“As our great high priest, he ascended to your right hand in glory, that we might come with confidence before the throne of grace.” (The Prayer of Consecration, Renewed Ancient Text, Book of Common Prayer 2019)

While studying for my master’s degree at Gordon-Conwell about a dozen years ago, I enjoyed gathering for Morning Prayer with a couple other students in a small prayer chapel at the school.
The chapel contains, from its earlier days as a Carmelite monastery before purchased by Billy Graham and other notable evangelicals, a red marble altar with a canopy that reads, “Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus” (Latin for “Holy Holy Holy”). These words are an allusion to the vision in which the prophet Isaiah is first called into his ministry, when he sees a glimpse God’s throne in heaven. The throne is surrounded by angels, covering their faces and proclaiming before God, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty!”
“Woe is me!” Isaiah cries out, certain that he, a sinner, will be destroyed in the presence of such a holy God.
The old altar and canopy in the prayer chapel are a demonstration of the tradition from which they come, a tradition that emphasizes this same sort of reverence in our approach to a holy God.

Under the canopy is a painting, added sometime after the campus became an evangelical seminary. It features the text of Hebrews 4:16: “Let us come boldly unto the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.” The emphasis is on our confidence in the presence of God. Here in Gordon-Conwell’s prayer chapel, the message was quite clear: When you come to pray, come freely and boldly, expecting God to welcome you and hear your prayers.
While the different elements of art might involve a slight stylistic mismatch, the tension between reverence and confidence is no contradiction; it is at the very heart of the Gospel. Like Isaiah, we too are a sinful people approaching a holy God. And yet, like Isaiah who is purified by a coal from the altar on which the atoning sacrifice is offered, we are purified. We, too, are invited to hear and speak God’s word. We, too, can approach God confidently not because we are holy like him, but because our sins have been atoned for by him.
Moments before the author of Hebrews calls us to draw near to God with confidence (4:16), he makes the sobering announcement that “nothing in all creation is hidden from [God’s] sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (4:13). The author invites us to a healthy, reverent fear of God, and then reassures us that we can also have confidence in approaching this holy God. We have confidence because we have a great high priest, a human being who “has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God” (4:14), who both understands our weaknesses and lives in the presence of his Father, speaking on our behalf.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension. In it we celebrate the victory of Jesus, who finished the work he was given on earth and victoriously took his seat as king in heaven. We also celebrate Jesus’ heavenly intercession, the fact that there is now a human being in heaven, speaking up for us in the presence of God. It is because of him that it is possible for us to know God in his holiness, and yet draw near with boldness. What a gift.