Friday, March 4, 2016

Ascension Day

Ascension Day

For the First Nocturn

The First Reading
(from the Gospel of  St. Luke 24:49)
JESUS said, Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.

The Second Reading
(from John Wesley's notes on the Gospel of Luke 24)
49. Behold I send the promise - Emphatically so called; the Holy Ghost.
50. He led them out as far as Bethany - Not the town, but the district: to the mount of Olives, Acts 1:12 , which stood within the boundaries of Bethany.
51. And while he was blessing them, he was parted from them - It was much more proper that our Lord should ascend into heaven, than that he should rise from the dead, in the sight of the apostles. For his resurrection was proved when they saw him alive after his passion: but they could not see him in heaven while they continued on earth.

The Third Reading
(from On the Lord's Ascension, I by Leo the Great, bishop)
I. The Events Recorded as Happening After the Resurrection Were Intended to Convince Its Truth. 
Since the blessed and glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby the Divine power in three days raised the true Temple of God, which the wickedness of the Jews had overthrown, the sacred forty days, dearly-beloved are to-day ended, which by most holy appointment were devoted to our most profitable instruction, so that, during the period that the Lord thus protracted the lingering of His bodily presence, our faith in the Resurrection might be fortified by needful proofs. For Christ's Death had much disturbed the disciples' hearts, and a kind of torpor of distrust had crept over their grief-laden minds at His torture on the cross, at His giving up the ghost, at His lifeless body's burial. For, when the holy women, as the Gospel-story has revealed, brought word of tile stone rolled away from the tomb, the sepulchre emptied of the body, and the angels bearing witness to the living Lord, their words seemed like ravings to the Apostles and other disciples. Which doubtfulness, the result of human weakness, the Spirit of Truth would most assuredly not have permitted to exist in His own preacher's breasts, had not their trembling anxiety and careful hesitation laid the foundations of our faith. It was our perplexities and our dangers that were provided for in the Apostles: it was ourselves who in these men were taught how to meet the cavillings of the ungodly and the arguments of earthly wisdom. We are instructed by their lookings, we are taught by their hearings, we are convinced by their handlings. Let us give thanks to the Divine management and the holy Fathers' necessary slowness of belief. Others doubted, that we might not doubt. 
II. And Therefore They are in the Highest Degree Instructive. 
Those days, therefore, dearly-beloved, which intervened between the Lord's Resurrection and Ascension did not pass by in uneventful leisure, but great mysteries1 were ratified in them, deep truths2 revealed. In them the fear of awful death was removed, and the immortality not only of the soul but also of the flesh established. In them, through the Lord's breathing upon them, the Holy Ghost is poured upon all the Apostles, and to the blessed Apostle Peter beyond the rest the care of the Lord's flock is entrusted, in addition to the keys of the kingdom. Then it was that the Lord joined the two disciples as a companion on the way, and, to the sweeping away of all the clouds of our uncertainty, upbraided them with the slowness of their timorous hearts. Their enlightened hearts catch the flame of faith, and lukewarm as they have been, are made to burn while the Lord unfolds the Scriptures. In the breaking of bread also their eyes are opened as they eat with Him: how far more blessed is the opening of their eyes, to whom the glorification of their nature is revealed than that of our first parents, on whom fell the disastrous consequences of their transgression. 
III. They Prove the Resurrection of the Flesh. 
And in the course of these and other miracles, when the disciples were harassed by bewildering thoughts, and the Lord had appeared in their midst and said, "Peace be unto you3 ," that what was passing through their hearts might not be their fixed opinion (for they thought they saw a spirit not flesh), He refutes their thoughts so discordant with the Truth, offers to the doubters' eyes the marks of the cross that remained in His hands and feet, and invites them to handle Him with careful scrutiny, because the traces of the nails and spear had been retained to heal the wounds of unbelieving hearts, so that not with wavering faith, but with most stedfast knowledge they might comprehend that the Nature which had been lain in the sepulchre was to sit on God the Father's throne. 
IV. Christ's Ascension Has Given Us Greater Privileges and Joys Than the Devil Had Taken from Us. 
Accordingly, dearly-beloved, throughout this time which elapsed between the Lord's Resurrection and Ascension, God's Providence had this in view, to teach and impress upon both the eyes and hearts of His own people that the Lord Jesus Christ might be acknowledged to have as truly risen, as He was truly born, suffered, and died. And hence the most blessed Apostles and all the disciples, who had been both bewildered at His death on the cross and backward in believing His Resurrection, were so strengthened by the clearness of the truth that when the Lord entered the heights of heaven, not only were they affected with no sadness, but were even filled with great joy. And truly great and unspeakable was their cause for joy, when in the sight of the holy multitude, above the dignity of all heavenly creatures, the Nature of mankind went up, to pass above the angels' ranks and to rise beyond the archangels' heights, and to have Its uplifting limited by no elevation until, received to sit with the Eternal Father, It should be associated on the throne with His glory, to Whose Nature It was united in the Son. Since then Christ's Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised, whither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly-beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For to-day not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven, and have gained still greater things through Christ's unspeakable grace than we had lost through the devil's malice. For us, whom our virulent enemy had driven out from the bliss of our first abode, the Son of God has made members of Himself and placed at the right hand of the Father, with Whom He lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen. 

