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Ascending with Christ.

by Isaac Williams

from Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels for the Sundays and Holy Days

throughout the Year, Vol. I. Advent to Tuesday in Whitsun Week

Rivingtons, London, 1875, pp. 488-493.


Second part of Sermon XLII. for Ascension Day.
(for the first part of the sermon, on the Epistle.)
And He led them out as far as to Bethany, and He lifted up His hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while He blessed them, He was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. —ST. LUKE xxiv. 50, 51.

THE Scripture appointed for the Epistle to-day, and likewise the Gospel, consist of the narrative of our Lord’s ascent into Heaven.  And this is well for that event itself suggests all doctrine and all reflection connected with it.  The ordering of His Church, and the fact of His Ascension, contain everything....

In like manner the Gospel for the day is taken from St. Mark’s narrative of the same event, and the circumstances preceding our Lord’s Ascension.  It may be observed that St. Mark’s account of these forty days of our Lord’s stay upon earth after His Resurrection differs from those of the other Evangelists in this, that he does not enter into any point in detail, either of our Lord’s appearing to Mary Magdalene, or to the two disciples going to Emmaus; nor to St. Thomas; nor of His manifestations of Himself by the sea or on the mountain of Galilee; nor of His leading forth His disciples from Jerusalem to Bethany, before He was parted from them.  But, instead of describing any one of those occurrences, St. Mark, in a short and summary way, comprises the whole, touching slightly on particulars, and giving a general statement.  His account, therefore, is most suitable for this day’s Gospel.

Jesus appeared unto the eleven, he says, as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen Him after He was risen.  This probably alludes to our Lord’s first appearing, after the Resurrection, to the whole of the eleven assembled together with St. Thomas.  It was on the Sunday after that of the Resurrection.  And His “upbraiding them with their unbelief,” which St. Mark here mentions, may apply chiefly to St. Thomas, to whom more especially He spoke on that occasion; or it may also include those to whom on the Sunday before He appealed, saying, “Why are ye troubled, and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?" [St. Luke xxiv, 38.]  The general statement, however, in St. Mark, here implies that the disciples were slow to believe of their Lord’s Resurrection, so that it was to Him the occasion of reproof.  And this their incredulity adds to our faith. “For, on account of their doubting,” says St. Gregory, “the resurrection was shown by many proofs; so that, by their doubts we are the more strongly established.  For Mary Magdalene, who believed more quickly, hath done less for me than Thomas, who doubted long.” [In Ascen. Dom., Par. Brev.]

To this St. Mark adds the establishment of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, which He now made by His mission below to the whole world; thus, while He sat at the right hand of God, receiving “the utmost parts of the earth for” His “ possession.”  And He said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.  As St. Paul afterwards testified of “the Gospel being preached to every creature under Heaven.” [Col. i. 23.]  It is like the sounding of the trumpets, the sending forth of the heralds, the gathering together of the elect from the four winds, against the day of His appearing.  Meanwhile, during this its publication, it is the savour of life in every place, and also unto death.  As it is added, He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.  The Church visible and invisible combining together, stretching forth the cords of their tent to the ends of the earth, and the condemnation of them that receive not the witness of God. “‘Whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words,”— “it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Day of Judgment, than for that city.” [St. Matt. x. 15.]

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In My Name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.  Our Lord is here speaking of the first miraculous planting of His Church by the gifts poured down upon it on the day of Pentecost, that it might be established “as a witness to all nations ; “like a carrying on of His own wonder-working mission on earth; and like a visible sign to men of His sitting at the right hand of Power till all enemies are put under His feet.  “In My Name ;“ it is His own mantle falling in power from above on them who behold Him after His departure, [2 Kings ii. 10. 14.] when ascended on high; “His Name—through faith in His Name “—working without what it was doing far more wonderfully in the souls and hearts of men; casting out evil habits; giving a new tongue to praise Him; turning death into life, suffering into joy, sickness into spiritual health.

Such is St. Mark’s narrative of what our Lord did during the forty days, in which He was speaking to them of the things concerning the Kingdom of Heaven, and this he sums up by saying, in the same general mode of statement, So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.  Here then we have, in the Ascension and Session at the right hand of God, the confirmation and substance of all our faith. Our High Priest entering into the Holy of Holies, to appear in the presence of God for us; “On the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.” [Heb. viii. 1.]  Here is all our strength, all our confidence, while in prayer we wait without for His again appearing. [Ecclus. I. 19, 20, and St. Luke i. 9, 10.] 

And they went forth and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the Word with signs following.  Thus did He supply His Church with this threefold testimony; the witness of those who often saw His risen Body upon earth; the witness of those who saw Him ascend; the witness of the Holy Spirit that went forth in power below.  “That salvation,” says St. Paul, “first spoken by the Lord, and confirmed unto us by them that heard Him, God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles and gifts of the Holy Ghost.” [Heb. ii. 3, 4.]

“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth,” said our Blessed Lord, "will draw all men unto Me;" [St. John xii. 32.]  these words, although they may have been spoken of His Crucifixion, may apply in some sense to His Ascension also.  And when the disciples understood not of eating His Flesh and drinking His Blood, He said, “‘What and if ye shall see the Son of Man ascend up where He was before,” as if the power of His Ascension was connected with the Holy Communion.  And, in speaking to Nicodemus of the other Sacrament also, He makes the like allusion to His Ascension.  “No man hath ascended up to Heaven, but the Son of Man which is in Heaven.” Thus, my brethren, it is a great mystery, and far more than a figure of speech, when it is said of Christians that they are ascended, and are made to “sit in heavenly places together in Christ.”

What great constraining power to raise us thither?  This same Jesus, Whom ye see ascend—He bears in Heaven this Name.  Thus St. Gregory well applies to His Ascension the words of the Canticles, “because of the savour of Thy good ointments, Thy Name is as ointment poured forth.”  “Draw me; we will run after Thee.” [Song of Sol. i., 3, 4.]  They saw Him ascend to Heaven, and we, by faith, may see Him now ascended thither. “We see Jesus, Who was made a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour.” [Heb. ii. 9.]  We may see Him there with that prevailing Name.  They that see Him shall have power, and the pure in heart shall see Him.  Thus St. Augustin well says, in a sermon on this day, “Thou sayest unto me, Show me thy God.  I answer, Attend a little while to thine own heart; remove from thence whatever thou seest displeasing unto God; and He has promised to come and make His abode with thee.” [St. John xiv. 23. Ser. Aug. cclxi.]  If the taint of earthly affection be removed, the soul and spirit of man will, as the flame, again aspire and rise heavenward; and the body too, when it hath put off the old man and the burden of this corruption, will ascend also, together with Christ’s Body, to the God Who made it, and fashioned it anew like unto Himself.  ["Facile corpus levabitur in alta. coelorum, si non permat spiritum sarcina peccatorum."  Aug. Serm. cclxiii.]

I will conclude with the words of an ancient Bishop, once spoken on this day, “Let us therefore exult, most beloved, with spiritual joy; and rejoicing unto God with worthy thanksgivings, let us lift up the free eyes of our heart unto that height where Christ is.  Let no earthly desire depress those minds which are called to things above; let not the things that perish occupy those who are pre-elected to things eternal, nor deceitful allurements impede those who are entered upon the way of truth; but let faithful Christians so run through the course of things temporal, as knowing that they are but travellers in this valley of the world.” [S. Leo. Sermon. 72.  De Ascen. Dom. Brev.]