THE ASCENSION DAY
Lift your heads, eternal gates! Wide unfold the radiant scene; Take the King of Glory in! Alleluia!
What a grand hymn we just enjoyed. A wonderful gift given to the church form Charles Wesley. Lift your heads, eternal gates! Wide unfold the radiant scene. Take the King of Glory in! Alleluia! Who is this King of Glory? And that’s the question isn’t it? The Ascension Day puts this question to us, a most important question worthy of contemplation as we celebrate the risen Christ’s entering into the courts of the highest heaven and taking his rightful place of honor at the right hand of the Father. You see, the upward trajectory of Easter morning comes to its glorious climax as heaven takes in the King of Glory!
When we think of Jesus does the mind evoke a picture of the heavenly Ascended one? Or (and I suspect this may be closer to the truth) do we immediately think of the earthly Jesus, the accessible and familiar Jesus of the Gospels, who walked among and ministered the grace of God to so many in need? It certainly makes sense. As humans it’s only natural that we first think of the man Jesus, gravitating to his earthly life and ministry. Because we relate to him. There’s common ground and tangible points of human connection. We can easily relate to him as the dutiful son, the faithful loving friend, or the wise teacher. And on a more personal level, as one who also experienced the depths of sorrow, one unjustly maligned or betrayed as one who shed tears for wayward Israel.
For we’ve experienced similar things. We too have been abandoned by friends, wrongly accused, experienced hatred, or been misunderstood and so on... the very things which make up unhappy side of the human experience. And yet, Jesus isn’t a savior who only walked in our flesh, or merely the Son of God who was raised from the dead. No, he is much more! For His rising from the grave did not cease on earth: the Son of God ascended into heaven, being caught up in the cloud on the day of the Ascension, where he now sits in the place of prominence at the right hand of the Father: the living and reigning King of all. And yet, I suspect, the glorified ascended life of the Lord occupies very little of our everyday thought and attention.
In his wonderful book The Ascended Christ, Henry Barclay Swete, (which I commend to your reading) poignantly observes,
The human life of the incarnate Son, between the Nativity and the Return, divides itself into two unequal and dissimilar parts. The first is the short period during which the Lord lived on earth in the flesh; the second, the heavenly life, which according to our measure of time already approaches nineteen centuries… and yet so little study and contemplation is devoted to his Ascended life.
His point being, we tend to spend more time contemplating Jesus’ earthly life and far less on the greater and higher existence our Lord. On this Day of the Ascension, we rejoice and recognize Jesus as the Ascended One. And so, we let us ask, Who is this King of Glory? The Ascension answers: it is the risen and seated Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Kingly-Priest actively ruling and mediating, presently gathering the nations to himself through the proclamation of the church and subduing his enemies under his feet. To him we lift our prayers, up to heaven, and it is there with him, as this evening’s Collect directs us, where we pray for God to give us the desire to ascend in heart and mind.
Lift your heads, eternal gates! Wide unfold the radiant scene; Take the King of Glory in! Alleluia!
This verse taken from Wesley’s hymn ought to sound familiar as it is taken from the twenty-fourth Psalm, todays appointed Psalm for Evening Prayer which the Apostles and earliest Christians understood by the ministry of the Holy Spirit to be speaking of Messiah, Jesus Christ. They interpreted this psalm, and all of the Old Testament, through the lens of Christ’s bodily resurrection and Ascension. Beginning in verse seven the Psalmist writes,
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of Hosts, he is the King of glory (Ps. 24:7–10)
Here the psalmist commemorates the glorious day recorded in the Old Testament book of First Kings when the priests and Levites carried the ark of the Lord’s covenant from the house of Obed-Edom into its rightful place within Solomon’s Temple, identifying the King of glory as the only one worthy to enter this most holy place. The understood that the Temple was the abode of God, the place where Heaven and earth collide, the heavenly tabernacle on earth, the rightful place for the ark of the presence to reside; for there is only one King, one alone, worthy to enter heaven.
Just picture the grand hosts of priests arrayed in glorious vestments with the Levites carrying the Ark towards Solomon’s temple and as they come upon the gates, demand admission for the Ark of the Lord to come into its rightful place shouting: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors!” The temple attendants within, responding to the request “who this King of glory?” And they reply, “It is the Lord, strong and mighty: this is the King of Glory!”
Now, let this form and conceive a picture in the mind of Jesus’ heavenly coronation... attended by a host of ministering angels, who, on their arrival at the portals of heaven, demand admission for their Divine Master. The angels within inquire who such a man can be on whose behalf such a claim is made. Twice is the inquiry made, and twice the answer is returned; and on the entrance of the Lord into those heavenly mansions the whole celestial choir unite in one exulting acclamation, “The King of glory! the King of glory!”
