Thursday, May 5, 2016

why 'the Ascension' rather than the 'Lifting up'?

May my words be in the Name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It has become our custom to gather here on this high-up place in Rosmore to celebrate the Ascension of our Lord into heaven. We choose this mountainous location, of course, because it was on a similar elevated place that Jesus selected as the place to make his farewell to his disciples – his final post-resurection appearance.

Now, you might ask why we call it the Ascension? When a person ascends they do so under their own power, as it were; and Luke in both his Gospel and Acts uses words that are suggestive of Christ returning to heaven by the power of some one other than himself; in Acts the word used is generally translated as 'lifted up' and in Luke's gospel it is 'carried up.' So why do we say that he ascended, not only when speaking of this day but every time when we recite the Nicene Creed or Apostle's Creed?

Well, first let us clarify that to do so in no way contradicts Sacred Scripture. We may say this on at least two firm grounds. The first is itself scriptural, for in John's gospel Jesus speaks many times in his final discourse of his return to the Father in heaven – you will, no doubt remember that one such passage was included among the readings on the Sunday before last. And when he does so, he does so in such a way that makes it clear that he goes of his own volition. In John 16.4, for example, he says 'I am going to him who sent me' - 'going' not 'taken.' And at John 3.13 he himself uses the word ascended. It should also be noted that St Paul at Ephesians four-eight, referencing Psalm 68, speaks of Christ as ascending – and the letter to the Ephesians was written, as you know, prior to the Gospels. 

The second ground is theological. Luke and Acts do indeed say he was lifted up and carried up – but by whose power was he lifted or carried? By divine power – which is, as Christ is God incarnate, therefore by his own power. Those there on the day understood this – which is why St Luke in his gospel records that after his ascension his disciples worshipped him. And being good Jews they would only worship God. Therefore to refer to it as ascending is not only correct, but the most theologically accurate way of referring to it.

This might seem to be playing with language, but it is not. Those members of the early Church who were involved in the composition of the Creeds – the Apostles themselves, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Church Fathers who came after, wanted to provide us with a very clear theological understanding of who Christ was. He was man but he was also fully God; and to stress that part of his nature they wanted there to be no doubt that he returned to heaven by way of his own divine will and power. Remember that even as there was those who tried to deny that he was fully man there were also those who tried to deny he was fully God – and the Creeds were carefully formulated so as to put that question beyond all doubt.

This should also serve to remind us of the great debt we owe to the early Church. They not only passed the teachings of Christ down to us – often suffering death or other torments willingly as the price of their fidelity – but took great pains that what we received was the orthodox faith … they understood the importance of passing on to us not only the knowledge that our Saviour returned to heaven, but that he did so as God would do, ascending, lifting himself up through the exercise of his divine power, rather than merely being lifted up as a man might have been. They knew the how important a correct understanding of the Ascension was to a right understanding of who Christ was … and therefore how important it was for the salvation of souls.

We can be sure that a great many souls today are in heaven who would not have otherwise attained that bliss were it not for their divinely inspired care and attention. And so today as we celebrate Ascension Thursday in this beautiful mountain location, giving thanks for this further way in which our Saviour revealed his glory to us and the world, we may also rightly give thanks for all those who from the beginning took care that the orthodox faith should be passed down for generations to come. We may only pray that we also will continue in their work of passing the faith on to others as it has been passed down to us. Amen. 

No comments:

Post a Comment