Our Lord's Ascension
In this sermon for Ascension Thursday, celebrated this year on
May 28th, St. Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor, shows us
that by Our Lord's Ascension, our joy is made full,
and our faith and hope more wondrous.
THE MYSTERY of our salvation, Beloved, that which the Creator of all things deigned to accomplish at the price of His Own Blood, was, from the day of His corporal birth till the last moment of His Passion, steadfastly accomplished along a divinely decreed path of humiliation. And though while in the form of a servant there shone forth many signs of His Divinity, yet everything He did throughout this time tended to confirm the truth of the humanity He had put on.
But after His Passion, and when He had destroyed the bonds of death, which had lost its power encountering Him in Whom there was no sin, infirmity changed to Might, mortality to Immortality, humiliation to Glory. This the Lord Jesus made clear to the eyes of many, by frequent and clear proofs, until He ended in heaven itself the triumph of the victory He had won over death. And as at Easter time the Resurrection of the Lord was then the cause of our joyful celebration, so His Ascension into heaven is the reason of this day's rejoicing, recalling to mind and fittingly honoring that day on which our poor lowly nature was in the Person of Christ raised above all the hosts of heaven, above the ranks of all the angels, above the sublimity of all the Powers, to the throne of God the Father.
In this order of divine events we are rooted and founded, so that when That was withdrawn from men's sight Which was rightly felt of Itself to claim our reverence, God's grace became yet more wonderful, and faith did not fail, and hope did not falter, and love did not grow cold. For this is the power of worthy souls, this is the glory of those who truly believe, that they believe without faltering what is unseen by the eyes of the body, and there fasten their desires where sight cannot follow.
Where could this devotion arise in our hearts, or how should a man be justified by faith, if our salvation was rooted and founded in things we see with our eyes? It was because of this the Lord said to the man who seemed to doubt the Resurrection of Christ until by sight and touch he had examined the proofs of the Passion in His Flesh; Because thou hast seen me, He says, thou hast believed; but blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed (Jn. xx. 29).
II.. That we may therefore, Dearly Beloved, be made ready for this blessedness, Our Lord Jesus Christ, after He had disposed in order all that related to the preaching of the Gospel and to the mysteries of the New Testament, was, in the presence of His disciples, and on the fortieth day after His Resurrection, raised up to heaven. He withdrew for a time His Bodily Presence, for He is to abide at the right hand of the Father, until the times which have been divinely decreed for the multiplication of the children of the Church are accomplished, and then in the same Body in Which He ascended He will come again to judge the living and the dead. And so what was visible in Christ is now veiled in mystery; and that faith might be more perfect and more steadfast, vision was succeeded by revealed truth, whose authority the hearts of the faithful, illumined by light from above, would now begin to follow.
III. This then is the faith which, enlarged by the Lord's Ascension, and made firm by the gifts of the Holy Ghost, neither bonds nor prison, neither exile nor hunger nor fire, neither the fangs of wild beasts nor the tortures devised by the cruelty of persecutors, have overcome. For this faith men everywhere throughout the world have fought steadfastly even to the shedding of their blood; not alone men, but women also, and beardless boys, and even tender maids. This faith has cast out demons, banished sickness, raised the dead.
And even the Blessed Apostles, who had been encouraged by so many miracles, and taught by so many discourses, were yet terrified at the cruelty of the Lord's Passion, and had only with much hesitation accepted the reality of His Resurrection, were so greatly uplifted by the Lord's Ascension that whatever before had made them fear now turned their hearts toward joy. For they had turned the whole gaze of their soul upwards to the Divinity of Him Who sits at the Father's right hand. And they were no longer held by the fact of His Bodily Presence from directing their mind's eye towards that Being Who, descending on earth did not leave the Father, and ascending to heaven had not left His Disciples.
IV. It was then, Dearly Beloved, the Son of man, the Son of God, became known in a more perfect, a holier, manner: when He betook Himself to the majestic glory of the Father, and in an ineffable way began to be more present to us in His Divinity, as His humanity became more remote to us. Then a more instructed faith began by way of the soul to draw nigh to that Son Who was equal with the Father, without need to touch and feel the bodily substance in Christ, in which He is less than the Father (Jn. xiv. 28). For though the nature of His glorified Body remains, the faith of the believing began to be called whither the Only-Begotten Who is equal to the Father might be touched and felt, not by our bodily hand, but by the spiritual understanding.
It was because of this the Lord said to Mary Magdalene when she, representing the Church, drew near to touch Him: Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father (Jn. xx. 17); that is, 'I do not wish you to approach me in a bodily manner, nor that you should know me by the feel of My Flesh; I would have you wait for what is higher; I am preparing for thee what is greater. When I have ascended to My Father then you shall touch me more perfectly and more truly, for you shall know what you touch not, and believe what you do not see.'
And as the Disciples looked upwards and with rapt gaze followed the Lord as He ascended to heaven, two angels in shining white garments stood by them, and said to them: Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven? This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come, as you have seen him going into heaven (Acts i. II). By these words all the children of the Church were taught that they are to believe that Jesus will be seen coming again in that same body in which He ascended, and that likewise we cannot doubt that He to Whom from His Birth angels had ministered, to Him all things are subject. For as an angel announced to the Blessed Virgin that Christ would be conceived of the Holy Ghost, so also was it the voice of the heavenly choir that proclaimed Him to the shepherds New-Born of the Virgin. And as the first testimonies that told men He had risen from the dead were those of angels from on high, so likewise was it foretold by the ministry of angels that He would come again in the Flesh to judge the world; so that we may know what great powers shall stand about Him when He shall come to judge to Whom so many ministered when He was Himself being judged.
V. Let us then exult, Beloved, with joy of soul, and rejoicing with fitting praise in God's presence, lift up the now free eyes of the soul to that place where Christ abides. Let not earthly things hold here the souls that are called above; let not perishable things fill the hearts that are chosen for eternal things. Let no false allurements hold back those who walk the way of truth. And so should believing souls pass amid these temporal things as knowing they but journey through this world's valley, in which though certain things beguile us we must not feebly yield, but press manfully on our way.
To this the most blessed Apostle Peter exhorts us, and by that love for feeding the sheep of Christ which he received by his own threefold confession of love for the Lord he cries, beseeching us: Dearly Beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, to refrain yourselves from carnal desires which war against the soul (I Pet. ii. II). And for whom unless the devil do carnal desires make war; who when souls are striving towards higher things delights to bind them fast to the pleasures of perishable things, and lead them away from those seats from which he himself has fallen?
Against such wiles each believing soul must judiciously stand guard, that he may defeat the enemy in whatever he tries. And there is nothing more efficacious against the wiles of the devil, dearly beloved, than the kindness of forgiveness and bountifulness in charity, by means of which sin is either avoided or overcome. But this high degree of virtue is not reached until that which is its enemy is rooted out. For what is more inimical to mercy, and to the works of charity, than greed, from whose roots arise the fruits of all evil? And unless this be cut at the source it must follow that the thorns and thistles of wickedness will spring up in the field of that heart where this plant of evil flourishes rather than any plant of true virtue.
Let us then, Most dearly Beloved, stand firm against this so destructive evil, and follow after charity, without which no virtue can flourish; so that we may ascend by that way of love to Christ by which He has come down to us, to Whom with the Father and the Holy Ghost be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
* * *
Almighty God, grant, we pray, that
we, who believe that Thy only-begotten
Son, our Redeemer, rose this day to heaven,
may keep our minds fixed on heavenly things.
– Collect for Ascension Thursday