22nd May, 2020

Homily for Ascension Day

Ampleforth Abbey

Fr Gabriel's Homily for Ascension Day - 21 May 2020

In celebrating the feast of the Ascension of Christ, we celebrate firstly an event: this is the emphasis of St Luke in his account of the Ascension in the book of Acts, always the first reading on this day, in which he tells it as a story in some detail after forty days of resurrection appearances.

But secondly we celebrate it, and this emphasis is more to the fore even in this reading from Acts and then in the other evangelists and writers of the New Testament, not just as an event but as an aspect of the Easter mystery of the risen Christ. Jesus takes his, and therefore also our, humanity to heaven, to God, and we are in some sense now, and at some time in the future more fully, called to be there with him. This seems to be at the heart of our celebration this morning. Jesus goes to heaven, but he goes in order to be in fact closer to us in his indwelling, a present promise of what is yet to be.

The opening prayer of today’s Mass says ‘the Ascension of Christ .. is our exaltation, and, where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope’. We are exalted, but we follow in hope. Within this exaltation and hope there is the distinction between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ as also between the absence to sight and the presence in spirit, between the present life of faith and the life to be of vision.

St Bernard, 12th century Cistercian abbot and great monastic theologian, left more sermons on the Ascension than on any other Christian mystery. Repeatedly he emphasises that to live the life of faith as monk and Christian is to live not seeing the Lord. We live by faith lives of watching and waiting. We love without seeing and yet watch constantly, to keep our eyes on God, invisible yet present.

In the dramatic conclusion of St Matthew’s Gospel, our gospel passage today, Jesus promises his apostles: ‘I am with you always, yes, to the end of time’. What is this presence? As the gospel passage of last Sunday and recent days, taken from the farewell discourses of St John’s Gospel in chapters 14 to 16, show, this promise to be with us always, is a promise of indwelling. So ‘Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we shall come to him and make a home in him’ (John 14:23). The Lord who ascends beyond the furthest heavens to the Father, comes with this Father to make his home here and now in us. Thus is he with us.

Jesus comes in the power of the Holy Spirit. He says in today’s first reading from Acts: ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses  … to the ends of the earth’. There is an aspect of this which has a particular resonance this year. After the Ascension, the apostles return to Jerusalem, to the upper room, still behind the locked doors of their fear; there with Mary and the brethren of Jesus, they huddle together in prayer, praying for the Spirit. As our lockdown continues, we find ourselves too somewhat huddled but nonetheless also those unlikely ones the Lord wills to be the Church, praying for the gift of the Spirit. ‘Come Holy Spirit’ will be the refrain of these coming days as we await Pentecost.