For the Second Nocturn

The Fourth Reading
(from the Gospel of  St. Luke 24:50-51)
And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.

The Fifth Reading
(from the Rt. Rev. J. C. Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke 24:50-53)
These verses are the winding up of Luke's history of our Lord's ministry. They form a suitable conclusion to a Gospel, which in touching tenderness and full exhibition of Christ's grace, stands first among the four records of the things which Jesus did and taught. (Acts 1:1.)
Let us notice, firstly, in this passage, the remarkable manner in which our Lord left His disciples. We read that "He lifted up His hands and blessed them. And it came to pass, while He blessed them, He was parted from them." In one word, He left them when in the very act of blessing.
We cannot for a moment doubt that there was a meaning in this circumstance. It was intended to remind the disciples of all that Jesus had brought with Him when He came into the world. It was intended to assure them of what He would yet do, after He left the world. He came on earth to bless and not to curse, and blessing He departed. He came in love and not in anger, and in love He went away. He came not as a condemning judge, but as a compassionate Friend, and as a Friend He returned to His Father. He had been a Savior full of blessings to His little flock while He had been with them. He would be a Savior full of blessings to them, He would have them know, even after He was taken away.
Forever let our souls lean on the gracious heart of Christ, if we know anything of true religion. We shall never find a heart more tender, more loving, more patient, more compassionate, and more kind. To talk of the Virgin Mary as being more compassionate than Christ is a proof of miserable ignorance. To flee to the saints for comfort, when we may flee to Christ, is an act of mingled stupidity and blasphemy, and a robbery of Christ's crown. Gracious was our Lord Jesus while He lived among His weak disciples, gracious in the very season of His agony on the cross, gracious when He rose again and gathered His scattered sheep around Him--gracious in the manner of His departure from this world. It was a departure in the very act of blessing! Gracious, we may be assured He is at the right hand of God. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever--a Savior ever ready to bless abounding in blessings.
Let us notice, secondly, in this passage, the place to which our Lord went when He left the world. We read that "He was carried up into heaven."
The full meaning of these words we cannot of course comprehend. It would be easy to ask questions about the exact residence of Christ's glorified body, which the wisest theologian could never answer. We muse not waste our time in unedifying speculations, or "intrude into things unseen." (Colossians 2:18.) Let it suffice us to know that our Lord Jesus Christ is gone into the presence of God on behalf of all who believe on Him, as a Forerunner and a High Priest. (Hebrews 6:20. John 14:2.)
As a Forerunner, Jesus has gone into heaven to prepare a place for all His members. Our great Head has taken possession of a glorious inheritance in behalf of His mystical body, and holds it as an elder brother and trustee, until the day comes when His body shall be perfected. As a High Priest, Jesus has gone into heaven to intercede for all who believe on Him. There in the holy of holies He presents on their behalf the merit of His own sacrifice, and obtains for them daily supplies of mercy and grace. The grand secret of the perseverance of saints is Christ's appearance for them in heaven. They have an everlasting Advocate with the Father, and therefore they are never cast away. (Hebrews 9:24. 1 John 2:1.)
A day will come when Jesus shall return from heaven, in like manner as He went. He will not always abide within the holy of holies. He will come forth, like the Jewish high priest, to bless the people, to gather His saints together, and to restore all things. (Leviticus 9:23. Acts 3:21.) For that day let us wait, and long, and pray. Christ dying on the cross for sinners--Christ living in heaven to intercede--Christ coming again in glory, are three great objects which ought to stand out prominently before the eyes of every true Christian.
Let us notice, lastly, in this passage, the feelings of our Lord's disciples when He finally left them and was carried up into heaven. We read that "they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God."
How shall we account for these joyful feelings? How shall we explain the singular fact, that this little company of weak disciples, left, for the first time, like orphans, in the midst of an angry world, was not cast down, but was full of joy? The answer to these questions is short and simple. The disciples rejoiced, because now for the first time they saw all things clearly about their Master. The veil was removed from their eyes. The darkness had at length passed away. The meaning of Christ's humiliation and low estate--the meaning of His mysterious agony, and cross, and passion--the meaning of His being Messiah and yet a sufferer--the meaning of His being crucified, and yet being Son of God--all, all was at length unraveled and made plain. They saw it all. They understood it all. Their doubts were removed. Their stumbling-blocks were taken away. Now at last they possessed clear knowledge, and possessing clear knowledge felt unmingled joy.
Let it be a settled principle with us, that the little degree of joy which many believers feel arises often from lack of knowledge. Weak faith and inconsistent practice are doubtless two great reasons why many of God's children enjoy so little peace. But it may well be suspected that dim and indistinct views of the Gospel are the true cause of many a believer's discomfort. When the Lord Jesus is not clearly known and understood, it must needs follow that there is little "joy in the Lord."
Let us leave the Gospel of Luke with a settled purpose of heart to seek more spiritual knowledge every year we live. Let us search the Scriptures more deeply and pray over them more heartily. Too many believers only scratch the surface of Scripture, and know nothing of digging down into its hidden treasures. Let the word dwell in us more richly. Let us read our Bibles more diligently. So doing we shall taste more of joy and peace in believing, and shall know what it is to be "continually praising and blessing God."

