Ascension, 26 May 22
They were absolutely flabbergasted. If you want a cheesy 80s tune to connect to today’s feast, it’s the song, “Take my breath away.” The loss of breath here is because Jesus has ascended to the Heavens and so we have the voice from the angels saying to the disciples, as in our first reading, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards Heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into Heaven, will come in the same as you saw Him go.” There’s nothing here to see.
The disciples were clearly surprised when Jesus ascended to the Heavens. In reality the only thing that is surprising at one level it that they were not expecting this because we hear again and again how Jesus tells them He is going to the Father. That being said, we are aware from our own human nature no matter how many times we say something, or someone else says something, and even no matter how often God says something, we know people don’t always listen, we know we don’t always listen. Remember the wise words of the hymn we sometimes sing by Fr Faber: “If our love were but more simple, we should take Him at His word.” But we don’t and then we’re surprised when something happens, we gasp and gawk because we don’t spend enough time taking to heart the promises God makes.
Perhaps if we are to throw out some air of our lungs on this Feast of the Ascension it should not be a sharp intake of breath indicating shock, but rather a sigh of relief. After all this is where Jesus belongs. The glorious Offertory Hymn we shall sing later reminds us of this: “The highest place which Heaven affords is His, is His by right.” Jesus is the Son of God and just as you and I are human because our parents are human, so Jesus is God because He is the eternal Son of the Father, the Word made Flesh. This equality with God is not, however, as Paul reminds the Philippians something to be exploited but something He lays aside, emptying Himself, taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus going to Heaven is not a reward, as it is for us, it is a right. God raises Jesus from the dead and places Him in Heaven, as we heard in our second reading.
There’s a huge sense of entitlement in our society at the moment. People talk of rights and yes, we affirm those rights inherent within all human beings, made in the image of God. But those rights are not without reference to another. It can’t be take, take, take. We should not think of Heaven as a right, an entitlement. The human race lost that through sin and even before sin entered the world, it was only ever a gift. When we think about such matters for ourselves and for our loved ones we need to get the balance right between confidence in the Lord’s generosity and love, who longs for us to be in Heaven with Him, while acknowledging we cannot presume on that kindness.
The sigh of relief will also emerge from us because, with Mary Magdalene, we have been waiting for this moment of the Ascension since Easter Sunday. Remember early in the morning on the first day of the week, she stands at the tomb, weeping. “Do not cling to me,” Jesus says, “for I have not yet ascended to my Father and your Father.” The implication is that she will be able to cling to the Lord then, and so shall we, my friends now that this great Feast has arrived! We will not be clinging in a needy way but in a way that shows the grace and comfort God wants to give His people as we try to be faithful in all the different contexts we find ourselves. Never underestimate it! You can do it with the Lord’s help.
As we cling to the Son of God, He will give us gifts, for which we are to pray with particular fervour in the run up to Pentecost, which we celebrate on 5th June, the Sunday after next. In that wonderful passage we heard from Ephesians 4 we are reminded that we are not all given the same gifts and that is a glorious aspect of the Body of Christ: we’re not all the same and that’s marvellous “to some, prophets; to some evangelists…etc.” The sigh of relief is then that at last we can continue the work of the kingdom which Jesus inaugurated. Yes, we can say to that person that their sins can be forgiven, that that person doesn’t have to be lonely and think no one cares, that that person doesn’t have to feel inadequate because he or she can’t do something, that that person who has failed doesn’t have to despair and all because we have one whose life is super-powerful and which unites us to God.
So, on this Feast of the Ascension, we make a gasp of wonder, a sigh of relief and, finally, a sharp intake of breath because a first century Jew would have thought this act of entering Heaven was dangerous. God cannot have any sin anywhere near Him and so in Exodus 28 we hear the ritual of purification that the High Priest went through of old to enter the Holies of Holies once a year. Some non-Biblical accounts also suggest the High Priest wore a rope round in case he was struck dead beyond the veil and could then be pulled out easily. But there’s no need for the sharp intake of breath because we know Jesus is holy, Jesus is the Lamb of God, the spotless lamb who takes away the sins of the world. We are called to this same holiness of life, given over in prayer and adoration and free from the cares of this world. Our calling to join Jesus should surprise no one, least of all us. Amen.