“And so the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven.” This is the feast of the Ascension, forty days from Easter Sunday. In a flurry of fancy an Anglo-Saxon poet, Cynewulf, calls the Ascension a great jump, the sixth of the leaps that mark Christ’s course. The first was from heaven to earth, from his heavenly Father to an earthly mother when he “took on human form without sin, [and] became a comfort / for all earth’s inhabitants.” The second from the comfort of a womb to the Spartan manger and the life of the world. The third when he ascended the cross, leapt from life into death. The fourth when “he gave up the tree”, the Cross, and was laid in the tomb. The fifth, in his spirit, out of our sight, into the world of the dead: the harrowing of hell. And today, the final bound, the “noble jump” from the Mount of Olives to the right hand of his Father when he leap[s] upon the high downs, envelop[s] hills and knolls with his glory, redeem[s] the world, all earth-dwellers… And the host of angels…saw glory’s majesty, the chief of princes, seek his homeland, the bright dwellings” (Ascension 2).
Thank God for poets and flights of fancy! But, of course, we know we have to go beyond the ancient images or the modern ones: Jesus was not, like Robot Perseverance, in the service of NASA. This leap we call the Ascension is of a different order. It reframes our human story. Our own trajectory runs from birth to death, but into that, intersecting it, God has sent his Son. Divinity has entered humanity. In Christ, divinity has lived our human story and taken our humanity up into itself. Life has been raised to a higher power. It has been enlarged. “Your eyes, says Isaiah, will behold the king in his beauty; they will see a land that stretches afar” (Is 33:17). When the Son of God returns to his Father, he is carrying us in the cargo-hold, as it were. Human nature is bolted on unbreakably; it’s now part of the living God for ever. What began at the Incarnation is completed at the Ascension. And what happened to the human nature of Christ at the Ascension can be re-enacted in us individual, human persons, one by one, through the generations. By faith and the Sacraments, we are the earthly members of a glorified Body and have a heavenly inheritance to claim – the land that stretches afar.
The Ascension has so much to it. Perhaps, in the slipstream of Christ ascending, we feel a fresh wind blowing. Christ’s Ascension sanctifies the metaphorical air we breathe, disperses what St Paul calls “the [evil] spirits in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12), lightens the atmosphere. That happens when we inhale this feast. The wind of Pentecost begins to gather momentum.
Or again, just as we are looking forward to life after Covid and or comfort our friends after setbacks by saying there’s life after bereavement, after job-loss or other nasties, so the Ascension comforts us with the revelation of life after everything. The Ascension completes Christ’s victory over death. Now we can pray and our prayers know how to end: through Christ our Lord, who lives – through his Resurrection – and reigns (over everything) thanks to his Ascension. Put simply, there’s heaven now. Bl. Carlo Acutis, the recently beatified young man, the millennial saint, the precocious computer programmer, who died at 15 in 2006, said many fine things. One was, “we are always expected in heaven.” That’s the message of the Ascension. “Sadness is looking at ourselves, happiness is looking towards God.” That is too. And “something extraordinary”, he said, “is waiting for us in eternal life.”
There’s a whole tradition, echoed in the liturgy, that what happens today throws the angels into disarray, but happily so. This is why they feature in the feast’s iconography. They are taken aback. God has opted for the underdog – poor human beings. The King has left the princesses aside and married the chambermaid. What are we? “You turn man back to dust,” says the Psalm, “and say, ‘Return, O children of Adam’…You sweep them away like a dream, like grass which is fresh in the morning. In the morning it sprouts and is fresh; by evening it withers and fades” (Ps 90: 3, 5-6). But these are the ones his love has singled out. “Unhappy creature, storm-tossed, disconsolate”: we remember that description from the Easter Vigil. It’s us. But we remember too the promise that follows: “see I will set your stones on carbuncles and your foundations on sapphires…You will be founded on integrity; remote from oppression, you will have nothing to fear; remote from terror, it will not approach you” (Is 54: 11, 14). The Ascension reverses expectations, the angels and ours. God has chosen the weak, not the strong. And the good angels welcome God’s surprises. They rejoice to see human nature lodged so intimately in God. They rejoice again when they see Christ’s mother, at her Assumption, “raised above the cherubim and seraphim”. They shake their heads with joy at every one of us redeemed by Christ, like Elves applauding hobbits. They eagerly become “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb 1:14). They rearrange themselves at the service of Christ and the Church. Christ’s Ascension does this as well: it releases the angels among us.
“Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord” prays Psalm 4, v. 7. Perhaps this is the Ascension, more than anything. God the Father has “lifted up” on us the light of his face, that is, the face of his glorified Son. That light shines and guides us. “You have put into my heart,” the Psalmist goes on, “a greater joy than abundance of grain and new wine” (Ps 4:8) – the “greater joy” of the Holy Spirit. “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (Is 2:5). Let us walk in the light of this face, “often halting, loitering, straying, delaying, returning, yet following no other way” (T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock) – Christ our Lord, “who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.”
St Mary’s Cathedral, 13 May 2021