The Sixth Reading
(from La Corona by the Bl. John Donne)
Salute the last and everlasting day, 
Joy at th' uprising of this Sun, and Son, 
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation 
Have purely wash'd, or burnt your drossy clay. 
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away, 
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon ; 
Nor doth He by ascending show alone, 
But first He, and He first enters the way. 
O strong Ram, which hast batter'd heaven for me ! 
Mild Lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark'd the path ! 
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see ! 
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath ; 
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise, 
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise

For the Third Nocturn

The Seventh Reading
(from the Gospel of  St. Luke 24:52-53)
And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.

The Eighth Reading
(from the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas, on the Gospel of St. Luke, Chapter 24:50-53)
BEDE Having omitted all those things which may have taken place during forty-three days between our Lord and His disciples, St. Luke silently joins to the first day of the resurrection, the last day when He ascended into heaven, saying, And he led them out as far as to Bethany. First, indeed, because of the name of the place, which signifies "the house of obedience." For He who descended because of the disobedience of the wicked, ascended because of the obedience of the converted. Next, because of the situation of the same village, which is said to be placed on the side of the mount of Olives; because He has placed the foundations, as it were, of the house of the obedient Church, of faith, hope, and love, in the side of that highest mountain, namely, Christ. But He blessed them to whom He had delivered the precepts of His teaching; hence it follows, And he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.
THEOPHYL. Perhaps pouring into them a power of preservation, until the coming of the Spirit; and perhaps instructing them, that as often as we go away, we should commend to God by our blessing those who are placed under us.
ORIGEN But that He blessed them with uplifted hands, signifies that it becomes him who blesses any one to be furnished with various works and labors in behalf of others. For in this way are the hands raised up on high.
CHRYS. But observe, that the Lord submits to our sight the promised rewards. He had promised the resurrection of the body; He rose from the dead, and conferred with His disciples for forty days. It is also promised that we shall be caught up in the clouds through the air; this also He made manifest by His works. For it follows, And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted, &c.
THEOPHYL. And Elias indeed was seen, as it were, to be taken up into heaven, but the Savior, the forerunner of all, Himself ascended into heaven to appear in the Divine sight in His sacred body; and already is our nature honored in Christ by a certain Angelic power.
CHRYS. But you will say, How does this concern me? Because you also shall be taken up in like manner into the clouds. For your body is of like nature to His body, therefore shall your body be so light, that it can pass through the air. For as is the head, so also is the body; as the beginning, so also the end. See then how you are honored by this beginning. Man was the lowest part of the rational creation, but the feet have been made the head, being lifted up aloft into the royal throne in their head.
BEDE When the Lord ascended into heaven, the disciples adoring Him where His feet lately stood, immediately return to Jerusalem, where they were commanded to wait for the promise of the Father, for it follows, And they worshipped him, and returned, &c. Great indeed was their joy, for they rejoice that their God and Lord after the triumph of His resurrection had also passed into the heavens.
GREEK EX. And they were watching, praying, and fasting, because indeed they were not living in their own homes, but were abiding in the temple, expecting the grace from on high; among other things also learning from the very place piety and honesty. Hence it is said, And were continually in the temple.
THEOPHYL. The Spirit had not yet come, and yet their conversation is spiritual. Before they were shut up; now they stand in the midst of the chief priests; distracted by no worldly object, but despising all things, they praise God continually; as it follows, Praising and blessing God.
