An Ascended View

Ascension by Holiday
“The Ascension” by Henry Holiday, The Church of the Holy Trinity, NYC

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day.  The lectionary readings (for Ascension Day) are Acts 1:1-11 Psalm 93Ephesians 1:15-23, and Luke 24:44-53

Listen to the sermon HERE.

May 4 has come and gone, but in some ways, I think it’s too bad that May 4 is not Mother’s Day.  That’s because May 4 in the Church calendar is the feast day for St. Monnica.  Monnica was a fourth century holy woman perhaps known best because she was the mother of St. Augustine. Long before Augustine wrote the City of God or his Confessions, long before he became Bishop of Hippo, and before he was regarded as one of the wisest and most thoughtful theologians of the Church, Augustine was Monnica’s boy, and he was a mess.  He ran with the wrong crowd, he got married to a wealthy older woman to increase his social standing, he kept a mistress on the side and ignored her when she became pregnant, and on, and on, and on.  All the while, his mother Monnica prayed for him.  She cried for him, she went to see the local bishop about her son, but through it all, she prayed.   Augustine described his conversion (like the conversion of his father) as being largely due to the witness of Monnica.  As he writes, “[My mother] never let me out of her prayers …”

St. Monnica viewed her son in his possibility, in his potential, through the eyes of God.  I think we could say that Monnica was able to view her son from an “Ascended view of things.”

In this morning’s first reading we hear about the Ascension of Jesus. Always observed 40 days after Easter, Ascension Day was technically on Thursday, but today we continue to reflect on that phrase we say every week in the Nicene Creed:  Jesus has ascended into heaven.

The scriptures suggest that Jesus was taken from his disciples, taken up in the mystery of a cloud, and he left them.  We can look at the Ascension window in our transcept for a traditional understanding of this passage. He was lifted up. He was raised up, he was exalted. Not only is this an extension of his being lifted up on the cross for our sake, but really, it’s an image that explains the way Jesus sees others through the Gospels. And it’s a way that describes how Jesus enables US to see others.  Jesus sees from an ascended view of things.

His whole life, Jesus seems to view people from another perspective, from the perspective of his father in heaven. Though Jesus is among people—he walks the streets, he breathes the same dust, he eats the same food, in a hug or an embrace he the touches and holds the same human flesh; he never loses that ability to SEE from another point of view.

Throughout, he seems to operate from a different height. He sees things others don’t see. And he does not spend much time looking close-up at some of the things that the religious leaders of his day took great pains to stare at, dwell upon and magnify.

Jesus looked at people differently. When Zaccheus the tax collector approached Jesus, the other people saw Zaccheus as a horrible little man, a cheat, a swindler, and a sell-out to the Romans. But Jesus saw Zaccheus as a child of God. Jesus made no excuses for Zaccheus, but he called him to a new way of life.

The woman accused of adultery was seen by the crowd as no good, beyond being helped, with no self-respect and no sense of morality. But Jesus saw her differently, he saw her not by romanticizing her victimhood, but by calling out of her the very best that she could become.

With almost everyone he encounters, Jesus sees with God’s eyes, as though from a higher place. All the while, Jesus remains rooted, feet firmly on the ground, noticing even the lowly and the earthbound.

Through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus has opened for us the way to heaven. With his Spirit in us, we, with the Grace of God, we too can catch a glimpse of his perspective.

Yesterday, during the Mayfair, at one point I decided to go up into the rector and take some pictures from a little different angle.  From that point, things looked different.  I couldn’t see the cranky vendor who thought the whole fair should be organized for his convenience.  I couldn’t quite make out the impatient parents I had seen who were tired of their child’s fascination with the bouncy castle, had errands to run, and wanted to go.  And I couldn’t see that one person who comes every year and expects to get a bargain from a bargain that has already been marked down from someone’s long ago “bargain.” Things look different from an “ascended view.”

What would it be like if we lived day to day, with the ability to see other people not in their failures and shortcomings, but in their potential? What would it be like for us to see ourselves, not the way we felt in elementary school, but as God sees us, not denying our faults, but seeing them in the context of our potential as children of God, capable of love that changes the world?

Austin Farrer, an English theologian who died in the 1960’s, writes of the ascension of Jesus by first reminding us of another ascension into heaven, the ascension of Elijah the prophet. It was Elijah who was thought to have ascended into heaven on the crests of flaming horses, horses on fire.

But with Jesus, the flame that carried him into heaven is what Farrer calls the “flame of Christ’s own sacrifice.” Look at the flame of a candle, he says, the flame always is drawn upward.

All his life long Christ’s love burnt towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire, until he was wholly consumed in it, and went up in that fire to God. The fire is kindled on our altars, here Christ ascends in fire; the fire is kindled in the Christian heart, and we ascend. He says to us, Lift up your hearts; and we reply, We lift them up unto the Lord. [The Crown of the Year, p. 34.]

One way the church observes Ascension Day is quiet but symbolic.  We extinguish the Paschal Candle, that great Light of Christ that we first burned at the Easter Vigil, and we move the candle to a place that is slightly less central.  The symbol doesn’t mean that the Light of Christ is any less important, but instead, that the Light of Christ—with the Ascension—is left for us to bear in the world.

As we lift our hearts to God, it is especially appropriate that we claim for ourselves the full power of the Ascension.  We can give thanks for the mothers and the mother-like people who have kept an “ascended view” of us, when we most needed it.  And we can ask God to lift us up higher, to give us a new perspective on one another, to see ourselves more like God sees us, and finally, to be lifted into the very presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.




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