Homily given for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord at St Mary, Cadogan Street:
The solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, which we keep today, presents us with three core truths. First, Christ’s ascension ‘marks the definitive entrance of Jesus’ humanity into God’s heavenly domain’. Secondly, the Lord, as ‘the head of the Church, precedes us into the Father’s glorious kingdom so that we, the members of his Body, may live in the hope of one day being with him for ever’. Thirdly, the Lord, ‘having entered the sanctuary of heaven once and for all, intercedes constantly for us as the mediator who assures us of the permanent outpouring of the Holy Spirit’ (cf. CCC §665-667).
In the simplest possible terms these truths give us three causes for hope, three reasons to be joyful that we are incorporated into the body of Christ by virtue of the baptism we share with him. In the Lord’s ascension, we are assured of a place set aside for us in heaven, of his abiding presence with us here and now, and of his intercession for us at the right hand of the Father.
At his ascension into heaven – far from leaving us behind to fend for ourselves – the Lord has made concrete the fruits of his resurrection, and continues to abide with us, both through his intercession for us in heaven, and in his presence in the sacraments of the Church.
In a very particular way, of course, Christ’s presence continues in the very thing we are here to do this morning. In the Eucharistic sacrifice, in the celebration of the Holy Mass, we find Christ really and truly present under forms of bread and wine. In our worthy reception of Holy Communion, we receive the Body and Blood of the same Lord who underwent the passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification which we now celebrate. In this way, Christ gives himself for us and to us, so that we might continue to be united with him in our lives here on earth, and so be made ready to spend eternity with him in heaven.
The Lord’s ascension out of our sight, then, is not the end of his presence with us; not even the end of his physical presence on earth. In the sacrament of the Most Blessed Eucharist we find him still present, still at work calling us away from the things of this world and toward the things of the world to come. In receiving his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, we are not fed with earthly food for a journey, but heavenly food for a pilgrimage; a pilgrimage to the heavenly kingdom.
The heavenly banquet of the Mass, also sets our sights on the goal of the Christian life. In all that we undertake, we hope to join the Lord in the kingdom of heaven. We seek to live lives here on earth that constantly bring us back to the moment of purifying grace in our baptism where we are fully united to the Lord. And in our reception of the sacraments – not least confession and the Holy Eucharist – we hope to be continually renewed and restored to that relationship so that we come to Christ in a real and personal way.
The celebration of the sacred liturgy is the source and summit of the Christian life and on this feast of the Ascension especially, our minds our dragged from this world to the world to come, as our eyes seemingly follow the Lord’s own bodily ascension into the heavenly Jerusalem. Our hearts are taken up with him, so that we may aspire to the place where he goes.
More than this, though, Christ the eternal high priest, ascends to heaven in order to continue to exercise his priesthood. He goes to make intercession for us at the right hand of God the Father, to be the mediator between the Father and his children (1 Tim. 2:5). Those who exercise Christ’s priesthood on earth continue that very same ministry, always acting in persona Christi, always acting in the person and place of Christ who is the ‘principal actor of the liturgy that honours the Father in heaven’ (CCC §662). When the priest celebrates the liturgy, he does so not by his own merits, but as Christ himself.
In our celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice at this altar, in this church, on this day, we participate now in the eternal offering of worship to God the Father in heaven. We join with the anointed one, the high priest who is the Son of God, in the hymn of praise which is the Father’s due. This is why the Sacred Liturgy is always something which is given to us, and not some human construct; because in the offering of the liturgy we are participating in something that has existed since before time: the worship of the God who has created all things.
So, and especially in the liturgy of this great feast of the Christian year, we are drawn once more to consider the abiding presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We are drawn, too, to see more clearly the link between the worship with offer here at this altar and the eternal worship of the altar of heaven. Just as our earthly worship is bound to the worship of heaven, so our earthly lives are – through our baptism – tied to the eternal life offered us in Christ.
By the ascension of his body, Christ takes our humanity with him into the heavenly realm. He offers us the chance to make complete the pilgrimage of our earthly lives by entering the very place that he ascends to. In his bodily resurrection and bodily ascension, the dignity of our humanity is confirmed and reassured; we are told, by this action, that the fullness of our humanity does not lie in this earthly realm, but rather in heaven. We are not doomed to eternal death, but rather destined for eternal life with Christ in God.
May this solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, then, be a feast of joy and renewal for us. May it be a time of reflection on the great gift of the eternal life that our heavenly Father has offered to us, and may it be a moment at which we can recognise what we must do to accept that gift. If we seek also to enter the heavenly kingdom – as is our destiny – we must begin to live the life of heaven here and now, to be saints not after death but in our lives. We live in hope; may that hope become a reality.