BEDE And observe that among the four beasts in heaven, Luke is said to be represented by the calf, for by the sacrifice of a calf, they were ordered to be initiated who were chosen to the priesthood; and Luke has undertaken to explain more fully than the rest the priesthood of Christ; and his Gospel, which he commenced with the ministry of the temple in the priesthood of Zacharias, he has finished with the devotion in the temple. And he has placed the Apostles there, about to be the ministers of a new priesthood, not in the blood of sacrifices, but in the praises of God and in blessing, that in the place of prayer and amidst the praises of their devotion, they might wait with prepared hearts for the promise of the Spirit.
THEOPHYL. Whom imitating, may we ever dwell in a holy life, praising and blessing God; to Whom be glory and blessing and power, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Ninth Reading
 (from a sermon by Martin Luther)
23. Now we must consider the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the first place, it is easily said and understood that the Lord ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. But they are dead words to the understanding if they are not grasped with the heart. 
24. We must, therefore, conceive of his ascension and Lordship as something active, energetic and continuous, and must not imagine that he sits above while we hold the reins of government down here. Nay, he ascended up thither for the reason that there he can best do his work and exercise dominion. Had he remained upon earth in visible form, before the people, he could not have wrought so effectually, for all the people could not have been with him and heard him. Therefore, he inaugurated an expedient which made it possible for him to be in touch with all and reign in all, to preach to all and be heard by all, and to be with all. Therefore, beware lest you imagine within yourself that he has gone, and now is, far away from us. The very opposite is true: While he was on earth, he was far away from us; now he is very near. 
25. Reason cannot comprehend how this can be. Therefore it is an article of faith. Here one must close his eyes and not follow his reason, but lay hold of all by faith. For how can reason grasp the thought that there should be a being like ourselves, who is all-seeing and knows all hearts and gives all men faith and the Spirit; or that he sits above in heaven, and yet is present with us and in us and rules over us? Therefore, strive not to comprehend, but say: This is Scripture and this is God's Word, which is immeasurably higher than all understanding and reason. Cease your reasoning and lay hold of the Scriptures, which testify of this being-- how he ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of God and exercises dominion. Let us examine some Scripture bearing upon this matter. 
26. In the first place, Ps 8, 4-6 says of Christ: "What is man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him but little lower than God, and crownest him with glory and honor. Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet." Here the prophet speaks to God concerning a man and marvels that God humbled, for a time, that man, when he suffered him to die, humbled him to the extent that it seemed as if God were not with him. But after a little while God exalted him, so that all things must obey him, both in heaven and on earth. To these words we must hold, to these words we must cling, in these words we must believe; for reason will not submit nor adapt itself to them, but says they are lies. Now, if all things are to be subject to this being and to fall at his feet, he must sit where he can look into the whole world, into heaven and hell and every heart; where he can see all sin and all righteousness, and can not only see all things, but can rule accordingly. 
27. Hence, these are majestic and powerful words. They afford the heart great comfort, so that they who believe this are filled with joy and courage and defiantly say: My Lord Jesus Christ is Lord over death, Satan, sin, righteousness, body, life, foes and friends. What shall I fear? For while my enemies stand before my very door and plan to slay me, my faith reasons thus: Christ is ascended into heaven and become Lord over all creatures, hence my enemies, too, must be subject to him and thus it is not in their power to do me harm. I challenge them to raise a finger against me or to injure a hair of my head against the will of my Lord Jesus Christ. When faith grasps and stands upon this article, it stands firm and waxes bold and defiant, so as even to say: If my Lord so wills that they, mine enemies, slay me, blessed am I; I gladly depart. Thus you will see that he is ascended into heaven, not to remain in indifference, but to exercise dominion; and all for our good, to afford us comfort and joy. This is one passage. 
28. Furthermore, in the second Psalm, verses 7 and 8, we read that God says to Christ: "Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me and I will give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possessions." Here you see again that Christ is appointed of God a Lord over all the earth. Now, if he is my friend and I am persuaded that he died for me and gave me all things and for my sake sits in heaven and watches over me, who then can do aught to me? Or if any man should do aught, what harm can come of it? 
