Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascension, Year A, 2023
This week we had our prep students join us for Mass on Friday. We also had at St Colman’s the funeral of Pamela Wood, one of the pillars of the community. And the combination of those two liturgies gave me a way to reflect on the mystery that we celebrate today, the Ascension of the Lord.
At Mass with the preps, I tried to explain in basic terms what the Ascension actually meant. We worked out that to ascend means to go up. We also worked out that when Jesus ascended that he was going up to heaven. But then we ran into an interesting problem.
With our primary school students, I try to always begin with three basic questions, the answers to which I think set the table for most other discussion. I ask: who is Jesus? The answer being God. Then: what is God? The answer being love. Then: what is love? The final answer being: putting the other person first.
Now when we said that Christ ascends to heaven, I told them that it was important to know what heaven is, so I gave them a definition. Heaven is life with God. Now if heaven is life with God and Jesus is God, why does Jesus have to ascend? He is already in heaven.
We worked out that he ascends not for himself, but for us: to show us the way home, to his home, to life with the Father. We then had a discussion about how Mass is Jesus coming to us in many different ways to show us the way home, and so how the mystery of the Ascension is still going on today.
After Mass, I was showing the students how our Church is built like the Ascension. How we go up stairs to get to heaven. When I was showing them the communion rails, where God comes to us in the Blessed Sacrament and how when people used to receive Communion, the way the church was designed would have shown them that they were in heaven because they were living with God, one student asked: does that mean Jesus is alive and we can talk to him? And so we had a very small chat about prayer, that it was precisely because Jesus had ascended that we can always talk to God because humanity is now one with God, is always living in the presence of God.
We only had a brief chat about that, because I had to get down to St Colman’s for the Requiem Mass for Pam Wood. Pam was the secretary at St Colman’s for a number of years, then volunteered there forever, right up until she died. She was a constant presence, always had strong opinions and had a heart for service.
After the funeral, a number of us were reflecting that the parish had another guardian now. What she had done while on earth, she was no doubt continuing in heaven. Now that heart of service was fully one with the heart of God, and so fully active.
One of the great myths of modern life is that we need to become independent. That we should become people who don’t need anyone. We all understand the need to grow up, become more competent, but we understand that as a way of serving others. Modern life seems to suggest that the end of life is to become entirely self-sufficient, such that we no longer need others. We become invulnerable that way.
If we translate that to language or communion, we see that what modern life is pushing is a version of hell. Me impervious to others. No need to communicate. No need to relate. Basically a mute rock. This is a definition of hell. It is in fact the vision of hell in Dante’s inferno, where the Devil is frozen still.
The Acension is the exact opposite of this. It is humanity taking its place in the heart of God. It is the Word made flesh making all flesh into language, all humanity into communion, all of creation into the possibility of relationship. When Christ ascends, we see what the Incarnation has accomplished: humanity forever united to God.
Now there is always a way back home. No matter how lonely we are. No matter how much we have locked ourselves up, Christ has come to get us. Even our suffering can now be redemptive. In fact, especially our suffering can be redemptive. We all know how much suffering can open people’s hearts, can become a deep path into communion with others, when accepted in Christ and offered to the Father.
So, in our Mass today, let’s give thanks for Christ coming to get us. Let’s give thanks for Christ confirming that we are made for communion. And let’s pray that our hearts might day by day become confirmed by prayer, confirmed in the reality of love through which God wants to raise up the whole of creation through humanity.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension. Last week, we looked at St Peter’s letter, and how he instructed us to have reasons for hope. The Ascension is one of the major reasons for our hope.
I mentioned last week that a shorthand definition of faith is that we believe Jesus is who he says he is, and we believe what happened to him. A shorthand definition of hope was that we believe that what God did in Jesus, God wants to do in us. We hear this in the prayers of the Church today. We pray that the Body will go where the head has gone before.
Jesus in ascending to the right-hand of the Father has in a sense shown the fulfilment of the Incarnation. In taking humanity to himself, humanity is now forever in the heart of God. And in ascending to the Father, he has shown us what the Incarnation ultimately means: that we are to become children of God.
This is one of those feasts where our Church comes into its own. We are so blessed to have not only a beautiful church, but a liturgically excellent design. I have mentioned before that the procession at the beginning of Mass symbolises not only the entrance into Jerusalem, but the way of the Cross. But these also symbolise the basic pattern of life, the reality of baptism, the movement from baptism to the fulfilment of baptism, a fully Christian life: worship of God and service of our neighbour, which mystery just is the revelation of the Incarnation in the ongoing life of the Church.
When we read Genesis, we hear that humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. Image and likeness were originally understood along familial lines. A child was the image of his or her parents. Humanity was supposed to be the children of God. Humanity fulfilled this vocation by obeying God’s commands to till and keep paradise. The words ‘tilling’ and ‘keeping’ are liturgical words. They correspond to the priestly duties of worshipping God and looking after God’s people. This is the task of protecting paradise and extending it.
We see this beautifully in our Church. Paradise is the sanctuary, and creeping out of it is the life of God shown by the stencils on the walls. The rest of the Church then is to be understood as potentially paradise.
As we know, however, humanity fell away from this task, and so lost its kinship with God. It was no longer united God. It was no longer one with God. However, God sought to re-establish communion through the creation of Israel, through the Law and its commandments, through the liturgies and the sacrifice.
One such liturgy was that of the Day of Atonement. Atonement literally means at-one-ment. It is the liturgy by which humanity is purified such that it can re-establish communion with God.