‘Lift up your hearts.’ We hear those words at every Mass. And we reply, ‘We lift them up to the Lord.’
It is thanks to the mystery we celebrate today that we can say this and do it. God the Father has raised his Son ‘from the dead and made him sit at his right hand, in heaven, far above every Sovereignty, Authority, Power or Domination’ (2nd Reading). So we can lift up our hearts to the Lord. We can lift them up beyond our worries and angers and frustrations and preoccupations. We can lift them up past what the Anglican Book of common Prayer calls ‘the changes and chances of this mortal life.’ We can lift them up despite everything that weighs us down. Our spirits are freed.
The early Christians who lived in the Holy Land and then, from the time of the Empress Helena, came there as pilgrims, loved to locate the events of Jesus’ life. According to the Acts of the Apostles (1:12), Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives, one of the hills overlooking Jerusalem. So in the 4th century, a church was built near the crest of the Mount of Olives. It was called the Church of the Ascension or ‘the Church on the Hill’. As such, it has long gone. Now there’s only a small chapel inside a complex with a mosque. It is in Muslim hands. But we know what the original church was like. It was round, a symbol of the world, and it was open to the sky, to express the opening to God our Lord’s Ascension entails. It’s ‘lift up your hearts’ in architecture. Here is the grace of the Ascension. It opens us. It opens up humanity to the great expanse of God, our Father in heaven. It lets the oxygen of God into the world.
But what happened? ‘As he said this he was lifted up while they looked on, and a cloud took him from their sight’ (1st Reading). For forty days, says St Luke, Jesus had been appearing to his disciples. In this last appearance, he signalled to them, as it were, that he was now withdrawing from them, that the time of his appearances was over, that he was finally returning to his Father from whom he came. The cloud that hid him from their sight was a sign of the glory of God into which he was entering. The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles imply that Jesus did visibly withdraw. It was the outward sign of a change in his relations with his disciples. It moved them into a new situation, a new moment in the history of God’s action in the world. The age of the Church was beginning.
This didn’t make the Mount of Olives Cape Canaveral. It wasn’t the start of a journey to another planet, or another part of the universe. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of ‘the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory’ (659), ‘the definitive entrance of Jesus’ humanity into God’s heavenly domain’ (665). According to the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus has ‘entered not into a sanctuary made by human hands…but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf’ (Heb 9:24). And ‘heaven’, once again, is not a part of the cosmos; it’s being in the presence of God.
Jesus didn’t become an astronaut. He didn’t journey to the stars. He has entered into the mystery of God, into a different dimension of being. And because he carries us all – he is the head and we are his body -, we – poor human beings – now have an everlasting place at the heart of God. ‘His being ‘seated at God’s right hand’ means he now has, in his humanity, a full communion of power and life with God and a share in his dominion over space. It means he can ‘fill the whole creation’ (2nd Reading), and that there’s no ‘black hole’, even in our hearts, that he cannot reach. (Cf. Benedict XVI Jesus of Nazareth, vol 2, pp. 278ff).
‘Lift up your hearts!’ A whole new dimension of life opens up for us now. We can ‘see what hope his call holds for’ us (2nd Reading) – not a vague hope, not something in our horoscope, but a share in Christ’s oneness with the Father. We can pray now in a quite new way. We can enjoy the hidden presence of Christ in a new way. And we can breathe! We’re no longer prisoners.
If we look at what makes up our lives, we can notice, perhaps, two great spheres. On the one hand, there’s the domain of relationships, family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, and with that our own feelings of affection or pain, the swirling world of our emotions. On the other hand, there’s the realm of jobs and work and money and shopping and mortgages and pensions and cars and houses and all the rest. Faith, it seems to me, is like a third element, a third dimension. It encloses and fills the other two. It wrestles with them, licks them into shape. And at the same time, it opens us out to something greater. It expands us as human beings. It’s as if we become that early church on the hill: open to the sky, open to heaven and the Father, open to the Holy Spirit who comes at Pentecost with the wind and breath of God. Don’t believe the propaganda. Faith doesn’t narrow us. It doesn’t limit our lives. It doesn’t cramp them. It rounds us out and opens us up. And – one blessed consequence – everything doesn’t have to be perfect here and now.
‘Lift up your hearts!’ What is the grace of the Ascension? According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was ‘carried up into heaven’ and the disciples ‘worshipped him’. They then returned to Jerusalem full of joy ‘and were continually in the temple blessing God’ (Lk 24:51,52). According to the Acts of the Apostles, they ‘went up into the upper room’ in Jerusalem ‘where they were staying’: the apostles, ‘together with the women and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren’. And there ‘with one accord they devoted themselves to prayer’ (Acts 1: 13, 14). Worship of Christ, blessing of God, continuous prayer. It’s as if the Ascension unleashed a torrent of praise and petition. The ascended Jesus in heaven ‘is ever living to make intercession for [us]’ (Heb 7:25), and we on earth are united with him in praising the Father and asking for the gift of the Spirit. The Church begins her novena now in preparation of Pentecost. The whole liturgical life of the Church, every prayer of every individual Christians begins from the Ascension. We pray ‘though Christ our Lord’, living and reigning. It’s a river of hope flowing through the world. Prayer is the real life of the Church. ‘Lift up your hearts’. That’s said at the beginning of the great prayer of the Church, the Eucharistic Prayer, called by Germans the ‘High Prayer’. Yes, prayer is the grace of the Ascension. Further up the Mount of Olives, beyond that little-used, Muslim-owned chapel, there’s a living convent of Russian nuns, the Monastery of the Ascension. I saw many young faces there, and prayer is alive there. So let us honour the Ascension too, raising up our hearts and minds in prayer.