29. Furthermore, David says again in the 110th Psalm, verse 1: "Jehovah saith unto my lord, sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool." And further on, in verses 5, 6, 7: "The Lord at thy right hand will strike through kings in the day of his wrath. He will judge among the nations, he will fill the places with dead bodies; he will strike through the head in many countries. He will drink of the brook in the way; therefore will he lift up the head." 
30. Again in still another Psalm, David says (Ps 68, 18): "Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led away captives; thou hast received gifts among men, yea among the rebellious also, that Jehovah God might dwell with them." And all the prophets took great pains to describe Christ's ascension and his kingdom. For, as his sufferings and death are deeply founded in the Scriptures, so are also his kingdom, his resurrection and ascension. In this manner we must view the ascension of Christ. Otherwise it will afford us neither pleasure nor profit. For what good will it do you if you merely preach that he ascended up to heaven and sits there with folded hands? This is what the prophet would say in the Psalm: Christ is ascended on high and has led captivity captive. That is to say, not only does he sit up there but he is also down here. And for this purpose did he ascend up thither, that he might be down here, that he might fill all things and be everywhere present; which thing he could not do had he remained on earth, for here in the body he could not have been present with all. He ascended to heaven, where all hearts can see him, where he can deal with all men, that he might fill all creation. He is present everywhere and all things are filled with his fulness. Nothing is so great, be it in heaven or on earth, but he has power over it, and it must be in perfect obedience to him. He not only governs and fills all creation (that would not help my faith any nor take away my sins), but also has led captivity captive. 
31. This captivity some have interpreted to mean that he delivered the sainted patriarchs out of the stronghold of hell; but that interpretation does not benefit our faith any either, for it is not particularly edifying to faith. Therefore, we must simply understand the matter thus: that he means that captivity which captures us and holds us captive. I am Adam's child, full of sin and foully besmirched; therefore, the law has taken me captive, so that I am fettered in conscience and sentenced to death. 
32. From this captivity no one can free himself, save only that one man Christ. What did he do? He made sin, death, and Satan his debtors. Sin fell upon him as though it would vanquish him, but it lost the day; he devoured sin. And Satan, death, and hell fared the same way. But we are unable to do this unless he be present to aid us. Alone, we must needs perish. But he, since he had done no sin and was full of righteousness, trod under foot Satan, death and hell, and devoured them, and took everything captive that fain would capture us, so that sin and death no longer can do harm. 
33. This, then, is the power he causes to be preached, that all who believe in him are released from captivity. I believe in him by whom sin, death, and all things that afflict us, were led captive. It is a pleasing discourse, and full of comfort, when we are told that death is taken away and slain, so that it is no longer felt. However, it affords pleasure and comfort only to those who believe it. You will not find release from captivity in your works, fastings, prayers, castigations, tonsures, and gowns, and whatever more things you may do; but only in the place where Christ sits, whither he ascended and whither he led captivity with him. Hence, he who would be freed from sin and delivered from Satan and death, must come thither where Christ is. Now, where is he? He is here with us, and for this purpose did he sit down in heaven, that he might be near unto us. Thus, we are with him up there and he is with us down here. Through the word he comes down and through faith we ascend up. 

34. So, we see everywhere in the Scriptures that faith is such an unspeakably great thing that we can never preach about it sufficiently nor reach it with words. It cannot be heard and seen, therefore it must be believed. Such is the nature of faith that it feels nothing at all, but merely follows the words which it hears, and clings to them. If you believe, you have; if you believe not, you have not. In this wise must we understand this article of faith, that Christ is ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God. 

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