Propers: The Seventh Sunday of Easter, A.D. 2017 A
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
On the 40th day after His Resurrection, Jesus Christ Ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He is there to this day, serving as our great High Priest in that Temple not made with hands, praying for us, interceding for us, that we might all be made one in Him to the glory of God the Father Almighty.
When we as Christians speak of Jesus’ sacrifice, we usually limit ourselves to the Cross: He died for our sins. The Resurrection and Ascension, then, are sort of the aftereffects, the victory lap. Jesus returns to Heaven because His work is done. But this is to misunderstand the Atonement. The Ascension, Christ’s returning to the Father, is not only part and parcel of His sacrifice; it is in fact the most important part, the culmination of His work.
Sacrifice is a big deal in the Old Testament. The very heart of Israelite religion for a thousand years was the great Temple in Jerusalem, the House of God on earth. And there smoke went up continually from the animal sacrifices offered day and night upon the altar of the Lord. The sacrifice of an animal represents the giving of oneself. Animals are valuable, life-giving. It costs us, in more ways than one, to sacrifice a living creature. And so the animal would be offered on our behalf, and the fire would transform it and carry it up to God, who would accept the sacrifice and claim it as His own.
The heart of sacrifice, in the Bible, is that we offer to God our lives and ourselves, and God in turn accepts us, transforms us, and claims us for His own.
Now, it would be remiss if I didn’t point out that in the Old Testament God does not require from His people much in the way of animal sacrifice until after they’ve rebelled against Him at Sinai, when they made for themselves a golden calf. The majority of sacrificial law appears to be God’s response to this apostasy, as though He knew that the Israelites throughout their generations would need constant and visceral reminders that faith is grounded not in our own prosperity and livestock but in the true God who alone is faithful and keeps His promises.
As the Psalmist and Prophets make clear, God does not require the blood of bulls or flesh of goats. Rather, He requires of us that we love our God with all we have, and live out this love in showing justice and compassion to our neighbor in his need. This is not pagan sacrifice to a hungry god. Rather, my act of offering myself to you, in a real and visceral way, and you then accepting and elevating me in return, is the clear embodiment a reciprocal relationship of love.
That’s what the Temple is all about—not scapegoating violence, but embodying, making manifest, the sure and constant bond of love between God and His people. And so this bond is not some wispy ideal but a real thing of fire and smoke and blood.
Of course, when Jesus comes to earth, He flips the whole system of Temple sacrifice on its head. Jesus, we know, is God in the flesh, God come down to heal us, to teach us, to sweat and laugh and cry with us. He goes about willy-nilly, speaking truth to power, lifting up the lowly, raising the dead! And in response to this astounding, unmerited grace—we kill Him.
The Crucifixion is not humanity offering up a perfect sacrifice to an angry God. It’s not an act of vicarious punishment that must satisfy divine justice in order for the world to be forgiven. No: first Jesus forgives, and then we kill Him for it. The Cross does not offer an innocent Man up to the violence of God, but instead it is God who offers Himself up on the Cross to the violence of humanity. And when we murder Him—when we slaughter Him as the Passover Lamb whose Blood sets us free—even then He speaks the words of our forgiveness from the very wood of the Cross, and pours out His life for love of the world.
But that’s not the end of it. For in His Resurrection, in His Rising body and soul from the dead, Jesus is transfigured, transformed and glorified! He is now so fully alive that at first even His closest friends can no longer recognize Him. He has been transformed body and soul by the fire of the Holy Spirit within His flesh, just as the animals slaughtered in the Temple were transformed by sacrificial fire.
And just as with those sacrifices in the Temple, so now must Jesus’ own humanity be lifted up into Heaven, claimed by the Father, accepted as His own. And so the sacrifice is complete! In Jesus, humanity itself has been perfected, offered up, transformed, accepted, and claimed as God’s own! This was the plan all along! God the Son came down to earth, became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made Man, so that He could then Ascend back up into Heaven, returning to the Father with all of humanity brought into union with God’s eternal Being. That’s what Heaven really is: it’s perfect union with God.
Eternal life doesn’t mean that we just get to go to a nice place after we die. Eternal life is nothing less than to live in perfect relationship, perfect union with God in Christ Jesus—that we may all be one, just as He and the Father are One. And this starts now! Not later, not in another world. We are forgiven and accepted and claimed by God, brought into relationship and union with God, here and now. The same fire that transformed Jesus’ humanity, the fire of the Holy Spirit, burns now inside of us.
That’s why St Paul calls our bodies Temples of God’s Spirit, and calls God a consuming fire, and why he says some will be saved “as through fire.” We are called to live lives of love and self-sacrifice—which are really the same thing—forever offering ourselves to God, that God may transform us, accept us, glorify and exalt us, claiming us as His own. And this is a lifelong process.
When the Bible talks about God “testing” us, always testing, it doesn’t mean that God is issuing some cosmic standardized exam that some will pass and others fail. Rather, it means that we are tested as silver in the furnace, as metal in the fire, burning away our dross, being transformed by the fire, so that we may daily offer ourselves to God and that God—in the mysterious workings of His providence and mercy—may make us stronger, purer, brighter, hotter, liberating us from our slag and shaping us into who and what we were meant to be all along.
And yeah, that hurts. Growth always does. To love is to give of oneself, to suffer for the beloved, just as Jesus did and continues to do for us every moment of every day. Life is suffering, yet it always surprises us. What is most amazing to me is that we chose to make God suffer, and in response God chose to suffer for us. If that’s not sacrifice, then I don’t know what is.
When we suffer, when we grieve, when we despair—when we are afflicted by disease or loss or the specter of untimely death—know, my brothers and sisters, that you are not alone. God is not blind to your sufferings, but shares in them along with you. In Jesus, God knows what it is to suffer unjustly, to be persecuted and afflicted and to perish all alone. And He will not abandon us to the same. Eternal life is not just some hope beyond the horizon; eternal life is to know the fiery love of God and to be drawn into ever deeper union with Him through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Offer to Him your sufferings, offer them as sacrifice, and He will take them all upon Himself. He will accept them, transform them, and claim them for His own. He does not cause your sufferings, He does not will your sufferings, but by the fires of His grace He can transform them into something strange and terribly wondrous: He can make your wounds the means by which He pours out His life into you.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Credit to whom credit is due: the above interpretation of the Ascension, placing emphasis on the sacrificial fire of the Holy Spirit, comes from Fr Patrick Henry Reardon of the Antiochean Orthodox Church, in his reflections on Ascension Thursday from the St James Daily Devotional Guide. The understanding of sacrificial law as penance for the apostasy of the golden calf is to be found in the writings of several Church Fathers, compiled by Dr Scott Hahn in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: Exodus.