Sermon: The Flesh of God Reigns (Sunday, May 16)
Throughout the season of Easter, we have been meditating on the beautiful ironies of our faith. The empty tomb, the dead author of life reigning alive, the victory spoils of Christ’s triumph over sin and death being sinful humanity. That last irony, which we saw Easter Sunday, we said was possible only because Christ intends to heal the broken humanity He has taken as the spoils of conquest.
The Ascension of the Lord is the completion of His work of redemption, the Paschal Mystery. We often think of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, but the three events by which our salvation was accomplished are really His Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. Today the Lord completes His saving work. His Ascension into Heaven is an important event not only in His life, then, but also in ours.
The Sacred Liturgy celebrates another irony today. The Office of Matins sang out, “Peccat caro, mundat caro, Regnat Deus, Dei caro.” (The flesh sins, the flesh heals. God reigns; the flesh of God reigns.) Our flesh sinned, Christ’s flesh heals. This we can understand, but to speak of “the flesh of God” seems almost blasphemous. God is pure spirit; He does not have flesh!
We have here another example of a profound truth: The Incarnation of the Son of God really does change everything. Yes, we cannot speak of a “flesh of the divinity,” but because Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man, in Him we can even be so bold as to say that, “The flesh of God reigns.”
Beautiful, certainly. But does it matter? Does it make a difference for us? Yes. The Ascension of the Lord is the remedy to a worldly perspective that would see our human bodies as having nothing to do with our eternal destiny. How many times have you heard, “It’s what’s in your heart that counts!” On the contrary, the Lord’s Ascension shows us just how important the human body is. What we do with our bodies has an enormous effect on our souls, and also on our eternal destiny. The body is also meant to become holy – to put on immortality. This means that we ought to treat our bodies and use our bodies in such a way that recognizes their eternal destiny – a destiny in the presence of God and a calling to holiness.
St. Leo the Great says that at the Lord’s Ascension, “it was a great and unspeakable cause for joy to see human nature, in the presence of that multitude of believers, exalted above all creatures even heavenly, rising above the ranks of the angelic armies and speeding Its glorious way where the most noble of the Archangels lie far behind, to rest no lower than that place … high above all principality and power.”
Christ in Heaven, Leo tells us, has not ceased to have a real human nature, the same human nature that you and I possess! In fact, it is not just Christ’s soul that is already there in Heaven, but His very body. This means that something of us is already there in Heaven, above even the ranks of the archangels! St. Leo continues, “This day is not only the possession of Paradise made sure unto us, but in the Person of our Head we are actually begun to enter into the heavenly mansions above.” Heaven is not only to come, but because as baptized members of Christ, members of the Body of which He is the head, part of us is already there!
Though we often live as if this world is the end, Christ’s Ascension makes possible that not only do we yearn for the day when we enjoy the vision of God in Heaven, but reflections of that heavenly glory can begin to appear in this world as well, especially in the glory of the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, where the veil between Heaven and earth grows thin.
The problem is that this is not easy to believe. We cannot see Heaven with our bodily eyes, which can never behold any of the realities of the Faith. This is why the Roman liturgy that we celebrate is sometimes marked by unfulfillment. If at times we cannot see or understand, if words are hidden under a veil of an unknown tongue or even of silence, this is not a bad thing! Things like the Latin tongue and traditional liturgical gestures and postures do not exist to exclude the faithful, but to teach us that we must believe in the invisible realities of faith toward which the liturgy points. The sacred liturgy is not about us, but about God, and thus the liturgy invites us to gaze up towards Heaven in mystery and awe.
If we struggle with this, or with belief in Christ Himself at times, we are in good company. Before ascending into Heaven, St. Mark tells us that Christ “upbraided [the Apostles] with their incredulity and hardness of heart, because they did not believe them who had seen him after he was risen again.”
But here too there is a great irony. As St. Gregory the Great comments, “the disciples' slowness to believe that the Lord had indeed risen from the dead, was not so much their weakness as our strength… For my part, I put my trust in Thomas, who doubted long, much more than in Mary Magdalene, who believed at once. Through his doubting, he came actually to handle the holes of the Wounds, and thereby closed up any wound of doubt in our hearts.”
Thomas’s touching the Lord’s side after doubting closed up any wound of doubt in our hearts. The hard work has been done. The victory has been won. Today we need only claim our share of the prize.
Today, our very lives are wrapped up in the cosmic triumph of Christ. His Ascension, the final act of His Paschal Mystery, restores fallen humanity and gives it an even greater destiny than we had in the beginning. Adam and Eve were meant to live forever in paradise, but we are now offered something even greater. In the words of the Preface of today’s Mass, Christ ascends into Heaven, “that He might grant unto us to be sharers in His own divinity.” Not only that we might be with Him in paradise, but that there with Him we might be transformed from within to shine with the very light of His glory.
Today we return to the beginning of the journey – the garden in which Adam fell, our times of doubt and despair, our falling into sin – and we know the place for the first time, because now we see what that happy fault of Adam has won. As Christ ascends into Heaven, leading captive our captivity, the journey we set out upon at the beginning of Lent is now complete. We see the destiny of Adam and Eve, broken by sin, that should have been and was not, but more clearly still the destiny that is – man’s glorification in Christ – and is even better.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, A.D. MMXXI
Image: The Ascension by Rembrandt