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A sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Ascension Day Sung Eucharist

Thursday 21st May 2009

The Arcbbishop of Canterbury preached at Westminster Abbey during the Ascension Day Sung Eucharist.

The Feast of the Ascension is one of the most significant days in the Church's liturgical calendar. It celebrates Christ's return to the Father (John 16:28) forty days after his resurrection. It is narrated in Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:50-end and Mark 16:19.

The Archbishop preaching in Westminster Abbey

The Archbishop in the pulpit at Westminster Abbey

Click link on the right to listen to the sermon [13Mb]

Read the transcript below:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One popular hymn for the Feast of the Ascension contains these lines:

Thou hast raised our human nature

in the clouds at God's right hand.

The ascension of Jesus in this context becomes a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity in all its variety, in all its vulnerability, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life. 'Man with God is on the throne,' that hymn goes on. Quite a shocking line if you start thinking about it.

And that of course is first of all good news about humanity itself – the humanity that we all know to be stained, wounded, imprisoned in various ways; this humanity—yours and mine—is still capable of being embraced by God, shot through with God's glory, received and welcomed in the burning heart of reality itself:

to the throne of Godhead,

to the Father's breast,

as another hymn puts it.

But let's pursue that theme just a little bit further. Jesus takes our human nature—yours and mine—to the heart of God and he speaks to God his father in a human voice. In heaven the language they speak is human (not just angelic). Our words (human words) are heard at the very centre of the burning heart of reality.

St Augustine many centuries ago reflected on this in his many sermons on the psalms. Like most of us, St Augustine was rather worried by the fact that the psalms are not always fit for polite company. They are full of rude, angry, violent, hateful remarks; they contain protests against God, and spectacular ill-wishing against human beings. The psalms, you might say, are as human as it gets. So why do we recite them in public worship? aren't they just a reminder of those aspects of our humanity that are best left out of God's sight?

Augustine's point was this: apart from the fact that it is no use trying to leave bits of our humanity out of God's sight, God has actually taken an initiative in making our language his own. And therefore you have to imagine as you say or hear the psalms that Jesus is speaking them. And there's another shocking thought – Jesus saying, 'where are you, God?' Jesus saying, 'my God why have you forsaken me?' (But then of course he did.) Jesus saying, 'Destroy my enemies', and 'Blessed are those who dash their children against the stones' ... goodness knows what. Well, says the saint, it doesn't mean that Jesus is telling us that any and every human cry is good. It doesn't mean that Jesus endorses ideas about revenge on your enemies, or even shaking your fist at God the Father. But it does mean that Jesus treats us, our feelings, our tumultuous personalities, as real. He takes us seriously. He takes us seriously when we're moving towards God and each other in love; and, amazingly, he takes us seriously when we're moving in the opposite direction – when we are spinning downwards into destructive, hateful fantasies. He doesn't let go of us and he doesn't lose sight of us when we seek to lock ourselves up in the dark. Jesus hears all the words we speak – words of pain and protest and rage and violence. He hears them and he takes them and in the presence of the God the Father he says, 'This is the humanity I have brought home. It's not a pretty sight; it's not edifying and impressive and heroic, it's just real: real and needy and confused, and here it is (this complicated humanity) brought home to heaven, dropped into the burning heart of God – for healing and for transformation. That's quite a lot to bear in mind when you're saying or hearing the Psalms. But it's probably the only way of coping with rather a lot of them.

But all of that in the saint's thinking arises from this basic insight: Jesus ascends to heaven. The human life in which God has made himself most visible, most tangible, disappears from the human world in its former shape and is somehow absorbed into the endless life of God. And our humanity, all of it, goes with Jesus. When St Paul speaks of Christ 'filling all in all', as we heard in the epistle (Ephesians 1.15—end), we must bear in mind that picture: Jesus' humanity taking into it all the difficult, resistant, unpleasant bits of our humanity, taking them into the heart of love where alone they can be healed and transfigured.

And when in the other readings, from Acts (1.1—11) and the Gospel (Luke 24.44—end) Jesus speaks of the promise of the Father that is going to descend on the world, he's speaking of the way in which the gift of the Holy Spirit of God enables us not only to be a new kind of being but to see human beings afresh and to hear them differently. When the Holy Spirit sweeps over us in the wind and the flame of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gives us the life of Jesus. It gives us something of Jesus' capacity to hear what is really being said by human beings. It gives us the courage, not to screen out those bits of the human world that are difficult, unpleasant, not edifying. It opens our eyes and our ears and our hearts to the full range of what being human means. So that, instead of being somebody who needs to be sheltered from the rough truth of the world, the Christian is someone who should be more open and more vulnerable to that great range of human experience. The Christian is not in a position to censor out any bits of the human voice, that troubling symphony which so often draws in pain and anger and violence. And to recognize that we're open to that and we hear it is not to say that we shrug our shoulders and say, 'Well that's just human nature' (one of the most unhelpful phrases in the moral vocabulary). On the contrary, we feel the edge, the ache in human anger and human suffering. And we recognise that it can be taken into Christ, and into the heart of the Father, it can be healed. It can be transfigured.

Jesus has gone before us into the darkest places of human reality. He has picked up the sounds that he hears. And think of what those sounds are: the quiet cries of the abused child; the despairing tears of a Sri Lankan in these last few days, surrounded and threatened by two different kinds of mindless violence. He picks up the cry of the hungry and the forgotten. He hears the human beings that nobody else hears. And he calls to us to say, 'You listen too'. He makes his own the cynical dismissal of faith by the sophisticated, and sees through it to the underlying need. He makes his own the joy and celebration and thanksgiving of human beings going about their routine work and finding their fulfilment in ordinary prosaic, bog-standard love and faithfulness. All of that is taken 'to the throne of Godhead, / to the Father's breast'. All of that on the throne of eternity in the burning heart of truth and reality.

So yes, indeed, the Ascension is a celebration of the glory of humanity, the unlikely possibilities of people like you and me, the eternal potential locked up in our muddled struggling lives. And a celebration too of God's capacity, through his Holy Spirit, to reach into those parts of humanity that are so far from glorious, that are rebellious and troubled and broken, to breathe through them, to take them home, to drop them into that fire and melt them and recast them.

The promise of the Father is that we as Christians will receive that level and dimension of divine life that we call 'Holy Spirit', so that, like Jesus, we will find that nothing human is alien to us. And the promise of the Father is that by the love of Christ spreading through us and in us, the world may be brought home to Christ, who brings it home to his Father.

We who are his body, 'the fullness of him who fills all in all' have to hear with his ears and see with his eyes. In the midst of a humanity flailing and struggling, failing and suffering, we see and we hear what God can do. We remember that Christ has 'raised our human nature / in the clouds at God's right hand', and our compassion is deepened a hundred-fold, our awareness of pain is deepened a hundred-fold, and (please God) by the gift of the Spirit, our hope is deepened a thousand-fold.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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