"The foundation of all our Christian hope": A Restoration-era Ascension Day sermon

From a 1671 collection of sermons by John Torbuck, Extraordinary dayes, or, Sermons on the most solemn Feasts and fasts throughout the year, a sermon "On Holy-Thursday, Or the Ascension". With Ephesians 4:10 as the text, the sermon opens by placing the Ascension within the outworking of the plan of salvation

Here is the Highest ascent answering to the Lowest descent imaginable, and both in one and the same person. He that descended, is the same also that ascended, &c.

This the Apostle speaks of Christ in his Exposition on that Prophetical Psalm the 68, proper for this day.

His Descent we have already treated, from Heaven to the Earth, the lowest part of the world, at his Incarnation; from the surface of the Earth, into the Bowels thereof (the grave) at his passion.

He descended from the bosom of his Eternal Father (that excellent Glory, 2 Pet. 1. c. 17.) into the lap of a poor Virgin: He that thought it no robbery to be equal with God, took to him humane nature and in it the form of a Servant, submitted himself to shame pain, mortality, was Crucified, Dead, and Buried, nay (say we in our Creed) Descended into Hell; lower than this he could not go.

Now He that descended thus, hath as many lifts of his ascension till he came to the highest pitch can be, Mark, the terms of his rise, He ascended up, far, above, all Heavens.

The salvific nature of the Lord's Ascension is then powerfully expounded:

The causes then of his Ascending were,

1. To lead Captivity Captive. Sin, Satan, Death and the Grave. He riding in triumph into Heaven, like a glorious Victor, made an open shew of these spoils, disarming Sin of its condemning power, cancelled the terrible Hand-writing of the Law that was against us, slew Death by being slain by it, He trod out the sting of this Adder. He trampled on the Dragon the Devil, bruising his head with his victorious Heel.

2. To give Gifts unto men. The former Act spoke the valour of his Triumph, This the Bounty, that, shewed his Greatness, this, his Goodness. When He ascended up on High, He led Captivity Captive, and gave Gifts unto men. This day of his Coronation, the Conduits run with Wine, the new Coin is scattered abroad.

When he was taken out of Sight, at such a distance, up far above all Heavens, we might have been apt to have concluded, out of sight out of mind, Pharaoh's chief Butlers re-advance made him forget Joseph. But the height of Christ's place, doth not make him unmindful of us, he remembers us in his Kingdom, and from thence sends us rich presents gifts, and graces, Temporal and Spiritual blessings, for whatever we receive as a pledge of God's greatest love towards us must be through his mercy in Christ.

3. To prepare a place for all that believe in him. This blessed Harbinger is gone before in our flesh, to take possession for us of our Heavenly Mansions, most glorious certainly, and Magnificent, as provided and appointed by such Infinite Majesty and Bounty.

Prepare us dear Jesus, for those happy habitations which thy love hath so painfully and carefully fitted and prepared for us.

The Relation that is betwixt Christ in heaven, and his Church on earth, gives us a full assurance that he will bring that thither. The Head is not complete without its members, nor the Bridegroom without his Bride. Christ therefore shall undoubtedly unite to himself his Body Mystical, and take to the same place his beloved beauteous Spouse; She shall be brought to the King (her Husband) in raiment of needle-work, with gladness and rejoicing shall she be brought into the Kings Palace ...

As all Christ's undertakings in the flesh, his Birth, Death, Resurrection, he was Born for us, died for us, rose again for us; so at his Ascension we come in too, he ascended for us, he is gone up on high far above all Heavens to prepare there a place for us.

4. To send the Comforter down unto his Church, 'It is expedient for you, &c'. There lies an expedience that Holy Thursday should precede Pentecost; Christ must go before the Holy Ghost can come down; for which Bishop Andrewes alleges excellent Reasons gathered from the fathers.

The robust doctrinal orthodoxy of the sermon is evident.  It is also richly orthodox, echoing many patristic themes and aspects of patristic exegesis, including "the Analogical sense".  The emphasis on the salvific nature of the Ascension is similarly significant, exemplifying a catholic understanding of salvation rather than (as, for example, Eamon Duffy suggests was a result of the Reformation) a narrowly-construed account of the Atonement and Justification.

The above extract from the sermon quoting Andrewes is is one of two such references, both pointing to the use of patristic sources in the Whitsun sermons.  Alongside these are two references to Beza, one using the truth of the Lord's Ascension to refute transubstantiation, the second to emphasise that Lord's true humanity is glorified in the Ascension.  This is a rather good example of the self-understanding of the Laudian and High Church tradition, in which the patristic emphasis of Andrewes was considered to be entirely compatible with and related to Reformed orthodoxy, not least on the matter of the Eucharist.  The use of the Ascension to critique transubstantiation - repeated in the sermon - was, of course, a conventional Reformed approach. 

The manner in which this point was emphasised is also important to note because it relates to the understanding of the salvific nature of the Ascension.  To propose transubstantiation, the sermon argues (in classical Reformed fashion), is to deny the Lord's true humanity, "unbody his Body ... ascribing to it (the property of a divine Essence only) omnipresence":

But to deny Christ pure and perfect man, (which we must do,) if we thus wrong him of his Human Body, were 'Spem nostram a fundamentis convellere', So Beza. To destroy the foundation of all our Christian hope.

Rather than being a narrow, rationalist act of 'disenchantment', the use of the Ascension as a critique of transubstantiation was an expression of the vision glorious, the Christian hope of our humanity in Christ redeemed and glorified.  


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