"Summarize the fundamental elements of the Christian faith in three paragraphs or less. Your text will become a rule of faith, binding upon all Christians for what may be millennia to come. It must be short enough and clear enough that an average person can commit the entire text to memory and recite it without a mistake.” That was certainly a daunting task, but the bishops of the second great ecumenical Council meeting at Constantinople in 381 had no choice. The terrible battles against heresy that had raged over the three generations since the Council of Nicaea had made one thing clear: a straight-forward creedal statement, binding upon all Christians in all places, was essential if "the faith once delivered to the saints" was to be preserved. Naturally, the Fathers of the Church had to be very selective about what was included in this brief summary. But the creed produced by the Council of Constantinople, ironically known to most of us as "the Nicene Creed," has stood the test of time. It is recited every Sunday at Mass by about one billion people and remains a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy today.
Among all the mighty acts that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ wrought for our salvation, only four “made the cut” for inclusion in the creed—the Incarnation, the Passion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. “For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven … [and] became incarnate from the Virgin Mary.” “For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, He suffered death, and was buried.” “On the third day He rose again.” And finally, “He ascended into Heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
Please note: when the ancient Church wished to summarize the pivotal saving acts of God in Christ Jesus that all Christians should know by heart and have on their lips every week, our Lord’s Ascension to His Father’s side forty days after Easter was included on that very short list. In time the feast we celebrate here tonight would join the ranks of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter as principal feasts of the Church calendar.
But why does the feast of the Ascension merit so great an honor? Because it is a crucial component in the salvation Christ has won for us, the culmination of a process that began with the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Nazareth and continued through every moment of our Lord’s earthly life and beyond His precious death. The Ascension is, when considered as part of God’s plan for our salvation, the mirror image of Christmas. In the Christ Mass we celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus, that crucial moment in the history of the cosmos when the Creator God actually entered time and space, becoming one of His own creatures. Without the Nativity there would have been no sacrificial Lamb for Calvary, no precious Blood to wash us whiter than snow, and no union of a flawless human nature with the Source of Life itself to triumph over death at Easter. But the course of our salvation did not end with Christ’s empty tomb. With His Ascension into Heaven our Lord carried His own perfect, sinless human nature into eternity, uniting our humanity—in the form the Creator meant it to have--with the Godhead in an indissoluble bond.
When we confess in the creed that Christ has “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” we are not saying that the Savior has left the scene and is reclining in retirement. We are recognizing that our Lord Jesus, the Word made Flesh, “sits” enthroned in sovereign rule over all creation as the second person of the Holy Trinity. Because God Incarnate has ascended back to the Father, the hands that now hold the scepter of the Universe are human hands, hands that still bear the scars of perfect Love. The King who sits upon the great judgment seat of God is our brother, bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.
But the Christ of God was anointed not only King, but as a Priest forever. Our Lord Jesus abides eternally in the presence of the Father as our great High Priest, interceding in His humanity on behalf of His brothers and sisters on earth. We read in the letter to the Hebrews that “when Christ appeared as the high priest of the good things to come … he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” For “Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” The One who pleads for us at the Mercy Seat with the Blood of atonement is Himself the sacrificial Victim without blemish. In the words of Saint John, “If anyone sins we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for our only, but for the sins of the whole world.” The One who ascended to the right hand of the Power now pleads for us, interposing His own Blood between His Father and our sin.
But when our Lord Jesus returned to His Father from the Mount of Olives forty days after Easter, He was not only rising up to assume the fullness of His role as eternal Priest and King. He was also blazing a trail. All those who have repented of their sins and turned to Christ in faith, receiving the washing of regeneration, will ascend where He has led the way. One day you and I shall follow in His divine footsteps, if we abide in His truth and live in His love. Yet we need not wait until we leave this earthly life to follow Christ into Heaven. We may do so right here and right now. For this Holy Eucharist we offer together is a portal into the very throne room of God.
“Lift up your hearts… We lift them to the Lord.” When we say these words in a few minutes we will remind all creation that the veil between Heaven and earth has once again been pierced, just as it was on the Mount of Olives that first Ascension Day long ago. Our hearts and souls will rise to be with their Lord, and we shall join angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven in their great song of praise. We shall bask in our Lord’s heavenly glory, even as He descends in the power of the Spirit to share His precious Body and Blood with us on earth! An earthly priest will lend our Heavenly High Priest his hands and his voice so that eyes and ears of flesh may see and hear the Truth that our hearts know deep within them. And the Lamb of God will again come down “the heavenly way” He trod so long ago in His Ascension and stand among us to re-present His sacrifice of Calvary, made once-for-all yet offered eternally to glory of God the Father. Lift up your hearts indeed! Alleluia, Christ is risen! Amen.