Sermon for ASCENSION DAY, 2013 – HIGH MASS Thursday 9 May 2013
If I were to say, “Tonight I am going to preach to you about the Eucharist, the Mass,” you might well think: “That’s a bit of a cop-out. Can’t he think of anything to say about the Ascension? Why didn’t he get a guest preacher who could?” After all, Ascension Day, like Trinity Sunday, is one of those feasts that can prompt a failure of nerve on the part of the clergy; a temptation to invite a visiting preacher.
Well I am going to preach about the Eucharist and the Ascension, because they belong together. Each makes the other comprehensible and credible. This combination helps us, I think, to escape from some of the problems we have with language and imagery of “up” and “down” which suggests that the Ascension is about a move from one part of this creation to another – albeit rather remote one. It isn’t, but perhaps we might be helped if we try to think of the ascension in terms of present and future. Of presence in absence.
This is not an eccentric notion of mine. Ascension and Eucharist are joined together in John’s gospel, where objectors to the idea of eating Christ’s flesh and blood prompt Jesus to say: “Does this offend you? What if you were to see the Son of man ascend to where he was before!”
We find them held together too in the hymn “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus.” Which we will sing at the end of Mass tonight. It was written by the Bristol poet William Chatterton Dix, and published in his Altar Songs: Verses on the Holy Eucharist. Dix was a high church lay man who wrote this collection to remedy a shortage of Anglican eucharistic hymnody. In this hymn he achieved a triumph – especially when married to the `Welsh tune Hyfrydol, although here at All Saints, we also sing it to the tune written for it by Dr. Walter Vale.
The hymn refers to those words of Jesus which close St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” “Shall our hearts forget his promise, I am with you evermore.” The Jesus enthroned at the right hand of the Father is the Jesus who lived among his disciples and promised to send them the Holy Spirit as the Comforter when he left the earth. The same verse which speaks of his departure -‘though the cloud from sight received him, when the forty days were oe’r ‘ – also assures us that we are not like orphans because he is with us, fulfilling his promise.
The Ascension can seem to speak of separation and absence; as if we are left gazing wistfully into the sky, wondering where Jesus has gone. His story seems to have parted ways with ours. The Eucharist provides the continuing link with him, shows our stories as eternally joined with his in a communion of body and soul. So in this present age we are not left altogether without Christ or the hope and even the experience, a foretaste of the age to come.
Those of you who were at Evensong here on Sunday will recall that we heard the last words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel – those words of assurance “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The catholic tradition has seen them as fulfilled in the Eucharist as the means of Christ’s abiding presence with us; something we are reminded of not only by the celebration of the Eucharist but by the reservation of the sacrament in church.
The sacramental life of the Church is rooted in the Incarnation. But that doctrine speaks not only of the descent of the divine to the human but of our humanity being taken up to God – the Ascension. There is a two-way movement. So our faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist means not only Christ’s presence with us, but also our presence in Christ with God. So in the Eucharistic prayer we hear these words “as we eat and drink these holy things in the presence of thy divine majesty”
The Eucharist witnesses to what actually happened in the Ascension – the re-ordering of the creation to God in Christ. The world which came forth from the hands of God the Creator now returns to him redeemed by Christ.
The Eucharist is a participation in Christ and therefore in his whole redeeming work from conception to cross, from descent to ascent, until at his final coming all is offered up to the Father in such a way that God is truly “all in all.” The gathering of the local church in its liturgy anticipates the fact that all things are to be united in Christ: “things in heaven and things in earth.”
By bringing our human nature, once for all, into the presence of the Father, Christ sets us free for life in the Spirit. The Spirit in turn causes us to cohere around Christ, makes us ready to bear the fullness of the divine presence and so to receive the gifts of which we are otherwise incapable, including the gift of eternal life with God.
The Eucharist is the means by which we participate in that offering the ascended Christ presents to the Father – the offering of himself and the people he has won.
Talk of offering and sacrifice makes descendants of the Reformation twitchy. It seems to obscure the once-for-all nature of what God has done in Christ.
But all that we have to offer is given to us by God in the first place. He gives us the creation of which we are to offer the first fruits. But he also gives us his Son who alone is capable of offering himself in perfect freedom, and who is the first fruits of the new creation. He then is what we offer, as well as the one through whom we offer: “He on earth both priest and victim in the Eucharistic feast.” It is his sacrifice we plead.
This is not because God needs our offering, but because we need to make one. Sacrifice is for our sake – not God’s. It allows us to participate in the divine nature, which is one of giving and receiving.
The eucharistic presence of Christ aims at a transformation of the communicants, assimilating our fallen here and now to the glorious there and then of Christ, by means of a process which will only be complete in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We receive a new mode of existence, based on the Spirit’s work of generating and perfecting a communion of being with Christ in his Church. We cannot be joined to Christ without that conversion which is passing with Christ from the old creation to the new. We celebrate the Eucharist in the service of that joining and passing.
The stuff of this old creation is taken up into the new in the Eucharist. The conversion of bread and wine into his own body and blood is the act by which the incarnate son of God continues to affirm his own intimate connection with this world, while proclaiming the necessity of its passage from the old creation to the new.
The conversion of bread and wine is the sacramental means by which there is an advent, a foretaste, of the world to come. The act of blessing and sharing, consecrating and communion, becomes a participation in the body and blood of the Saviour, both as he goes to the cross and as he goes to the Father, and as he comes again in glory with resurrection power.
The dialectic about presence and absence cannot be content with the language of up and down. It is about conversion or transformation, about the power of the Spirit to bring into being a new creation out of the old; not about the movement from one place to another within the present creation.
Because the Eucharist is an advance on the new creation, it must be related to the future.
Western eucharistic devotion has tended to look back to the Last Supper and to the Passion. We have learned I think to see the sacrament more in terms of the resurrection. Christ’s risen presence with us. But that presence is dynamic not static. It draws us into the future; from the old creation into the new.
The Eucharist is also a means of sharing directly in Christ’s intercession before the heavenly altar. The real presence affected in the Eucharist celebrated on the earthly altar is, as the liturgy indicates, a presence in and with Christ in heaven, where he stands before God as the great high priest.
Dix’s hymn becomes a prayer:
Alleluia! Bread of angels, Thou on earth our food, our stay;
Alleluia! Here the sinful flee to thee from day to day:
Intercessor friend of sinners, Earths’s redeemer, plead for me,
Where the songs of all the sinless sweep across the crystal sea.
At the same time, it is the act by which he grants us a role in making the old new, through participation in his heavenly offering, and renders concrete the reality of the Church as his body in something more than a metaphorical sense.
Preached by Prebendary Alan Moses