Viri Galilaei, quid admiramini aspicientes in caelum? Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing into heaven? (Acts 1:11)
You no longer see Jesus, but he has not been taken away from you. On the contrary. In the words of St. Leo the Great: “When he came down to earth he did not leave his heavenly Father, and when he ascended into heaven he did not abandon his disciples (nec a Patre descendendo abfuerat, nec a discipulis ascendendo discesserat) ... In an ineffable manner he began to be more present in his divinity, when he seemed to be taken far away in his humanity” (ineffabili modo coepit esse Divinitate praesentior, qui factus est humanitate longinquior - Sermon II on the Ascension, 3,4). Today’s Feast is for us then a consolation, and encouragement, and source of renewed strength, and purpose, and conviction, as well as of overflowing joy. For where Jesus has gone, we hope to follow. Today especially we raise our minds and hearts to where Jesus now is, and in doing so we share in the heavenly exultation of the Angels and Saints. With them and with the whole Church on earth, today especially we sing our “Alleluia” hymn of victory.
St. Luke mentions two Angels of the Ascension, though he doesn’t tell us their names. Were they to address us now, I wonder what their message would be? Perhaps they might begin reproachfully. “Christian men of the secularised modern world”, they might say, “why is your attention so little focussed on heaven? Why have you almost lost confidence in its reality? And why do some liberal thinkers who are embarrassed by the whole idea still want to keep for themselves the name of Christian?”
Heaven is not a secondary or optional aspect of our faith. It’s what Christ came to give us; what he achieved; what he made possible for us. Heaven is the goal of our life, the crowning of our faith, the object of our hope. Take away our longing for heaven; take away our hope in the resurrection of the body, and our confidence that we can share fully in Christ’s victory, and what is left of our faith? All its power drains away. At best it’s reduced to a pale philanthropy, a rather uninspiring moralism, or perhaps a not very convincing political ideology. But none of that will set hearts on fire! None of that will make Saints out of sinners, or send monks into the desert, or initiate heroic works of charity, or drive martyrs to accept torture and death for their faith. God did not become incarnate and die on the Cross in order that we might be nice, but in order that we might participate forever in his eternal life. To lose sight of that is to lose the Christian vision entirely.
On the other hand: if we truly focus our attention on what is in store for us, as we should, then everything in this world, whether positive or negative, becomes relativised for us. The more we look forward to the next life, then, even though we can’t imagine what it will be like, the more we find ourselves detached from this one. If we truly lived by our faith, though, our hearts would barely contain the joy, or the gratitude, or the wonder and delight that would engulf us. Then we would spend ourselves in ceaseless praise and adoration, and in earnest prayer for that longed-for day to come quickly!
The Angels of the Ascension caution us against gazing fruitlessly into an empty sky. Let us then instead for a moment carefully consider a Christian man. We had better assume that he’s a good one, incidentally. This one is more or less already a Saint. What do we see? From the outside he seems perfectly ordinary. He eats, drinks, sleeps, works. He has his pains and sorrows; his joys and pleasures, the same as anyone else. He has friends, enemies, difficulties, worries, consolations, opinions, preferences, tastes, the same as anyone else. But he’s not the same as anyone else! He has a secret which you can’t see, and which transforms everything about him, and everything around him too. In the words of St. Paul, his life is directed towards the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. His mind is on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth (cf. Col 3:1-2). So this Christian man already has one foot in heaven. Sacramentally and mystically he is already united with Jesus. Even amid all his business and daily routine, he never withdraws himself from the presence and love of God. This is the dominant reality that fills his mind and heart. He knows it’s of infinite value, and will never pass away; whereas everything else whatever he knows will certainly pass away.
Maybe this man is in prison; maybe even on death row. Maybe he’s got terminal cancer, or his wife has just left him, or his daughter been killed in a car crash. Perhaps like Job he feels that everything he had has been stripped away, leaving him as it were naked and in pain and alone. Then indeed he is nailed with Jesus to the Cross. But then also perhaps he begins to understand, at a greater depth than he could before, how wonderful is Christ’s victory.
For the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus spring precisely from the Cross, and would be meaningless without it. It’s not just that the Cross sums up all human pain, though it does, and turns it all into joy, though it does that too. No: there had to be the Cross first, because we were not fit for heaven, not capable of standing before God, not able to endure his everlasting love, unless we were first washed clean from our sin in Christ’s precious, sacrificial blood. But having been so washed, and sanctified, and justified, as St. Paul says, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:11), then we are ready for eternal glory.
In spite of any sufferings whatever, then, the life of our Christian man is lit up from within by a hope that nothing can diminish, and by a joy that nothing can quench. His horizons are not confined to his own miseries, or to his own narrow circumstances, or to his personal history. He knows that absolute goodness also has absolute power; that it has confronted the devil, and sin and death head on, and won; and that the meaning of our life, and of the universe we inhabit, really is love. God has promised, and he is faithful. So the more our Christian finds this life weighs him down, the more he looks forward to its transformation in glory. Ever more clearly he knows that this life is not our true or final home. Here on earth we’re no more than pilgrims. Our journey may be wearisome enough, but its duration is brief. When at last it reaches its goal, then there will be rest, and reward, and all evils will be reversed, and all possible good things given.
So every single day the liturgy cries out to us: Sursum corda! Lift up your hearts! And: Gratias agamus! Let us give thanks to the Lord our God! So today especially we ask God to help us live even now with him in heaven. Today especially we ask for the grace to exult in that with spiritual joy, in living faith; until at last we come to where are hearts are already set.