Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Ascension Day 2012
17th May 2012 at 5:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Acts 1: 1-11; Ephesians 1: 15-end; Luke 24: 44-end
Hymn-singing is an important part of our tradition of worship. The monks who worshipped in this holy place for six hundred years would begin each of their seven offices – prayer services – of the day with an Office Hymn. Many of these hymns were translated into English in the 19th century by John Mason Neale and form an important part of our own liturgical tradition. The New English Hymnal contains no fewer than 39 of Neale’s translations.
Methodists have perhaps the greatest tradition of hymns, Charles Wesley being so immensely rich and prolific in his output. We sang one of his hymns at the beginning of this service. 26 of his many hundred hymns are preserved in the New English Hymnal.
Hymns have been and remain an important means of conveying the truths of Christian doctrine and embedding them in the mind and heart of the believer. When a great hymn is linked to a great tune it will remain powerfully in the repertoire. Hymns have a way of seeping into our memory without particular effort. Then, at a moment of particular need, they seep once more into our conscious mind to offer inspiration or comfort. How often have we found ourselves remembering some words from a hymn and then struggling to think of the first line or to complete the verse?
One of the more significant 19th century authors of hymns, with seven in the New English Hymnal, was a nephew of the poet William Wordsworth. Christopher Wordsworth was a Canon of Westminster from 1844 to 1869 before spending the last years of his life as Bishop of Lincoln. Christopher Wordsworth’s finest hymns help us celebrate some of the greatest feasts of the Church’s year: at Epiphany Songs of thankfulness and praise; at Easter Alleluia, alleluia! Hearts to heaven and voices raise; at Whitsun, or Pentecost, Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost; on Saints’ days Hark the sound of holy voices chanting at the crystal sea.
One of Christopher Wordsworth’s finest hymns features in the New English Hymnal for Ascension-tide but is not as often sung as it should be – perhaps because there is no settled position on the tune to be used or because its main metaphor is unfashionably militaristic.
The first verse opens the celebration, with an invitation to the worshipper to witness the triumph of our Lord Jesus Christ as he ascends to glory. The image Wordsworth uses is that of a Roman emperor returning in triumph to the imperial capital bringing in his train those he has conquered in battle:
See, the Conqueror mounts in triumph; see the King in royal state,
Riding on the clouds, his chariot, to his heavenly palace gate.
Hark! the choirs of angel voices joyful alleluias sing,
And the portals high are lifted to receive their heavenly King.
The second verse identifies both the nature of the victory he has won and the identity of the defeated foe. His suffering and death on the Cross and his arising from the grave were the means of his victory, and sin and Satan the conquered enemy.
The third verse moves on to identify the significance for human beings of the triumphant Ascension of the Lord.
He has raised our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand:
Jesus reigns, adored by angels; man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension we by faith behold our own.
In a few brief words, Christopher Wordsworth encapsulates the meaning of the Ascension not just for the believer but for the whole human race.
The Christ who ascends on high, who returns on this day finally to God his Father and to the glory of heaven, is the Christ who is both God and man, the Son of God from all eternity, incarnate, born into flesh, of the Virgin Mary his Mother. Our Lord Jesus Christ in ascending does not leave our human nature behind and take only his divinity to heaven. It is the Son of God and Son of Mary who thither ascends and with God continually dwells. The humanity Christ shares with us is the very humanity he takes to heaven.
Wordsworth goes on to identify this humanity of Jesus Christ with us human beings personally and directly. ‘There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand.’ He drives the point home: ‘man with God is on the throne.’ The moment of the incarnation was when Mary accepted the angel Gabriel’s invitation from God to be the Mother of his only Son. From that moment, Mary’s humanity was linked inexorably and eternally in Jesus Christ with the divinity of God the Father. The Ascension marks a further stage of development, when the members of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, are inexorably and eternally linked with the head of the Body and can truly see our destiny as being to reign with him in glory. ‘Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension we by faith behold our own.’ Where our Lord Jesus Christ has gone before, there we can be confident that we shall follow.
The Collect for today’s feast develops the idea, when we pray that ‘as we 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.’
It may be hard for us to accept confidently that heaven really is our destiny. We may feel ourselves like George Herbert in Love bade me welcome unworthy, ‘guilty of dust and sin’. We may say with him ‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee.’ Wordsworth has his answer, in a splendid verse one of many not included in our New English Hymnal, couched as a prayer to the Holy Spirit.
Holy Ghost, illuminator, shed Thy beams upon our eyes,
Help us to look up with Stephen, and to see beyond the skies,
Where the Son of Man in glory standing is at God’s right hand,
Beckoning on His martyr army, succouring His faithful band.
Our destiny is in heaven. Our homeland is in heaven. Here on earth we are pilgrims, or we might say vagrants, out of place. But, whilst we travel this pilgrimage road, we are to reflect the worship and beliefs and values of our heavenly homeland to those around us, to those with whom we live and work, to all those we encounter on the way. We are to be agents and instruments of God in the service of his Kingdom. May we be faithful in the service of the King of Heaven! May God’s Kingdom come, on earth as in heaven!