We are keeping a beautiful feast.
“As he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven”. So the Gospel describes what we are celebrating. “He withdrew from them”: he brought to an end the 40 days of post-Resurrection appearances to his disciples. He “was carried up into heaven”: returning to the Father from whom he came, taken in his humanity, definitively, irreversibly into God’s heavenly domain and into the fullness of who he is. He leapt, says an Anglo-Saxon poet. And in that “leap”, “the host of angels / … was made glad with rapture / with joy…[and] / the play of the prince became an eternal delight” (Cynewulf, Christ II). The disciples, too, “went back to Jerusalem full of joy”, rejoicing in the joy of the one they loved.
Let’s try to enter into this.
Into our lives, mercifully, things come that open us up, broaden our horizons, lift us beyond ourselves, inspire us, fill us with life. Some things do this en passant, as it were: a good evening with friends, or a good film or show, or a holiday that works. Other things do the same long term. It may be the beauty of nature, the call of the sea, or art or music or sport – think of Niki Lauda or Billy McNeill – or science. A monastic brother of mine, when he was a novice, discovered the Bible and 40 years later is still taken up with it. It has lifted him up when he has been down, kept him going, been a constant point of reference, still enthuses him. Most of all, there are the people who come into our lives and stay there, the people we love and who’ve loved us. Thanks to this, life isn’t just a forced march in the rain. Billy McNeill said there were three great things in his life: faith, family and football, and in that order. What a well-ordered man!
And so we come to faith and knowing our Lord. It has this uplifting power. And somehow this is all caught in tonight’s feast, in its symbolism and its reality. The Ascension was Jesus’ lifting up, his being transported to glory and joy. Dare we ask, what were the “things” that kept Jesus going during his life on earth, that lifted him up, all the way to the Cross, to complete self-transcendence? Us, yes, and beyond us his Father. And now, his mission completed, having done what he had to do, he could surrender entirely to the upward pull of the Father. He had spent his life loving the Father and now he could spend eternity being loved by the Father: the Father crowning him with glory and honour, giving him the Name above all names, lifting him “far above every Sovereignty, Authority, Power or Domination, or any other name that can be named”, seating him at his right hand, putting all things under his feet, making him fully and finally Lord and Christ, King and Judge, High Priest and Head of the Church, his body “the fullness of him who fills the whole creation”.
And what the Father is to his Son, Jesus is to us. In his ascended humanity, he opens us up, enlarges us, lifts us up, takes us beyond ourselves. Who’d have thought this fragile creature, seemingly a random spin-off of evolution, an unplanned offspring of a one-off planet, a prey to cancer and grief, the plaything of so many forces: who’d have thought this creature could have such a destiny as we have, to be “carried off” into the heart of the Trinity, to be blessedly “lost at sea” in the immensity and eternity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit? The Latin liturgy calls Christ’s Ascension nostra provectio. What’s provectio? It links to our word “vehicle”. It means being carried away, taken out to sea perhaps: so, Christ our Galleon, our Cutty Sark, Christ our liner, our cruise-ship. It’s being transported somewhere else: Christ our Stallion, our Shadowfax, our Tardis, our Helicarrier. St Paul says of himself: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Eph 3:14). Pope Francis talks of a hope that doesn’t cancel all our problems, that’s not just optimism or a psychological attitude or a desire to be brave, but “is a gift God gives us if we come out of ourselves and open our hearts to him, a hope that does not disappoint”.
This is the grace of this feast: to feel the pull of the ascending Christ, to change the direction of our lives in the light of the new heavenly horizon, the access to the Father’s house his Ascension gives us. It’s to let the Lord expand our potential. “I am not dying; I am entering into life”, said St Therese of Lisieux. There was a powerful prayer in our Vespers: “O Christ, who promised to draw all people to yourself, don’t let any of us be torn away from your Body.” Head and Body are one, Christ and ourselves. As St Augustine says, “though he is there [in glory], he is also with us, and though we are here, we are also with him.” So let us stay on board the ship, let’s cling to the horse, “together in Christ”. Let’s keep faith and hope, remain in the communion of the Church, bear one another’s burdens.
Let’s pray for ourselves the prayer of St Paul: “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give [us] a spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed, to bring [us] to full knowledge of him. May he enlighten the eyes of [our] mind so that [we] can see what hope his call holds for [us], what rich glories he has promised the saints will inherit and how infinitely great is the power he has exercised for us believers”. Amen.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, 29 May 2019)