Wishing all of you a holy and blessed Feast of the Ascension! Here are the liturgical propers for the day, along with the sermon I preached on the subject just yesterday, on the eve of the feast:
The Ascension Day.
The Book of Common Prayer 1928.
GRANT, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
¶ This Collect is to be said daily throughout the Octave.
For the Epistle. Acts i. 1.
THE former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom be had chosen: to whom also he shewed him self alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God: and, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father which, saith he, ye have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judæa, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld. he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.
The Gospel. St. Luke xxiv. 49.
JESUS said, Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high. And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.
Homily for the Eve of Ascension
Wednesday, May 25th, 2022
Christ Church Anglican, Southern Pines, NC
The Rev’d Thomas H. Harbold
In the Name of God: ✠ Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen.
“And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.”
Today is the Eve of the Ascension, in our liturgical calendar, also known as the Vigil of the Ascension. And so, given the many and various challenges we are dealing with at present, and leaning on the tradition that the greater feasts begin on their eves, I hope that I may be forgiven for choosing to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension today, at our midweek Eucharist, on the eve of that feast. Be that as it may:
There are two great themes in the ecclesiastical year, dividing it more-or-less in half: the first of which is the dual cycle consisting of Our Lord’s Nativity, extending from Advent through Epiphanytide, and His Passion, extending from Pre-Lent through Ascension.
With the Feast of the Ascension, the story of His earthly ministry is complete: the Word of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, who took on human flesh in His Incarnation, and lived and died as one of us, though without sin, returns once again to the Father, taking with Him our own humanity, glorified by His death and Resurrection, into the very essence of the eternal and Triune Godhead.
As the late and Right Reverend A. Cleveland Coxe, onetime Bishop of Western New York, wrote in his excellent 1860 commentary Thoughts on the Service: An Introduction to the Liturgy,
“This day concludes the glorious circuit through which the Sun of Righteousness has run His course. He who was with God from the beginning, was with Him, in His divine nature, even has He walked on earth, or descended into Hades; but now His human nature is exalted to the right hand of the Father; and we see our own nature, in Him, advanced to the glory which is the common destiny of the redeemed: for He is ‘not ashamed to call us brethren,’ and we are ‘made to sit with Him in heavenly places’ already.
“This inspiring truth is summed up in the Proper Preface [for this day’s Holy Eucharist], in which the Church, like the lark, seems to take the wings of the morning, and to sing at the very gates of heaven her exalting hope, ‘that where He is, thither shall we also ascent, and reign with Him, in glory.’”
It is this that is the great significance, the great joy, and the great promise of the Ascension: not only that Christ ascended into heaven, to return to full union with the Father – which He never lost, in His divine nature, while He walked on earth with us – but that He took our human nature with Him; that, in the words of St. Athanasius, the great defender of Nicene Orthodoxy, “He became as we are, that we might become as he is.” It is in this feast, the feast of the Ascension, that we see the completion and perfection of the Incarnation, and it carries with it the promise that, first, Christ is indeed both full and perfect God, and full and perfect Man, His divine and human natures indissolubly joined.
In the words of the Creed ascribed to St. Athanasius, He is
“Perfect God, and Perfect Man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood. Who although he be God and Man: yet he is not two, but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God; One altogether, not by confusion of Substance: but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man: so God and Man is one Christ.”
Through the Incarnation, in which God descended from heaven and became man, and the Ascension, in which humanity was lifted into the Godhead, God and Man are indissolubly linked in the Person of Christ. That is, I believe, a cause for celebration!
And indeed, we are told that the disciples “worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.” But if this was the conclusion of the Incarnation, it was not yet, not quite, the conclusion of Christ’s interaction with His disciples: for we are told, in our Epistle lesson, that He would send to Holy Ghost to them, saying, “ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence”; and again, “ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judæa, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” But we will speak more of this at Pentecost, or Whitsunday.
For now, let us conclude with the words of the “two men… in white apparel,” who assured the disciples, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” Maranatha! Come, O Lord! And that right soon. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
While the primary observance today is, of course, the Feast of the Ascension, today is also the commemoration of St. Augustine of Canterbury, who in 597 was sent to England by Pope Gregory the Great to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. While he had many positive virtues, and while we English-speaking Christians owe him an obvious debt of gratitude for establishing the “Ecclesia Anglicana” (English Church), he had perhaps a touch too much of the classical Roman tendency to look down his nose at the local “barbarians,” as this account (http://elvis.rowan.edu/~kilroy/JEK/home.html) indicates… 😏
Augustine of Canterbury, Bishop and Missionary 26 May 605 The Christian Church was established in the British Isles well before 300. Some scholars believe that it was introduced by missionaries from the Eastern or Greek-speaking half of the Mediterranean world. Celtic Christianity had its own distinctive culture, and Greek scholarship flourished in Ireland for several centuries after it had died elsewhere in Western Europe.
However, in the fifth century Britain was invaded by non-Christian Germanic tribes: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. They conquered the native Celtic Christians (despite resistance by, among others, a leader whose story has come down to us, doubtless with some exaggeration, as that of King Arthur), or drove them north and west into Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. From these regions Celtic Christian missionaries returned to England to preach the Gospel to the heathen invaders.
Meanwhile, the Bishop of Rome, Gregory the Great, decided to send missionaries from Rome, a group of monks led by their prior, Augustine (not to be confused with the more famous Augustine of Hippo). They arrived in Kent (the southeast corner of England) in 597, and the king, whose wife was a Christian, allowed them to settle and preach.
Their preaching was outstandingly successful, the people were hungry for the Good News of salvation, and they made thousands of converts in a short time. In 601 the king himself was converted and baptised. Augustine was consecrated bishop and established his headquarters at Canterbury. From his day to the present, there has been an unbroken succession of archbishops of Canterbury.
In 603, he held a conference with the leaders of the already existing Christian congregations in Britain, but failed to reach an accomodation with them, largely due to his own tactlessness, and his insistence (contrary, it may be noted, to Gregory’s explicit advice) on imposing Roman customs on a church long accustomed to its own traditions of worship.
It is said that the English bishops, before going to meet Augustine, consulted a hermit with a reputation for wisdom and holiness, asking him, “Shall we accept this man as our leader, or not?” The hermit replied, “If, at your meeting, he rises to greet you, then accept him, but if he remains seated, then he is arrogant and unfit to lead, and you ought to reject him.” Augustine, alas, remained seated. It took another sixty years before the breach was healed.
Almighty God, who in thy providence didst choose thy servant Augustine to be an Apostle to the English people, that he might bring those who were wandering in darkness and error to the true light and knowledge of thee: Grant us so to walk in that light, that we may come at last to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
[Image (via Wikipedia): “The Saint Petersburg Bede, formerly known as the Leningrad Bede, is an early surviving illuminated manuscript of Bede’s 8th century history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People). It was taken to the Russian National Library of Saint Petersburg at the time of the French Revolution.
“Although not heavily illuminated, it is famous for containing the earliest historiated initial (one containing a picture) in European illumination. The opening three letters of Book 2 of Bede are decorated, to a height of 8 lines of the text, and the opening h contains a bust portrait of a haloed figure carrying a cross and a book. This is probably intended to be St. Gregory the Great, although a much later hand has identified the figure as St. Augustine of Canterbury.”
Fr. Tom adds: To be honest, it could be either one. A Cross and Bible would certainly be appropriate accoutrements for a missionary bishop! If it is intended to represent St. Gregory, that too would be appropriate, since it was he who sent St. Augustine to England, to convert the Anglo-Saxons to faith in Christ!]