Who is this King of Glory? It is Jesus, who alone won the victory over death and Satan. He, “is the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.” You see, Jesus is the only one who can rightfully claim heaven as his own. Who may ascend up to the house of the Lord? Jesus the righteous. For him and him alone do the gates of heaven lift up their everlasting doors. The eternal King is the only one who walks through eternal doors. Friends, before the world was made the Ascended King dwelt in glory with the Father. From heaven the Son descended. Casting off the riches of heaven, he came down and took humanity upon himself and “was found in fashion as a man.” He that was above joyfully became low. In love, he humbled himself and became a man to redeem you and me from the bondage of sin and the stronghold of Satan. By death he destroyed death, for the suffering and sorrow of the cross was his very means of victory: “through death he overcame him that had the power of death.”
At Golgotha he not only defeated the principalities and powers of hell but mocked them, “he put them to open shame by triumphing over them” by his death. A cosmic victory paradoxically won by what appeared to be defeat, his willful and obedient death: O’ the depths of the riches and wisdom of God! Christus Victor, the triumphal one who alone can rightfully claim the mansions of heaven, for his Father promised that he would not leave him in the place of the dead but would raise him to his rightful place by his side. And there, every enemy will be made a footstool for his Kingly feet to rest upon. With the victory won nothing remained to complete the glorious work but the installation of Messiah on his promised throne. Having overcome death Jesus was granted to sit at the father’s right hand, and, beloved, to those who overcome in Christ, is promised the hope of exaltation as well (Rev 4:21). For my friends His victory is our victory! We too will one day reign with him and judge the angels, even the whole world.
Who is this King of glory? It is Jesus, whose dominion is over heaven and earth. In a vision, the Prophet Daniel saw a Son of Man ascending into heaven after having defeated the enemies of God,
One like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed (Dan 7:13-14).
Jesus’ receiving of the Kingdom and Lordship over it is intrinsically connected with his Ascension. The heaven is his throne and the earth his footstool from where he presently rules the entire cosmos. With the royal coronation complete, there is nothing outside of his authority and dominion, and so with St. Paul we rejoice, “for of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen!” And though Jesus has sat down in heaven we must not think he has ceased to rule or extricated himself from the redemptive mission of gathering the praise of the nations through his Spirit enabled church, or disengaged from the cares and concerns of his people: you and me. Quite the opposite. In his Revelation, St. John sees the risen Jesus walking in and amidst the seven lamp stands which represent the church, exhorting and encouraging, a Kingly-Priest actively concerned for his Bride. He has not abandoned us as orphans, no! The seated, reigning Christ is our defender, our strength and protector, our advocate, the King of glory who reigns in heaven and in earth, the one who will come again to put every injustice to right, erase every sorrow, and wipe every tear.
Who is this King of Glory? It is Jesus our high priest. Having ascended into heaven, Jesus is the perfect sacrifice forever satisfying the Father, he alone is the continual propitiation ever present before God the Father. Having shed his blood on the cross, he ascended into heaven, executing the priestly office by carrying his perfect blood through the heavenly veil, and sprinkling it upon the Mercy-seat, offering the incense of continual intercession for you and for me. “By his own blood,” the Ascended one” has entered into the Holy Place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” Having ridden the glory cloud into heaven, he now performs his eternal and permanent priesthood and thereby “is able to save completely those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to intercede for them.”
Let this wash over you like a wave of comfort and hope: the Ascended One lives to make intercession for us! Jesus is at this very moment pleading in his Father’s presence by his meritorious blood, which is not only sufficient for your sins, but for the sins of the whole world. Does our high priest hear our unworthy prayers, our petitions, our pleadings? Will the prayers of a sinner like me ever be accepted by the Father? Yes! Jesus, our Great High Priest secures by his own prevailing intercession our everlasting acceptance before God Almighty. “Therefore,” as the writer of Hebrews says “Let us come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in our time of need.”
Beloved, Jesus rules and reigns from heaven, there is nothing outside of his dominion: no unforeseen events, no circumstance to overwhelming or problem he is unaware of or unconcerned about. For, as the Apostle Paul rightly declares, “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col 1:16-18). The Ascended Lord prays without ceasing, perfectly mediating between his church and the Father: the high priestly service founded upon his once-for-all, full and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. This Great High Priest is pleading for you and for me, for he lives to make intercession for us.
And although heaven is the place of his wonderful works, he is not far from us. The road of his salvific exodus has ended in the glory of the far country! But he is near. The ‘departed’ Jesus, the Ascended One, is not absent from us but very near in a new way: he is nearer to us through the giving of the Holy Spirit; revealed and made present to us in the Sacraments of the church. So, in reality, the ascended Jesus is closer to us than if he were still on earth because his Spirit resides in his people, comforting and guiding his church to walk in holiness and to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom to a weary world. And in this divine task we will prevail for Christ is risen from the grave and has overcome the world!
Through the grace given in the holy mysteries we share intimate communion with this King of Glory as we partake of the Holy Communion where the ascended Christ comes to us in common bread and wine, where Christ dwells in us and we in him, as we participate in the glory of heaven, and thereby “dwell with him there.” In this most eucharistic feast heaven meets earth. Therefore come. Ascend unto him who longs to feed, strengthen, and wash you clean. Who is this King of Glory? Who alone is worthy to enter the gates of heaven? It is Jesus. The King of King and Lord of Lords: The Ascended one who is worthy of our praise. May “All Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.”