On Easter morning, according to the Gospel of St. John, our Blessed Saviour said to Mary Magdalene: Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father (20:17). That is: Do not imagine, because you can see me and touch me, that our relationship can simply be taken up again, as if my death and resurrection has made no difference. No: everything has now changed. Up to now you have known me and loved me in a merely natural way. But now I am going to prepare you a place (14:2), in order that you may be united with me in a way that is incomparably better, deeper, more wonderful. By the mystery of the Incarnation, I came down to be with you where you are. By my saving death I took upon myself even your sinfulness and your mortality. But now I am returning to my Father (16:28), in order to draw you to be with me where I am (17:24). Having shared in your humanity, now I am inviting you to share in my divinity, in my eternal Sonship, in my relationship with my Father in heaven. Go, then, and find my brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father, and your Father, to my God, and your God.
Today the Church proclaims, rejoices in, celebrates the mystery of the Ascension. Jesus gives us the hope of eternal life with him in heaven, by ascending, in his risen humanity, to the right hand of God. But the mystery of the Ascension is not just about our hope for the future. Already it touches us, transforms us, lifts us up, even while here on earth. Of course we are intensely aware of how much precisely we are not ascended, not yet in heaven. Daily reminders of that include the experience of physical pain, of worry, trouble and conflict, of concupiscence and all earthly attachments, of anger, envy, sloth and the rest. But St. Paul tells us that in our baptism we have already not only died with Christ, and been buried with him, but also we have already been raised up with him, already we have been enthroned with him in glory (cf. e.g. Eph 2:6).
Men of Galilee, why are you standing there gazing up into heaven? You are not to seek his company somewhere up in the sky. Yes, it’s true that on the last day he will come again on the clouds of glory. But don’t worry: there’s no chance of anybody missing that! In the meantime: now that he has accomplished all his work, he is in you, and you are in him (Jn 14:20). He has departed from your sight, but only in order to send you the Holy Spirit. Henceforth, then, he will never be absent from you; nothing external can ever again separate you from him. You bear him within yourselves. You can find him at any time in prayer, in the sacraments, in his word, in one another, and in anyone at all who is poor and needy.
If the mystery of the Ascension is a cause for us of joy, and consolation, and hope, it’s also a sharp reminder, and exhortation, and summons. We who are in Christ are called to set our lives towards heaven, to look forward to it with ardent spiritual longing, to look on all the concerns and activities of our life in its light. So today’s feast calls us to raise up our hearts. It summons us to dwell already in heaven. That’s the same as saying we have to abide with Christ, to abide in his love, to live in the communion of his Saints and Angels. For the sake of that, we have to be done with sin, and we have to prise ourselves free from our worldly attachments. Today’s feast then is a summons to all of us to aspire towards true holiness of life; to purity of heart, and to prayer without ceasing.
What will heaven be like? Of course we can’t imagine it. We do though have some images of it, which while always falling short, nevertheless reliably point in its direction. One of these images is quite close to hand. I mean the monastic life according to the Rule of St. Benedict.
St. Benedict wants his monks to live always in God’s presence, always in union with Jesus Christ our Lord. He asks them to renounce personal property, and marriage, and even their own wills, in order to show forth concretely what should be true for every Christian: that Jesus is our life, and our all; and apart from him we have nothing.
In the Benedictine monastery, there is silence, and there is music. Silence first of all: the silence that is proper to unceasing prayer of the heart; the silence not of absence but of presence; of a fullness that no words can express; the silence of lovers who rejoice simply to be in each other’s company, and who know one another’s thoughts without the need for speech. Then there is music: the music of worship; of the daily, weekly, annual cycle of praise that goes on and on without ever ceasing, and which already participates in the music of heaven.
Benedictine monastic life also involves community, and that too is an image of heaven: for in heaven we will not be isolated, but in company; supported on every side; rejoicing in the unique gifts that each is able to offer to all the others; increasing our joy in the Lord by sharing it with those we love.
Also, of course, in any real, living Benedictine community, there are other elements, which will be wholly absent from heaven. Work; penance; the difficulties and afflictions that no one on this earth can avoid; sadness; inter-personal tensions; rivalries; failures, whether our own or of others, to live up to the high ideals set before us.
The central, focal point of monastic and Christian life is the Holy Eucharist, celebrated in obedience to the command of Jesus, given on the eve of his Passion. Take eat, he said; This is my Body. Now, today, we hear him say once again: This is my body which has been crucified for you, buried for you, raised up for you, ascended into heaven for you, glorified for you. You who are my Body on earth: take and eat this, in order the more to be what you are. Eat it, in order to be united with me now in mystery, as you will be manifestly and forever in heaven.