Today the Church celebrates the Solemn Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s an important day, so important that St Luke gives us two accounts of it: one at the end of his Gospel, and another at the start of the Acts of the Apostles. As a day it looks back to Easter and forward to Pentecost, and even to that last day when Christ will return as Judge of all.
If we turn first to the Gospel, we see Christ’s farewell discourse to the apostles. Our Risen Lord explains everything to his closest followers, so that they can understand both what happened, and why it happened. He speaks of the church’s mission: ‘that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (Lk 24:47 NRSV) And so, nearly two thousand years later this is what the church does, calling people to repentance, and is the place of reconciliation, where God forgives our sins: a place of new life and healing. Christ also promises his closest followers, ‘And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ (Lk 24:49 NRSV) They are to stay put until they receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And once Christ ascends, ‘they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God’ (Lk 24:52-53 NRSV) They worshipped Christ because He is God, and they gave thanks to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. They were all about worshipping God, nothing was more important.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Christ has spent the Easter period teaching the faith, explaining things to His apostles. ‘While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ (Acts 1:4-5 NRSV) The apostles are to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and equipped to proclaim the Good News. And that’s why we are here today. Jesus didn’t found a religion, or give us a book, He started the Church, to call men and women to repentance, to know their sins forgiven, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And so we are. And it’s wonderful. It’s why we listen to Jesus, and we do what He told us to do. We celebrate the Eucharist, because He told us to do it, so that we can be nourished and fed with His Body and Blood, so that Christ may transform each and every one of us into His likeness. We follow the example of the apostles, and spend this time before Pentecost praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit to inspire and transform us.
What we are celebrating today is the logical consequence of the Incarnation. Christ, by the power of that same Holy Spirit, took flesh in the womb of His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, just after the Archangel Gabriel came to her in Nazareth. He was born in Bethlehem, lived, proclaimed the Good News, preached repentance and the forgiveness of sins, healed the sick, performed many other miracles, and was crucified, for our sins, and those of the whole world. God raised Him on the third day, and then Christ, true God and true man, ascends to His Father in Heaven, before sending the Holy Spirit. Christ ascends in His divinity, and His humanity. He returns from whence He came, but Christ has taken us with Him. Humanity is united with the Godhead. There are humans in heaven. We know this because Christ went there first, and through His death, Resurrection, and Ascension, has opened the way to Heaven for those who believe in Him, and live out their faith in their lives.
Our Lord ascends, body and soul into heaven, to the closer presence of God the Father, to prepare for the sending of the Holy Spirit on his disciples at Pentecost. He who shares our humanity takes it into heaven, into the very life of the Godhead; so that where He is WE may be also. We have seen the promise of new life in Easter, a new life which is in the closer presence of God, which we celebrate today. We can see where it leads – what started at the Incarnation finds its goal and truest meaning in the unity of the human and the divine.
But rather than seeing this as an end it is surely far better to see in it a beginning – a beginning of the Church as we know it – a church which goes and makes disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Our Lord commanded us. This is exactly where we have been for nearly two thousand years. Inspired by the Holy Spirit they did what their Lord commanded them to do and that is why we are here today celebrating this fact.
Once Jesus has ascended in glory and before He returns as our judge the only place where we can encounter Him is in and through the Church: in its sacraments, in the word of Holy Scripture, and in people, filled with His Holy Spirit. A movement which started with 12 men in Jerusalem is still going strong nearly two thousand years later. We have been given the gift of faith and it is up to us to pass it on, so that others may come to share in the joy of the Lord.
We can all hope to follow Him, and to spend eternity contemplating the Beatific Vision, caught up in that love which is the Divine Nature, sharing in the praise of all creation of the God. We can have this hope because Christ has gone before us, he has prepared the way for humanity to follow Him and share in the divine life of love.
Let us prepare for this by living the life of faith, strengthened by Him, proclaiming his truth, praying for the gift of His Spirit at Pentecost, that the Church may be strengthened to proclaim His saving truth and the baptism of repentance, so that we and all the world may sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.