The Ascension of the Lord
Homily preached at the Conventual Mass on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (12th May 2013) by Fr Terence Richardson OSB. Fr Terence is the Prior of Ampleforth Abbey.
We have just heard two readings, both by St Luke. The Gospel ends with the story of the Ascension, and the book of the Acts of the Apostles begins with a retelling of that same story. In other words, for St Luke, the Ascension is the hinge in his writings. His Gospel began with the appearance of an angel in Jerusalem, to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, in the splendour of the Jerusalem Temple. And his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, also starts at Jerusalem with an appearance of angels, telling the disciples not to stare into the sky, but to be confident that the Lord will return in glory. They point the way forward: and that is the way of faith and evangelisation in the power of the Holy Spirit..
You would think that when Jesus left this earth to return to the Father it would have seemed to the disciples like a bereavement. You would expect them to be sad. But that is not what the Gospel describes. It is true that they were sad, when Jesus was crucified: on that dreadful afternoon, as far as they could see, their hopes, their plans, had come to nothing. But that is not what we read about the ascension.
Let me remind you of what St Luke wrote and what we have just heard: “Now as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven. They (that is the disciples) worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy: and they were continually in the Temple praising God.”
Why is this? I can only conclude it is because they realised that Jesus belonged with the Father; and that in leaving the earth and returning to the Father he was resuming the dignity that was rightly his as the second person of the blessed Trinity. In other words, this ascension was not a bereavement but an exaltation.
Like a young person leaving home to get married and to begin a new family, yes there is a some sadness, but everyone knows that what is happening is something good, something blessed. Yes, the old bedroom is empty, but new life is beginning. The joy overcomes the sadness and even the couple’s mothers beam with joy and pride.
Think about yourselves even: some hundred and fifty of you will leave the school at the end of this term to move on. Yes, there is a bit of sadness, but there is also excitement and happiness, celebration and broad smiles.
When we celebrate the Ascension we are really celebrating the glorification of Christ, the exaltation of the Lord. That’s what the disciples grasped implicitly, and that is what should make us happy too.
But in the case of Christ, there is an extra level of joy. And that is because in rising to the Father he does not leave us behind. Yes, he promises to be with us always, not to leave us orphans, and he does this through the Holy Spirit and through the sacraments. but also, because we are permanently joined to him through incorporation in baptism, he takes us with him to the Father.
Even now Christ Jesus is at the side of the Father, pleading with him on our behalf. He is the mediator, not just on the cross, re-establishing the right relationship between us and the Father, but he continues to mediate for us day by day and hour by hour. He does this by hearing our prayers. But supremely he does this in the Mass. In all the Eucharistic Prayers we pray in some way that our gifts, symbolised by the bread and wine, that we offer to the Father may be transformed and then given back to us as the body and blood of the Son, and as other gifts of grace. Jesus never leaves us alone. The parting at the ascension is only in order for greater and more universal gifts to be given.
That is why we pray now in this week of all weeks for a fresh outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. An impressive number of you were confirmed two weeks ago; others who are members of the Church of England will be confirmed next Sunday. This was an occasion when you received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Let us now pray, all of us, for a renewal of those gifts, for what we all need in order to live good and faithful Christian lives. This week before Pentecost is a very special week, a time of openness to God’s gifts.
And it reminds us once again that Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity and Corpus Christi are connected logically. The fact that one feast follows another, Sunday by Sunday, is surely symbolic of the way that one doctrine follows another. They are all linked.
And there is one last thing to remember. Jesus ascended to the Father is a promise to us of our own destiny. All of us are called to be with God in heaven; Jesus has gone first, we must look forward to following him. In this sense too he will not leave us orphans: he has gone to prepare a place for all of his followers.
Even now he is getting ready the room to which he will call us. Jesus’ departure from the disciples is at the same time a promise that he will return to take us with him, and an invitation to us to prepare for that great day when he will come again in glory.
Come, Lord Jesus, send your Holy Spirit on us, and continue to help us and sustain us as we wait in joyful hope for you to come back and take us with you to glory!