Resurrection, Ascension

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Cæli enarrant

Our faith is not some scholastic puzzle or elite curriculum, and certainly not reserved for the clever. Our faith unveils Truth in time; Truth incarnate and crucified; Truth, in turn, triumphant. And it endeavors to speak to God and of God, following his lead — and repeating after him, to guarantee truthfulness and accuracy. “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9).

Like all true prayer, the rosary draws us into conversation in a bid both for clarity and assistance from a higher power who is the higher power, the maker of heaven and earth, God Almighty. This is ensured by beginning with the creed and returning mystery by mystery to the Lord’s Prayer and the “Glory be.” The incarnate and resurrected Christ, like the Suffering Servant, is set within his biography as Word and Son, who with the Father and the Spirit lives and reigns, world without end.

Taking resurrection and ascension together — as the first of the last set of mysteries of the rosary, the glorious mysteries — permits us to emphasize at the outset a commonality between the two: that the Christian faith finally maintains and enjoins the possibility of return to God, following our prior departure from him. In an old philosophical way of speaking, the Western tradition has sometimes characterized this arc as an exitus and reditus, according to which the sweep of salvation history marks a continuous movement away from and then back to God. Borrowed from Plato, the images map neatly onto the biblical pattern of Fall and redemption, as the arduous journey of the pilgrim who is homeward bound. And the journey finds its north star, as it were, in the most characteristic of Christian claims, described by St. Paul as the non-negotiable lynchpin of our faith (see 1 Cor. 15:17): that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. He rose, initiating the exemplary movement of return; and then, as if to underline the teaching, he ascended. On both counts, to follow faithfully entails answering the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14), which bids us rise and ascend to the heights of the heavenly hosts, in whose company we may praise his name forever. In a sentence of Scripture appointed for Morning Prayer that perfectly captures the unity of movement in this season: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1).

In a way, our Lord’s return to the Father by resurrection and ascension corresponds to the principal sacraments that he instituted, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In baptism, Paul emphasizes, we are “buried” with Christ, so that we may be “also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). Baptism therefore functions as the sacrament not only of death to sin and self but of resurrected life in Christ — traditionally, the means of our justification by grace through faith. The liturgy bears this out, as we know, starting with a series of questions for the candidates (Do you renounce Satan? Do you turn to Jesus Christ? Do you promise to follow and obey him?). Having prospectively committed themselves to God, relying on his aid (I will, with God’s help), the celebrant prays that all who are baptized may live in the power of Christ’s resurrection. Finally, the priest thanks God for forgiving the sin of the baptized and raising them “to the new life of grace” — for which he also prays, anticipating or otherwise marking concomitant confirmation, that they may be given “the courage to will and to persevere,” sustained by the Holy Spirit (all from 1979 BCP, pp. 302-09). The placement of Holy Baptism at the precise pivot of the Easter Vigil, “now that our Lenten observance is over,” underscores the especial fittingness of our law of belief in this instance — at the high point of the Christian year — to which the sacrament always points. As the priest may say: “Through the Paschal mystery, dear friends, we are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to newness of life” (p. 292).

In turn, to ascend with Christ is to share in his perfect union with the Father and the Spirit, albeit as creatures who are being sanctified. The end of Christian life aims at a fullness of communion that will be the beatific vision, that is, eternal life with God or salvation, for “all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22-23). We commune with Christ in this life by eating his flesh and drinking his blood as a real participation in and foretaste of the end for which we pray, namely, “that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us” (BCP, p. 337; cf. John 6:54-58). We commune in hope that we may persevere, by grace, and by so partaking we advance in this cause.

Reasoning along these lines, Thomas Aquinas taught that God uses the sacraments both to heal and to elevate the Christian soul, and that the Eucharist is the greatest sacrament, both because it “contains Christ himself substantially” and because all the other sacraments are ordained to it as their end (Summa theologiae III 65, 3 c). Of course, we do not presume to come to the table of the Lord, because we rely continually on God’s mercy and forgiveness, and eucharistic communion especially calls forth a regular act of discernment and preparation (see 1 Cor. 11:27ff.). At the same time, we desire to receive the Lord, which “arises from love,” as Aquinas says. While a certain reverential fear is fitting, therefore, in keeping with the statement of the centurion (“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof”: Matt. 8:8), “love and hope, to which the Scripture constantly urge us, are preferable to fear,” says Thomas. Thus, “when Peter had said, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,’ Jesus answered: ‘Fear not’” (III 80, 10 ad 3).

Approaching our Lord in the Eucharist, we ask God to form us in the death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son, so that “we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell” (Collect for Ascension Day, BCP, p. 226).

“Rise, let us be on our way” (John 14:31).

Lord God, our heavenly Father, we praise you for delivering us from the dominion of sin and death and bringing us into the kingdom of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. We pray that, as by his death he has recalled us to life, so by his love he may raise us to eternal joys; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Christopher Wells


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