Sunday, 24 May 2009
Homily for the Ascension of the Lord
+ Life is full of surprises. This morning I left the house at about a quarter to eight in order to go over to church to say Morning Prayer and discovered one of my neighbours learning to ride a unicycle in the street outside the Vicarage. I’ve always said this is an interesting village!
For the apostles and first disciples from the first Easter Sunday to the first Pentecost, life was a succession of surprises. The discovery of the empty tomb, the many appearances of the Risen Lord to them culminiating in the descent of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost was a series of shocks and surprises one after the other. Today’s celebration, the Ascension, is part of this dramatic unfolding of God’s plan.
I have to say, though, that The Ascension is also one of those feasts which can give rise to all kinds of misunderstandings about the nature of our faith and its relevance to our lives.
I’ve said this before, but I will say it again: we live at a time of a staggering poverty of imagination and inner life. Subtlety seems to have vanished, our culture simply does not understand any longer the concept of a tolerant conservatism in the practice of religious faith: one has to line up either with the radicals or the fundamentalists or be accused of hypocrisy. Ironically, we have somehow managed to reject the political processes of totalitarianism which so disfigured the twentieth century and yet have adopted totalitarian ways of thought. Either / or, black or white, there can be no shades of grey. That way lies madness and cultural disintegration: it also does violence to a true understanding of human nature itself. Even in the Church, the idea that one can somehow love the sinner yet hate the sin has been rejected alarmingly and simplistically. Yet, a God who sees each human being as uniquely precious, and knows each one of us by name, cannot but hate the many ways in which human beings are deflected away from being a true reflection of his image and likeness. The story of God’s dealings with the human race, the point, if you like, of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, is to transform us and restore us to be like him, rather than to affirm us and tell us that we are all right really, when that’s manifestly not true.
Despite its surface technological sophistication, we actually live in an era of a startling lack of understanding of the use of poetry and metaphor in seeking to illuminate the human condition - particularly as regards religious matters - our one-dimensional literalism is not only worryingly naive but virtually unknown throughout the entire orthodox Christian era. Well, perhaps we are no longer living in any kind of Christian era at all and we shouldn’t be too surprised in a culture dominated by tabloid newspapers and even tackier television, and the whole bread and circuses attitude to life if metaphor and truth are regarded as opposites. Rant over!
Today’s feast is a case in point. When Jesus disappears from sight and is spoken of as being taken up from his followers, far from committing us to a pre-scientific and obsolete view of a three-decker universe (if that‘s what the ancients really believed and that‘s far from being completely true) what is being said is simply that Jesus leaves this world and returns to the Father; it’s not that he is “up there” somewhere and somehow, but that he is no longer bound by the limitations of time and space. He has “gone up” only in the sense that he has physically gone beyond us to the life which transcends that of the physical world.
What is the Ascension saying to us? What actually happened to Jesus? Where did he go? Not to outer space, as if we could reach him in a rocket, as the extremely naïve but very well indoctrinated first Soviet cosmonauts were told Christians really believed. But God himself through the events of the Incarnation, his becoming man in Jesus Christ uses imagery, rooted in the experience of human life, to express realities the human mind otherwise simply could not grasp. In the Ascension we see this acted out in front of us. Jesus' body, crucified and raised, does not belong in this universe, but through it God's saving power - the Holy Spirit - enters the world so that we too may journey to glory, following Jesus himself.
What we celebrate at the Ascension can’t be understood as an isolated incident. It can’t be separated off from the death and resurrection of the Lord, and neither can it be separated off from the descent of God the Holy Spirit. The Lord’s death and descent into the grave, his rising to new life, his ascension into glory and the descent of the Spirit are all parts of a single dynamic unfolding of the mystery of God in time; as well as the unfolding of our own new life in the eternal. That’s what we have been celebrating for the last six weeks.
Throughout the Easter season, if we’ve picked up on it, the Gospels have been speaking of Jesus and his Resurrection Body as living in a different and fuller way than before his death.
We’ve said time after time that Jesus’ Resurrection isn’t the resuscitation of a dead man but the gift of an altogether more significant new God-given life. It is the 'prototype' of our own fuller resurrection life - so that Jesus speaks of going to prepare a place for us. And at the Ascension He goes in order to return in a new way. Because from this point, Jesus' body does not belong in time and space. His humanity and therefore our humanity is taken up to share the life of God. He goes to take us with him; to take our human nature, which he shares, to its fulfilment in the divine life of God.
Jesus does not belong exclusively to this world, and we must not belong entirely to it either.
This is not our final home. In this world, we are always 'resident aliens', - strangers and sojourners the Scriptures put it - here “we have no abiding city” as the Letter to the Hebrews says, and our journey of faith means that we must share in Jesus' dying and rising. He explained at the Last Supper that he must depart so that the Holy Spirit might come - as the Paraclete, the Advocate, the one who speaks on our behalf. Christ’s death and resurrection, his returning to the right hand of the Father, are the means, the channel of the Spirit's coming, and mean that the Spirit guides us in a way which enables us to live by faith and hope. Because he goes away and the Spirit descends, his life is not restricted to one event, one time and place, but streams out from that moment into all times and places. This is our redemption, this is how we are saved and made free.
So it is for our greater glory, for “the making infinite of our finite possibilities” that Jesus departed. The Holy Spirit, the divine Love who 'energised' Our Lord's ministry, makes us his witnesses. By dying on the cross, Jesus communicated God's mercy to a world dying for the lack of it; it is the privilege of those who belong to his Body, the Church, to share his divine mission, and to be ourselves, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, made open to the mercy and compassion of God, and, by sharing in his infinite love, to become ourselves agents of his divine life and purpose.
We might say, then, that in a very important sense the events we are living out liturgically in Church over these last two weeks of the Easter season are as much about ourselves and our present and future as they are about Our Lord himself.
This is the great wonder of the ascension. By being lifted up Christ has not abandoned us ( left us as “orphans” in his words in St John’s Gospel) but he has made it possible for his Spirit to enter all times and all places. The Church becomes filled with his Spirit. Our actions become animated in a new way by the Spirit of the God we love and serve. We are enabled by grace to become “Christs to the world.”
And as part of Christ, as part of his Church (which like her Lord lives also beyond the confines of time and space, beyond the passing fashions of the world, which lives both here and in eternity) the resurrection, the ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit continue to be present in our lives. We draw on these events which have taken place in time, in time and in history yet because of their significance are suspended in eternity - like Christ himself, always contemporary, always with us - and we pray that because of these saving events - because of the great reality of Christ, God with us - we ourselves will be will led to share the great joy of eternity with all the Saints in the presence of God. The Ascension says to us that we, too, are going home.