‘I came forth from the Father and came into the world. Now, I am leaving the world and going to the Father’.
So Jesus said at the Last Supper, summing up his life in a sentence.
Since Advent and Christmas, we’ve been following Jesus’ journey from the Father into the world. He ‘came down from heaven’, says the Creed. This is not about astrophysics or topography. Rather, he, the Son of God, entered our human situation, stage by stage, ever more deeply. He went down under the water in the River Jordan at his baptism, down to our weakness when he was tempted by the devil in the desert. He went down into the distress of Gethsemane and the pain of the Passion. He was taken down from the cross and buried, and descended into the world of the dead. So, he went the whole way into our situation, our life, our death, the whole human thing. Then, with Easter, the imagery, the movement changes. He rose from the dead and today he ascends to the Father. It is the other half of the story, the upward curve. ‘While they were looking on, he was taken up and a cloud him from their sight.’ Again, it’s not about geography or astrophysics. It’s about us being taken up into his life, his situation. He came into ours so that we might enter into his. ‘I shall be their God and they shall be my people.’ God with us and we with God. It’s two-sided, reciprocal. He shared our sadness so we can share his joy. He identified with us, so we can be identified with him. And the great feasts that follow after Pentecost – think of the Assumption and All Saints – are feasts of ‘going up’, our going up with him. Today, the Psalm says: ‘God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blast.’ Today’s Collect runs: ‘Gladden us with holy joys, almighty God, and make us rejoice with devout thanksgiving, for the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation, and where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.’
Christ’s Ascension is our ascension. Here’s a comparison. Imagine Aberdeen were to win the Cup. Think of the delight of the fans at Hampden Park and of people back here. By the strange chemistry of identification, the victory of eleven men would be the victory of us all. Today, after a far more deadly game, Christ brings our humanity, taken from Mary, into the presence of his heavenly Father. It’s raised above the entire universe. ‘For human nature has been lifted above the dignity of all the creatures of heaven, passing beyond the ranks of the angels, being raised above the high seat of the archangels, to receive an elevation that has no limit until it is admitted into the eternal Father’s dwelling, to share his glorious throne’ (St Leo). Here is Christ our Captain lifting up the trophy, the cup – which is us, our humanity, joined to his divinity. Here are the angels applauding. Here are we back home, following the victory, as it were, on the sacramental screen of the liturgy. ‘All peoples clap your hands…Sing praise for God, sing praise.’
Or again: think of the great explorers and discoverers. They’d reach the North Pole, or discover an island, or a whole new land. And they’d plant the national flag. Back the news would come and the whole country would swell with pride. Again, it’s this mystery of identification. Today, our victorious Lamb has planted the flag of humanity in the heart of the Trinity. There we are in God, body and soul. There’s that flag of our wounded but glorified human nature blowing in the wind of the Holy Spirit. Our Columbus, our Captain Cook, our Shackleton has made it. And, through him, with him, in him, so have we.
Perhaps, we can take this idea of exploration still further. The grace of our Lord’s Passion is the forgiveness of sins. The grace of his Resurrection is a spiritual rebirth: faith, hope and charity in the human heart. The grace of his Ascension is the opening of heaven. It’s as though a whole new territory, a new continent is opened up for us. Opened up and annexed, claimed for the crown, the kingship of Christ. Our life now has a quite new, qualitatively different potential. How people once yearned to reach North America or are yearning now for Europe or Australia: longing to be safe and free and able to flourish; a better life. In reality, migration doesn’t always work out as we dream, can end in shipwreck, and even when not, we are still in the sphere of this life only. But today Jesus shows himself no longer confined by any constrictions. We may be harried by time and locked into space, destined to die, but he has now broken this open from within, opened another horizon. He opens up a new kind of time and space, where our whole being will be safe and free and alive, alive with a life death cannot touch.
How grateful we should be to Jesus!
We glimpse this new space, this new possibility, when we really love. It can be tasted in the loveliest moments of the love of man and woman, or in friendship, or in whole-hearted dedication. When we can completely accept and be completely accepted, give and receive from a full heart, having full access to another’s heart and they to ours. Heaven is that and more. It’s the peace of total mutual love with no fear of loss and change, when we’re taken past any possibility of rejection or condemnation, able to throw ourselves into an infinite ocean of love.
‘Sing praise to our God, sing praise.’ Let us thank him for his mercy, for this hope, this new horizon, this future. Let’s live lives that prepare us for it. Let’s have a foretaste of it here tonight, in peace around the altar, he in us and we in him through the Eucharistic mystery. He is closer than ever to us now, longing to give us his joy.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 25 May 2017)