Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Ascension Day 2016
Start Date 5th May 2016 5:00pm
Description

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

'Hail the day that sees him rise, glorious to his native skies,' we sang as the procession entered the church. 'Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis,' the choir sang, echoing the song of the angels at the birth of Jesus, 'Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of goodwill.' In a few minutes the hymn we shall sing at the Offertory of the bread and wine and the people's gifts will conclude rousingly, 'heaven and earth with loud hosanna worship thee, the Lamb who died, risen, ascended, glorified.' In the Eucharistic prayer, the celebrant will pronounce the words 'rejoicing in his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension and looking for his coming in glory.' And at the end of the service, we shall sing the final hymn, 'The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now.'

Glorious, glorified, glory: so we say, so we sing. But how much do we grasp its meaning?

We are not unfamiliar with the word 'glory' but it fails to trip easily off the tongue. 'What a glorious day!' someone might say. 'Glory be,' feels a little old-fashioned and is anyway ironic. 'Happy and glorious,' we sing, every time we sing the National Anthem, and the words are sometimes reflected in captions of photographs of The Queen.

The thesaurus can sometimes help. It offers three groups of words: fame, praise, and brightness. Alternatives to fame are renown, celebrity, eminence, recognition, acclaim, kudos, triumph; to praise, homage, tribute, veneration, gratitude; to brightness, radiance, splendour, impressiveness etc. The earliest use of the word glory in a modern translation of the bible is in the book of Exodus, when God says to Moses, 'I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.' So, recognition, acclaim.

But there is more. Moses is only beginning to know and understand who God is. He is curious to know more. He has led the people out of Egypt to freedom from their oppressors and now he is leading them through the wilderness towards the land the Lord has promised to give them. But who is this Lord who is leading them with a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, this Lord who seems to settle on the tent of meeting, whenever the people cease to move?

'When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.' Moses asked the Lord, 'If I have found favour in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you.' The Lord said to Moses, 'I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.' Moses said, 'Show me your glory, I pray.' 'But', the Lord said, 'you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live. See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.'

'Show me your glory, I pray.' Soon, the Lord called Moses to come up Mount Sinai to be given the Ten Commandments. And the book of Exodus speaks of the glory of God reflected in the face of Moses. 'As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Moses had finished speaking with Aaron and the people, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.'

St Paul makes great play with this in his second letter to the Corinthians. He speaks of Christ having made him and others ministers of a new covenant, not like the old covenant, the old law, being a thing of letters, but a new covenant in Christ, being a thing of Spirit, 'for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.' He speaks of the veil only being set aside in Christ. And he holds out a great hope: 'now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.'

Charles Wesley evoked this image in the last verse of the hymn we sang at the beginning, 'Hail the day that sees him rise.' Though the Lord is parted from our sight, we pray that our hearts might rise with him beyond the skies, there 'with thee remain partners of thine endless reign, there thy face unclouded see, find our heaven of heavens in thee.'

We who are human beings, we who are Christians are strangers and pilgrims here on earth. Our true homeland is in heaven. This building and the Lady Chapel, the 500th anniversary of whose consecration we have been celebrating these past two weeks were surely designed in an attempt to prepare us, to familiarise with the beauty and glory of heaven. In an address to clergy in New York in 1962, the then archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who spoke often of God's glory and of heaven, addressed the moment when Jesus washed his disciples' feet in the Upper Room. He said this, 'Looking at the washing of feet, we see the divine glory and notice the words with which Saint John introduces the incident. "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he came forth from God and goeth to God again, took a towel and girded himself." What Jesus does, He does in the awareness that He comes from the Father and returns to the Father, and the whole plenitude of the Father's authority and majesty is in His hands. He is not laying aside divine glory when He so acts. He is not concealing divine glory. Rather, He is showing to the Apostles in blazing splendour, of what sort the divine glory really is. Moses of old had asked, 'I pray Thee, show me Thy glory', and the answer was given, 'Thou canst not see my face and live.' And down through the ages the longing of men was constant to see the divine glory with their eyes. And now—here is the divine glory for the eyes of the Apostles to see; the glory shone in Jesus when, girded, He serves them and washes their feet. And such is the divine glory in highest Heaven. Ever and always it is the glory of a majesty that humbles itself. All through the patient age-long dealings of almighty God with his created world, as he beams, stooping gently toward his creation in his humble approach to it in the pages of history: the great humility of Bethlehem, the great humility of the feet-washing, the great humility of Calvary. And Christianity has linked together those two words, 'great' and 'humble' as the very definition of God himself.'

This evening, as we celebrate the ascension of our Lord into the glory of heaven, we see that the glory of God, that shines over the face of the earth, is his humility: great and humble. And if we would enter into that glory, we too must embrace a true spirit of humility.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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