From “Why Stand Ye Gazing Up into Heaven,” Sermons Preached in St. Paul’s Cathedral (1877)
Amazed and uncertain, what else could they do but to gaze up into heaven? Had he really left them, left them for ever? Or had he but retired for a moment, that he might array himself in is glorious majesty; and would he even now emerge from his celestial chamber, resplendent in glory and attended by countless myriads of his Father’s legions? So they stood transfixed, every face upturned and every eye straining, that they might catch the first ray of the descending glory, as it darted through the riven cloud
From this dream they were startled by the rebuke of the angels. There were something hard and chilling in the very form of address: “Ye men of Galilee;” not “Ye satraps of the King of Kings,” nor “Ye captains in the mighty Victor’s host.” So then the glory had departed. They were humble fisherman and peasants still, simple inhabitants of a despised province, doomed to a life of vulgar toil and commonplace cares.
A fit introduction this to the rebuke which follows, “Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?” “Face the stern relates of life at once. You have a work to do which will tax all your energies. There is this tremendous load of sin, under which mankind is sinking., and you are called to remove it; there is this dense cloud of ignorance, which shrouds the heavens from them, and you are charged to scatter it. There is a whole world to be conquered for Christ, and you must conquer it. What matters it to you when he will come — this very moment, tomorrow, next year, centuries hence? Cease to gaze up into heaven. Earth is the scene of your labors now; earth must be the center of your interests.”
The angels’ address is a rebuke to idle speculation in regions beyond the reach of human knowledge. It is a warning against substituting that which is visionary, for that which is real, in religion. It is more especially a denunciation of this over-curious spirit, in those provinces into which it is most eager to intrude itself, in matters relating to the Ascension, the Reign in Heaven, the Second Advent of Christ. At each recurring season of the Ascensiontide therefore it suggests a wholesome check to our thoughts. There is a highly practical way of regarding the Ascension; and there is also an eminently unpractical way. It directs us to the one; it warns us off from the other.
Joseph B. Lightfoot (1828-1889) was an English Anglican scholar and Bishop of Durham, whose works on the New Testament and the early Church Fathers remain influential. He served as professor of divinity at Cambridge and canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London prior to his episcopal consecration.