O God, the King of glory, who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless, but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Savior Christ is gone before.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is the last Sunday of Eastertide, which puts us right in between two great feasts of the Church Year. This past Thursday was the Feast of our Lord’s Ascension, which was forty days after Easter, since that’s how long Jesus remained on earth after his resurrection before ascending into heaven. And then next Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost -- fifty days after Easter -- when we’ll commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church. So liturgically speaking, we have already rejoiced that Christ has taken his seat at the right hand of the Father, but with Pentecost still ahead of us, our prayer is that God would not abandon us.
But our Collect also brings the Ascension and Pentecost together; the one in remembrance, the other in anticipation. As we pray it, we celebrate that Christ has been exalted “with great triumph” even as we pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s a reminder that Christ’s ascension into heaven is the event that makes Pentecost possible. We don’t get to proceed to Pentecost -- we don’t even get to be the Church -- until Christ has taken his rightful place at the right hand of the Father.
Now, I already preached on the Ascension in some detail at our mass on Thursday evening -- and so some of this will be a review for the group that was there. But it’s so important for us to grasp that the ascension of Christ is no less essential to the Gospel and our salvation than his life, death, and resurrection that preceded it. It is through the Ascension that Jesus is carried up in glory into an entirely new frontier. He quite literally goes where no human being had ever gone before. Because his ascension is a bodily ascension, Christ takes human nature with him -- the human nature that he had taken upon himself in the incarnation and will never cast away -- and thereby sets humanity within the life and love of the Trinity . Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is carried up into glory so that he can one day bring many sons to glory with him (Hebrews 2:10). And it is precisely his ascended humanity that makes our entrance into God’s presence possible.
So the most important thing to know about the ascension is that it was Christ’s whole person -- body and soul -- that was taken up into heaven; and therefore, that Christ remains fully God and fully human, even now, even after his ascension. Of equal importance is that Christ’s ascension was a movement from the old creation to a new creation altogether. He didn’t just go from one place in this world to another, but rather creates a new world by his entrance into glory . The ascension is a transformative event, therefore: Christ is the first to arrive into an entirely new realm in which to be human, and it is there that he is now preparing a place for us to join him.
Now, the Ascension is by its very definition about upward movement. As the Collect for Ascension Day put it, our prayer is “that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend.” It’s all about looking above and ahead, in hope and expectation, to where Christ will one day bring us to himself. But in the Christian imagination -- and especially throughout the whole of Scripture -- for every ascent there is also a descent, and vice versa. Moses goes up the mountain to converse with God and then comes back down to bring the Law of God to the people. Later on, Elijah likewise goes up another mountain to contemplate the will of God in solitude, before coming back down to proclaim the prophetic judgment of God to the people who had gone astray. And as we know from the Gospels, Christ himself frequently ascends various mountains for the same reasons; it’s on one such mountain that Christ is even transfigured before the apostles Peter, James, and John -- and, what do you know, it’s Moses and Elijah who appear on either side of the radiant Christ. You get my drift: ascent and descent, descent and ascent.
So with the ultimate ascension just a few days behind us, the whole plot of Scripture leads us to expect a corresponding descent. And this is just what we pray for today. “We beseech thee [to] send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us….” But what is this comfort that we expect to receive from the Holy Spirit? In our Gospel this morning, Jesus sums up what is kind of like his final prayer to the Father. He asks his Holy Father to:
...keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in thy name, which thou hast given me…. But now I am coming to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.
From this, we are to note that the comfort that will come to us with the Holy Spirit is Christ’s own joy, fulfilled in us. Later, he adds the request that God would "sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth."
So we have the joy of Christ himself to look forward to next week at Pentecost, but also our sanctification in the truth -- the truth that is nothing less than the Word of God. To sanctify something means simply to make it holy: to purify it and elevate it into participation with the divine life. And to consecrate something is simply to set it apart for the purpose of being sanctified. So here we have Christ asking his Father to perform both on behalf of his disciples. They, and we, are to be sanctified in the truth. We are to be enlisted in Christ’s own mission of descent and ascent -- just as Christ was sent into the world, so too are we sent into the world, marked by his truth. Likewise, as Christ consecrated himself for this mission -- setting himself apart for the sake of us -- we are set apart with him in his mission. His prayer to the Father is thus about our unity with him and in him. It is why his prayer is summed up with its opening words: “that they may be one, even as we are one.”
So as Eastertide draws to a close this year and we head into Pentecost and “Ordinary Time,” I hope that you can see this repeated theme that has come into full view by now. The resurrection of Christ is our hope, as St. Augustine said; though it’s an event is in now the past, it nevertheless transcends time and place -- it stands as the definite culmination of human life and of all creation. And if the resurrection is our hope, Augustine adds, then the ascension is our exaltation . Though Jesus remained on earth for forty days after rising from the dead, he had already begun his ascension to the right hand of the Father. If Christ has been raised from the dead, it’s only a matter of time before he takes his rightful place in heaven. These two events of Christ’s life -- resurrection and ascension -- are thus bound together inextricably, just as we are bound together with him. We are sanctified and consecrated in the truth. And we hope in our own share in his resurrection so that we too may share in his exaltation. To be one with Christ is to be one with the Father, for Christ and his Father are now and have always been one for eternity.
But for now, Christ’s prayer is not that God take us out of the world, but that he would keep us from the evil one. For now, we remain in the world, even as we are not of the world. But this places us in a kind of tension, a kind of dissonance, one that we are not able to maintain on our own. We need a comforter. We need the grace of God to guard us with divine protection from the evil one. And this is just what we anticipate as we look ahead to Pentecost. We do not keep up this religion of Christianity by our own efforts; it is not our own memory or personal interests that maintain this operation. We are one with Christ, just as Christ is one with the Father. And it is the Holy Spirit that embraces us together in this unity and oneness. The Spirit that brought our Lord from death and exalted him on high is the same Spirit that has descended to us -- or at least will descend upon us, liturgically speaking, next Sunday. The Holy Spirit indwells us even today; it is the Holy Spirit that guides and governs the Church “that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in
righteousness of life,” as we pray at every Office of Morning and Evening Prayer.
In short, it is the Holy Spirit that brings the joy of Christ within us to fulfillment, as we are sent into the world in order to be led into the way of truth. And this joy will be ultimately fulfilled on that glorious day when we are exalted unto the same place whither our Savior Christ is gone before. So set your minds on things above, for soon, very soon, the Holy Spirit will come from above and will not ever leave us comfortless. Amen.
[1-3] All taken from or inspired by Douglas Farrow's Ascension Theology.