Today we celebrate together a neglected and misunderstood moment in our Lord’s life and ministry. It is the Ascension, which concludes Jesus Christ’s work on earth. And we say we believe in the Ascension every time we recite the Nicene Creed, but I doubt whether we are always fully aware of what the Ascension entails.
Inasmuch as the Ascension is a conclusion, it looks backward; but it also looks forward, to the next great moment in the history of salvation: the coming of the Holy Spirit.
That the Ascension brings Jesus Christ’s work to a conclusion means that he goes back to the Father, as he himself says in verse 11 in today’s reading from the Gospel of John. John speaks frequently of Jesus coming from the Father, but he means by this something much more intimate than what it sounds at first.
We speak sometimes of someone sending us a letter. The letter has come from someone. But this is not what John is saying. Jesus comes from the Father more like in the sense that a child comes from her mother. Jesus is one with the Father, is with the Father from eternity, and as he says in verse 5 of John 17, he and the Father shared their glory “before the world was made.”
There is not an external relationship between the Father and the Son—as between a letter and its sender—but rather one of eternal and perfect unity.
So in the Ascension Jesus returns to that intimate fellowship that he has always had with the Father and always will have. He goes back to the Father from whom he has come and with whom he has always enjoyed perfect unity.
But this raises an interesting question, and that is how Jesus Christ can be present on earth, living a fully human life, and still enjoy perfect unity with his Father who is in heaven?
Thomas Aquinas has a thoughtful answer to this question; he describes the presence of the Son of God on earth as his being on a “mission.” And to be on a mission, Aquinas says, is to be present in a new way.
God is omnipresent, always everywhere and always has been everywhere and always will be everywhere. Similarly, the persons of the Holy Trinity are never divided from one another, certainly not by place.
But during the earthly mission of Jesus, the Son was present in a new way: present in time and space, living a full human life from conception in the womb of his Virgin Mother to his sacrificial death.
When he is raised to new life he is likewise raised in a new spiritual body, a body that while still present for 40 days in time and space also does not seem to be subject to time and space. During these 40 days, which we have just completed, the Son is present, making himself known as resurrected to his disciples, and giving them the final assurances and commands that he will have to teach them.
When he ascends then to the Father that in a way he never really left, he does so because his mission, his new way of being present, his mission has been in a word—accomplished.
But I said the Ascension looks forward as well, and so it does. Our reading from Acts tells us about one of Jesus’s most important final promises, the sending of the Holy Spirit.
It’s been pointed out to me that there must have been some suspense in the minds of the disciples in the interval between the Ascension and Pentecost. The shock of the crucifixion was dispelled by the joy of the resurrection, and now once more ambiguity descends: The Holy Spirit has been promised, but surely they cannot know what that means, how long they will have to wait, or what it will look like when the Holy Spirit does come.
This is why the Ascension also looks forward, to Pentecost. Because according to Aquinas, the Son is not the only person of the Holy Trinity to be on mission. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit embarks on a mission and therefore becomes present in a new way: present in the ongoing ministry of the church, present on thousands of altars around the world, present in the hearts of faithful believers of every race and place, of every language and nation.
There is one last thing that must be said for us to fully understand the Ascension.
When the mission of Jesus is accomplished and he ascends to his Father, he takes his perfect humanity with him. I said that the Son is present in the complete life of Jesus Christ, from birth to death to new life: It is vital that the Son live through all of human life because God intends to take all of human life into his own endless divine life.
In the Ascension, God assumes all of human life—with its suffering and pain and loss and death—and resurrects it all and brings it into the endless and unbreakable unity of the persons of the Holy Trinity. Having lived human life himself God eternally has lived it, and he now offers the promise and sure and certain hope of a deathless life he to all humanity.
Saint Augustine, in one of his sermons on the Ascension says it this way: “Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace.”
The Son was present in time and space, because we are present in time and space. Now however his mission takes on the universal scope it always had from the beginning: The Son is not somewhere at some time but is available to all people for all time.
Just as the Son has never the left the Father, so in a sense he never really left us.
It was a great blessing to pray this collect for the Ascension on Ascension Day itself, this past Thursday. “O Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abideth with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.”
This collect captures the point I want to make very beautifully, and it seems especially appropriate to our moment.
Jesus Christ ascended that he might fill all things: He ascends because his mission is accomplished and the universal and eternal nature of his mission is now clear.
And now more than ever we need the faith to perceive that he remains with his church on earth, even to the end of the ages. Amen indeed.