Yesterday morning at Vigils we heard a passage from a Sermon on the Ascension by Blessed John Henry Newman.
“Christ’s going to the Father”, says Newman, “is at once a source of sorrow because it involves his absence, and of joy because it involves his presence. And out of the doctrine of his Resurrection and Ascension spring those Christian paradoxes, often spoken of in Scripture, that we are sorrowing yet always rejoicing, as having nothing yet possessing all things. ... We have lost Christ and we have found him; we see him not, yet we discern him. ... We have lost the sensible and conscious perception of him; we cannot look on him, hear him, converse with him, follow him from place to place; but we enjoy the spiritual, immaterial, inward, mental, real sight and perception of him; a possession more real and more present than that which the Apostles had in the days of his flesh...”
Yes, according to St. Luke’s account, when Jesus withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven, they went back to Jerusalem full of joy. So today is a feast not of loss but of gain: of greater gain indeed than we could ever comprehend. We can never come to an end of marvelling at the mystery, the blessing, the grace of the Ascension, or of rejoicing in it, or of praising God for it. For today Jesus has entered heaven in his glorified humanity, and he has established for us a place in the eternal life and light of God. Today, with and in Jesus we, who are dust and ashes, unworthy and miserable sinners, are seated at God’s right hand, far in glory and honour above all Creation; even above all the Angels.
Yet also today we have plenty of reasons to be sorrowful. We pray continually for Christ’s Kingdom to come, but we look out upon our world, and so often we seem to see instead the devil securely established on his throne. The Passion of Christ manifestly still continues, on and on. In Syria and Iraq, and many other countries across the world, Jesus Christ in his members is being kidnapped, enslaved, tortured; blown up, or beheaded, or even crucified. So often nowadays we see Christ forced to live an impoverished refugee; exploited by unscrupulous people-traffickers; exposed to drowning from unseaworthy boats; or living illegally in the West, treated as a criminal or an enemy alien. Christ suffers too in so many ways in our own more affluent and secure society. He suffers as an innocent unborn baby aborted in the womb, or as a young family undermined and attacked by anti-Christian social pressure and legislation. He suffers in the elderly who are made to feel a useless burden, or in young people who have no stable roots, no employment prospects, no faith and no hope. I suppose there’s no one here who can’t call to mind countless other situations we know personally or have read about, which are definitely not an echo or foretaste of the heavenly Kingdom.
So where is the victory of Jesus? Actually it’s everywhere around us. For the voice of Christ continues to be heard all over the world through his Church, preaching the good news of salvation, proclaiming his truth, love, mercy, grace, goodness. Christ’s hands are active too, wherever his members reach out to the poor, supplying their needs, acting on their behalf, offering them practical, moral and spiritual support. He is in his praying Church also, upholding his little ones in prayer, calling down both mercy and blessing, begging for an end to the time of affliction.
Christ triumphs today also, as he has done in former ages, in his holy martyrs. Many today are shedding their blood because of their faith in Christ. They leave behind them an odour of sweetness, a powerful witness of fidelity; and we believe, we know that both their reward and their power in heaven will be very great.
Quite often in history the martyrs have asked for and obtained the grace to die on Good Friday, in order to be very explicitly united with Jesus in his Passion. But another good day to die for the faith would be Ascension Day. Or at least, the mystery of today’s Feast points to the definitive consolation and encouragement and reward for those who suffer with Christ.
Today then we insist on, we proclaim the objective and accomplished reality of Christ’s triumph. He is not only on this earth suffering in his members. He reigns in heaven. The power of hell cannot stand against him, and he invites us all to be with him where he is. And this truth has the priority in our faith: it is towards this that our whole life is directed. Already we are mystically united with Jesus. Our death will be merely the final hurdle to pass, before our union with him can be consummated. And therefore, no suffering whatever on this earth can have absolute significance. It’s all strictly temporary: a preparation, a purification, a test, a gift. What alone supremely matters is that we never be separated from Christ; that we live with him even now; that we make progress in our journey of faith towards him.
As Newman continues his Sermon, he turns his attention to the Holy Spirit. He asks: “Why has he come? To supply Christ’s absence, or to accomplish his presence? Surely to make him present. Let us not suppose that God the Holy Spirit comes in such a sense that God the Son remains away. No. He has not so come that Christ does not come, but rather he comes that Christ may come in his coming.”
So the feast of the Ascension is intimately linked not only to Easter, but also to Pentecost. In the following nine days we will pray fervently with the whole Church for a new coming, a new visitation, a new infusion of the Holy Spirit. We ask the Holy Spirit so to come to us that Christ may truly be our life; that heaven may be in reality our homeland, the place of our dwelling (cf. Phil 3:20); that our communion may be with the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit. And if ever we should discern any weakening of morale within the Church, or division, or doctrinal confusion, all the more must we beg the Holy Spirit to keep us firmly united with Jesus Christ and with one another: in total fidelity and obedience; with wisdom, discernment, and knowledge; and always with trust, and confidence, and love.