Almost two thousand years ago, the Son of God was put to death on a cross on the Passover, the annual celebration of God’s having delivered Israel from physical slavery in Egypt in the days of Moses. On the following Sunday, He rose again from the dead. Through His death, offered up as an expiatory and propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the world, and His triumph over death, He brought deliverance from the slavery to sin and Satan which had held the world captive since the Fall of mankind. For this reason that Sunday has ever since been celebrated by Christ’s Church as the Christian Passover, known as Pascha, Easter, or simply Resurrection Sunday, depending upon where in the world you live, what language you speak, and what branch of the Christian tradition you belong to. Forty days later, He addressed His Apostles assembled on the Mount of Olives, commissioned them to carry His Gospel to the ends of the earth, bestowed a final benediction upon them, and then rose up into the sky and was hidden by the clouds. This is why the Thursday that is the fortieth day after Easter and the tenth before Whitsunday or Pentecost is Ascension Day. This past Thursday was Ascension Day.
In our time Ascension Day is not as widely recognized in the larger cultures of our nominally Christian societies as Christmas or Easter. For that matter, even in the ecclesiastical culture it seems to occupy a smaller space than it did up until a century or so ago. I am not thinking here primarily of those sects that seldom recognize any day on the Christian calendar that has not been heavily commercialized by the secular culture. Even in Churches that in one form or another affirm the Creeds, practice the liturgies, and follow the calendars that have come down to us from the early centuries of the Church, the Ascension has not been emphasized as much as it used to be. When Christendom was still recognizably Christendom, even in the early stages of its decline into the decadence of Modern Western Civilization, Ascension Thursday was a public holiday. Today, it has become a widespread practice, even in many provinces of the Roman Communion in which it is a Holy Day of Obligation, that is, a day on which attendance at mass is mandatory, to move the celebration to the Sunday after the actual day.
Having said that, I would note that prior to this year there was plenty of opportunity in my own Anglican diocese for anyone who wanted to do so to keep the feast. In the days of Christendom a vigil was traditionally held on the eve of all of the great Holy Days. That has regrettably died out for the most part except for the midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve and the vigil on Holy Saturday which is Easter Eve. The eve of Ascension was no exception (1) and on this eve, the College Chapel of St. John the Evangelist, the Anglican college of the University of Manitoba, up until last year hosted All the King’s Men, the male-voice liturgical choir that sings Choral Evensong there on the first Sunday of every month. On Ascension Eve they would sing a Eucharist – usually William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices for the ordinaries - and the college chaplain, or a parish priest invited to do so if the chaplain were not available, would celebrate the Eucharist. On the following evening, the actual Ascension Day, the parish of St. Michael and All Angels which is the most Anglo-Catholic parish in the diocese, would hold a solemn Mass, just as beautifully sung although usually a different style and era, with all the “smells and bells.” Then three days later it would be Ascension Sunday in all of the other parishes.
How different things are this year!
There was still one service available in the diocese on Ascension Day itself. This was a Choral Evensong offered by the parish of St. George (Crescentwood). It was, of course, only available online where it was livestreamed. This Sunday, the other parishes that offer online services, whether live-streamed or, like my own, pre-recorded, will presumably have an Ascension theme.
The reason for this difference is, of course, that the province has been under a public health order restricting gatherings to ten people and the diocese has been under an episcopal suspension of public services. The provincial gathering limit has been raised to twenty-five people in-doors, fifty outside, but this started the day after Ascension. Meanwhile the suspension of public services and the interdict on the Eucharist has not been lifted in the diocese.
Throughout this pandemic abortion quacks have been allowed to continue their ghastly, life-destroying, profession, even though all sorts of life-saving medical procedures have been delayed due to the virus. The vendors that sell in various forms the mind-destroying toxin taken from the non-industrial kind of hemp have been allowed to remain open, despite the fact that other, far more wholesome and legitimate, businesses have been closed and even driven to near insolvency. The province has been slowly lifting restrictions and allowing public facilities, services, and businesses to re-open. The re-opening of the Churches and other places of worship does not appear to be on the immediate horizon. It is very likely that they will be the very last to receive government approval to re-open.
How anyone can look at all of this and not consider the unreasonable and unprecedented government measures taken to control this virus to be a manifestation of darkness and evil is beyond me.
As I have been pointing out since the beginning of the lockdown these measures have mimicked the conditions that were imposed upon the enslaved nations behind the Iron Curtain by the Soviet Union. They have limited to the point of essentially nullifying all of the most basic rights and freedoms in our British Commonwealth tradition. A mountain of rules against actions which are merely normal, everyday, behaviour have been dumped upon us. Those who have been telling us to “stay home”, to practice “social distancing” and be “alone together” have been conditioning us to fear in-person human contact and interaction which is essential to our very nature and bonum in se. The only word to describe all of this is “evil”. Dr. Bruce Charlton has been very right to argue, as he has all along, that spiritual evil is behind all of this.
This is why the message of the Ascension is so very important at this point in time.
Here is what our Creedal confessions say about the Ascension:
“He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” – Apostles’ Creed
“And ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father.” – Nicene Creed
“He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty: from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” – Athanasian Creed
Like the Scriptures from which they are derived the Creeds connect the Ascension to both Christ’s present position in Heaven where He sits at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19) and to His Second Coming (Acts 1:11). The right hand of God where He presently sits is the position of ultimate authority. At the Second Coming, He will display that authority in a way visible to all when He pronounces the Final Judgement on the living and dead. Until then, He is invisible on earth except through His Body, the Church, but is still in the position of ultimate authority. The spiritual evil that is behind this lockdown is an evil He defeated once and for all in His death and resurrection. He promised that that evil would never prevail against His Church. (Matt. 16:18).
This is the message we need at this time.
(1) In the Eastern Church which, of course, due to the difference in the liturgical calendars celebrates it a week later than we do, the Ascension vigil is still an important tradition.
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