The following is from a sermon delivered to Trinity Church Wall Street on the Feast of the Ascension, 2014.
We are here together on this springtime evening in obedience to commands both secular and sacred. First, the secular: after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought an end to the strife of the English Civil War by placing William and Mary at the head of the British state, King William issued ecclesiastical orders to the royal governor of New York. “You shall take care that God Almighty be devoutly and duly served throughout your Government,” the King wrote. “The Book of Common Prayer as it is now established, read each Sunday and Holyday, and the blessed Sacrament administered according to the rites of the Church of England . . . .”
And this day is such a “Holyday,” the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. The sacred commandment that brings us into one another’s company is what must be the single most-followed directive in human history: the injunction, first uttered in the upper room on the night before the crucifixion, to take bread and to take wine and to do so in remembrance of him.
We stand in this particular place, keeping the feast and proclaiming the word, because in 1692 the royal governor of New York bought land on Wall Street from the Lutherans — for 20 pounds. On a springtime Monday in May 1697, King William granted the charter of Trinity Church to become the parish of the city of New York. Not long afterward the vestry sent a report to the Archbishop of Canterbury. “The situation of our church is very pleasant,” the vestry wrote, “between two rivers on eminent ground.”
Churches are in fact in-between places — they are at once temporal and eternal, tangible and intangible, secular in setting yet sacred in mission. Perhaps no parish in the Anglican Communion is a more vivid example of the contrasts between the hectic pace of this world and the holy promise of the next than Trinity, a critical element, a telling tableau. It is a temple of the Christian God set in the midst of Wall Street, a holy place in the world of money and appetite. That the parish stands so close by the Stock Exchange, Federal Hall, and Ground Zero gives us a tactile manifestation of the competing claims the world puts on humanity. There is the pull of religion, of commerce, of politics, and of terror. Contradiction, conflict, and tension are thus permanent features of Trinity’s spiritual geography.
And the Ascension is, like Trinity and like the Christian story itself, also bound up in contradiction, conflict, and tension. With the Ascension, as with so many of the miracles of Jesus, we find ourselves torn between legend and fact, between myth and reality. When speaking of the Resurrection or of the Ascension, the most rational, the most modern thing to do is to the cast the stories as metaphoric. It is an ancient critical reaction to the more spectacularly irrational elements of the biblical experience: Did Moses really part the Red Sea with Cecil B. DeMille-like sweep? And with Jesus, the temptation to comb through the gospel accounts in search of rational moments amid the miraculous milestones is an exercise that fascinated no less a man than Thomas Jefferson.
History and theology are not as easily distinguished from one another as we might at first think. History is what happened in time and space. Theology is what a people think history means. History is horizontal, theology vertical, and their intersection is the motive force behind our religious, national, and personal imaginations. Because of evidence from the past, we have, in other words, faith in the proposition that there is an unseen yet undeniably real truth at work in the world.
So it was with the Passion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension two millennia ago. The Ascension essentially closes the drama that began in what we call Holy Week. And the main point I would like to make is that the Ascension stories we have heard do not require you to believe that a group of largely marginalized first-century Jews had surprising access to a Star Trek-like transporter system. Read carefully — and we are always instructed to use our minds as well as our hearts in interpreting scripture; light can never enter into nor emanate from a closed mind — and we can see that the accounts in both the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the apostles use terms that suggest things rather different from a literal orbital launch. Acts uses the term “lifted up” (1:9), but the word is “epairo,” which describes how one raises one’s voice, raises one’s eyes, or raises one’s head — it is to amplify, to enlarge one’s perspective, to assert dignity. And St. Luke writes that Jesus “was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:53) but “carried up” is the same verb used to describe when someone “sits up” into power and authority — not a literal elevation through the clouds. (I am grateful to the Reverend Christopher Bowhay, of St. George’s Church, Nashville, for his guidance on this exegesis.) Understood in this light, the Ascension is less an improbable supernatural event and more of an assertion of the centrality of the role and meaning of Jesus by devout and sincere chroniclers of a new and endangered faith. He had ascended at once to the pinnacle and to the heart of a new and transfigured history.
Yet it was still history — this is crucial. History did not end with Jesus. God’s creatures might well be “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven” through the blood of Jesus, but God’s creation remained — and remains — a place of pain and of perplexity. Jesus, we are often taught, is the answer, but if you are anything like me you surely wish there weren’t so damned many questions.
Such, though, is the mystery in which and with which we must all live. Jesus dismisses the disciples’ eagerness for a timetable — and by extension dismisses our own understandable yearning to know not only why but when all things are to be made new. “It is not for you,” he says in Acts, “to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”
We do not have all the answers, though we do have some, passed on to us by the prophets and the martyrs and the apostles: love one another as we would be loved; take care of the least of these; and remain open, always open, to the mysterious grace of God.
How easy such things are to say, or to preach, and how hard, how very hard, they are to do. How can the gasps of a dying man on a cross on a hill in a Jerusalem spring two millennia ago possibly be heard above the cries and the cares and the concerns of the here and now of Wall Street, and of our lives?
The answer is that we can hear those gasps where men and women have heard them since King William sent his orders to the New World. We hear them within the hush of this nave, and in the cool gloaming of these side aisles below the small sparkles of sunlit stained glass. We build churches to remind ourselves that there is a New Jerusalem to come, a place where tears and pain and death shall be no more.
We will never work out the contradictions evident in this neighborhood — the temples of love astride the temples of money near a mass grave in the midst of busy life. But in the end — in the very end — it is a wholly reasonable thing to trust in the cross and in its complexities as the means by which we can endure so that we might prevail. That, perhaps, is the ultimate ascension: one away from chaos and toward order, away from appetite and toward love, away from hate and toward love.
Image courtesy of Ger Dekker.