“He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father”
They are words from the Creed but as taken more or less directly from the Scriptures. The Ascension and the Session of Christ are among the creedal mysteries of the Christian faith. They are set before us on this day, The Sunday after the Ascension. Often overlooked and ignored, these two doctrines provide a necessary corrective to the religion of sentiment and emotion, on the one hand, and the religion of morality and self-righteousness, on the other hand. We are reminded in the strongest possible way that the meaning of our lives is to be found in the comings and goings of God, not God in our comings and goings. There is all the difference in the world between these two perspectives: the one would make God subject to us; the other would place us with God in the revelation of his truth and love.
But these mysteries also instruct us about the meaning and understanding of spiritual life. Rather than the simple and false opposition of spirit and matter, for example, or spirit and logic, too, for that matter, the Ascension and the Session teach us that the spiritual embraces and perfects the material and physical world as well as the various forms of our reasoning. These two mysteries signal the radical meaning of human redemption which is about the gathering of all things to God. It is a kind of redire ad principia – a return to a principle – in which we find the true meaning of our lives.
In terms of the rich imagery of Eastertide, which has focused on Christ’s refrain “because I go the Father”, we learn that our comings and our goings find their place and have their meaning in the comings and goings of God. In the Ascension and the Session of Christ there is a kind of ending, a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, of triumph and joy. Christ enters into the Father’s glory and so into the eternal rest of God. “The end of all things is at hand”, says St. Paul, with a sense not of foreboding but of joy. The ending of all things is indeed celebrated in the Ascension and the Session of Christ. It is an ending in the sense of meaning and purpose. It is about the divine reason and purpose of our existence. From there we await a new beginning through the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit to keep us in the love and knowledge of what has been accomplished by Christ Jesus for us. It always remains to be more fully realized in us.
The Son enters into his rest having accomplished “the will of him who sent him.” He returns to glory and enters into glory. What does this signify for us? Precisely the meaning of our lives in prayer and praise; our lives in faith, hope and charity.
If the Resurrection is the fullest possible vindication of the true nature of our human individuality, soul and body as it were, then the Ascension is the fullest possible vindication of the spiritual nature of all reality. This has enormous consequences for how we look upon every aspect of our lives. The Session of Christ signifies that all things – all forms of natural and human endeavour, all forms of social and political life, whether it be the family, the state, our schools or our churches – all are to be seen as participating in Christ’s redemptive work. In other words, they find their redemption – their correction and their perfection; in short, their fulfillment – in the homecoming of the Son to the Father.
Everything is to be gathered into the primacy of that spiritual relation, the relation of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. As Jesus says in John’s famous farewell discourse which has shaped our Eastertide meditations, “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am there you may be also”. Its radical meaning is that wherever we are becomes our spiritual place, too; in short, our places are where something of the redemptive love of Christ is somehow known and shared, lived and proclaimed. The radical message of the doctrine of the Ascension and the Session of Christ is that every true form of human activity is comprehended and redeemed in the motion of the Son’s love for the Father.
For Christ ascends and enters into the rest of God in the fullness of our humanity which he has assumed, restored and redeemed. He bears the marks of the crucifixion. They are now the prints of love. Nothing of the past is lost or ignored. All is gathered into glory. Our humanity has a place with God. We have an end in God. The promised gift of the Holy Spirit keeps us in the knowledge and the love of God, come what may in the circumstances and accidents of our lives. It is what has been communicated to us through the comings and goings of the Father’s Son and Word. We have at once an orientation and a destination. We have at once a direction and a place. In prayer and praise, in Word and Sacrament, in sacrifice and service, we participate in the comings and goings of God for us and enter into the promise of his rest in glory.
Our lives are to be lived to God and with God. The Creeds say and the Scriptures say that Christ “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” without which he cannot be in our hearts and cannot be the ordering principle of our lives morally, socially and politically. Only if we honour Christ in his Ascension and Session can we possibly know him, love him and serve him in our heart and in our lives.
The Session – Christ’s sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty – recalls the sabbath rest of God after his six-day wonder in the work of creation. In both the sabbath and the session, what is meant is the enjoyment, the taking delight, in what has been accomplished: in the one, taking delight in creation itself, for “behold, it was very good”; and in the other, taking delight in the restoration of the whole creation through the redemption of our humanity in the risen and ascended Christ. Note that these connect us with everything else in the created order.
There is this difference, however. In the first, God takes delight in what he has made. In the second, there is the greater delight in the mutual love of the Son for the Father in the Holy Spirit, the love in which everything else finds its perfection and end. In the exaltation of the Son, there is “the exaltation of our humanity”, as the Fathers put it. We have a direction. It is to God. We have a home. It is with God. In the comings and goings of God, we find our purpose and our place – for our hearts and for all that our hearts contain. We place with God our hearts of sorrow and pain, of anger and despair, for instance, with respect to our concerns for the victims of the terrorist bombing in Manchester, England.
In prayer and praise, in the lifting up of our hearts through him who has lifted up all things to the Father, we find our peace, our purpose and our place. “At all times and in all places,” we offer our prayers and praises to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. We live for God, with God and in God.
The seventh and last sonnet in La Corona, John Donne’s remarkable sequence of connected sonnets, is called Ascension. The last line of each sonnet becomes the first line of the next sonnet and as such form a circle, la corona, a crown (not the beer). Thus the last line of Ascension is “Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise” which is also the first line of the entire sequence. Such is an ending and a beginning, a kind of circling back to God from whom all things come and to whom all things return. Such are the creedal mysteries in which we participate in prayer and praise. Such is our life in God and with God in Christ.
“He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father”
Fr. David Curry
Sunday after the Ascension 2017