colossians 3.1)  Indeed we pray that “we may in heart and mind thither ascend and with him continually dwell.”  Yet this is surely a difficult and wholly unnatural attitude of heart and mind, for heaven turns out to be the very reverse of our current circumstances.

The images of the life of the world to come represent it as a topsy-turvy state of things.  In it, lions will not eat lambs, but will lie down with them.  There will not be debates over whether to spend taxes on guns or on social programmes, rather swords will become ploughshares.  The weak will not be crushed but will inherit the earth; the hungry will be filled and the rich sent empty away.  The last will be first, and the first last.  The foolish will be wise and the wise, foolish.  Everything will be instantly changed into the opposite of its natural character.  The mortal becomes immortal, the natural spiritual, the earthly heavenly, the weak powerful, the dishonourable glorious, and man will be like God.  The theologians tell us that, as the way we see things follows from the way they are, so our spiritual faculties will be reversed.  Now we know the body first and the spirit afterwards; then bodily vision will follow spiritual knowledge.  Now faith befriends our outward sense to make our inward vision clear; then bodily vision will merely increase the joy of spiritual sight.  Now we know God through his creatures; then we will know all else through our knowledge of God.  In this heavenly kingdom where everything stands on its head, our love will be reversed also; so we will seek first the Kingdom of God and his right order and all else will come after.

But this presents a great problem.  If heaven is just the mirror image of earth, if it is only the world put right, is it not then merely the image of our desires, the projection of our fantasies?  The life of the world to come could consequently have no more substance than the pitiful reality of this transitory world; indeed it would be nothing more than its shadow.  Faith turns for its answer to this dilemma to the resurrected Jesus.  Christ came to give life: life more abundant.  The world warred against his purpose with its ultimate weapon: death.  “The last enemy is death.” (1 Corinthians 15.26)  Death, if it is not destroyed, shows this world and its disorder to be the final reality; all else is mere shadow.  But death is swallowed up in victory.  The resurrection of Jesus accomplished his purpose.  It established the reality of life more abundant than the life we know.  His resurrection appearances displayed this more abundant life.

Space and time had no more hold on him.  He came and went at will.  “At evening when the doors were shut ... there came Jesus and stood in the midst.” (John 20.19) Clearly this is not the old life revived; he is not a corpse resuscitated.  But have we then only his spiritual part, his soul?  Is the resurrected Jesus a ghost?  The terrified disciples supposed they had seen a spirit but Jesus said:

Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself, handle me and see.  For a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have.  And he showed them his hands and his feet.  (Luke 24.39)
On this account, the Christian Church believes heaven to be the fullness of life.  The Church first saw with its eyes, handled with its hands, experienced, tested and only then proclaimed the fullness of life of the resurrected Jesus.

The resurrected Jesus is not some part or shadow of the Jesus who died, any more than it is Jesus revived only to die again.  All of him, the whole Jesus, has been transformed, made new, and glorified.  Nothing good has been lost; even the print of the nails and the wound in his side are still there.  Thomas came to believe because he had placed his finger in the prints of the nails and had thrust his hand into the wounded side.  Nothing has been lost; it is all there except the sin he bore, mankind’s falling away from God.  The resurrection is body glorious in spirit; nothing is left out.  It is the full, complete and perfect good.  It is life more abundant.  Heaven is the projection and image not of our present distorted reality but of this fullness of life.  The proper home of the resurrected Jesus is his Father’s heavenly Kingdom.  Earth cannot hold Jesus’ fullness of life.  The reality of the world has been transcended.  Therefore our Christian existence here and now is dependent upon the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is not the other way around.  In us the great reversal is already beginning.  By making the heavenly reversal the ruling basis of our present lives, we show our faith in the resurrection of our Lord.  We seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and its right order knowing that all else follows after.

And so the Ascension becomes Celebration.  By it man, the dust of the earth bound by nature to return to earth, rises to sit enthroned in heaven and to rule immortally over heaven and earth.  By his Ascension, Jesus goes to prepare a place for us.  Man possesses that which by nature he cannot have.  He gives man the freedom of heaven.  Heaven becomes the place where our hearts and minds ascend and where we continually dwell.  There we are truly at home.  Paradoxical as it sounds, heaven becomes the foundation of our present lives.  Indeed the whole message of Jesus was and is that through him the rule of heaven is coming in.  And this is why we must practice heaven’s ways and begin to become accustomed to its manners and strange modes.  How better to do this, than in this blessed sacrament of the bread of eternal life and the cup of everlasting salvation?  In it, by the power of the great reversal, earthly food becomes the bread of heaven.  How better to acquire the taste for the life of the world to come than to eat Angel’s food?  You begin to know as heaven knows when you find the bread and wine to be signs of resurrected body and blood.  You begin to love as heaven loves when you find yourself in communion with the love which is in the life and moving spirit in all things.  For then you are beginning to know, first, the Father in his Son and Holy Spirit to whom belongs all dominion now and in the ages of ages.  Amen.