Saint Paul tells us that when the Son of God entered our world: “He emptied himself, taking on the role of a servant.” And because Our Lord faithfully and perfectly accomplished the mission the Father entrusted to him, he was raised up to glory. On this Feast of the Ascension, we celebrate the glorification of Christ. Our Lord wants us to share in his glory when our earthly journey is ended. Let us pause for a moment to reflect on the glory to which Christ calls us and ask pardon for the times we have allowed the attractions of this world to dim our vision of the glory to come.
The Ascension is an important but little understood aspect of Our Lord’s life. And yet, our very presence here this morning is an indication of how important this feast is regarded by the Church.
After completing the work of our redemption Our Lord returns to his Father in heaven. But he is not gone forever but remains with us in a new and much closer way through the power of the Holy Spirit. His presence among us takes on a different form.
During that period of time from his Resurrection to the Ascension, Our Lord appeared several times to his disciples. He appeared to Mary Magdalene, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he appeared to them in the upper room, and on the bank of the Sea of Galilee. He came and then he disappeared just as suddenly.
These fleeting appearances were frequent enough for the disciples to realise and to believe that Jesus had truly risen from the dead, just as he said he would. He appeared in his real body, although it didn’t seem to be subject to the same limits as an ordinary human body. The Apostles came to faith in him and in the power of his Resurrection, and during these days their faith deepened and they came to understand all that he had said to them.
But now at this moment a few days before Pentecost he leaves them physically for the last time, and it is clear that there are to be no more Resurrection appearances. The time has come for everything to be handed over to the Apostles; it is now time for the Church to begin its work of evangelisation. Our Lord clearly tells them that soon the Holy Spirit will come and then they are to go out and to preach his Gospel to the ends of the earth.
The Apostles are left staring up to heaven as Our Lord is taken from their midst. One of my favourite images of the Ascension is in the Ascension Chapel at the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham – it’s a tiny little chapel and if you look at the ceiling above the altar, it comes as a bit of a surprise to see a fluffy white cloud with a pair of feet poking through, symbolising Our Lord’s being taken up into heaven. It’s all very tastefully done, but it does make you smile. And in a way this need to look up to heaven is a good image of the Church which always has one eye on heaven – it has an eye on where Christ has gone and where we hope to follow.
Our principal task as Catholics is to tell the world about Christ and what he achieved and where he is to be found; and particularly to tell everyone that our home is not here on earth, but ultimately in heaven.
The world needs to hear this message. We are, all of us, easily seduced by the things of this world. We constantly take our eyes off our ultimate goal, we too easily find comfort in material things and we drift away from following Christ by becoming absorbed in what we have around us.
It is the Church which constantly calls us back to what is really important. It is the Church which, time and time again, invites us to keep our eyes, or at least one eye, on heaven, on our ultimate destination. No one else will do this: it is the main work and indeed the privilege of the Church to serve humanity in this way.
But let’s not forget that the Church is made up of individual people: the likes of you and me. So this is our task too. The task to keep ourselves focused, and by the example and the witness of our lives, to help those around us to realise that our ultimate destiny is heaven, not earth.
Everything I’ve said today is summarised in one phrase from the Letter to the Hebrews: “As in this world we have no abiding city, we ought to seek the one to come.”