C. S. Lewis, who is perhaps best known for his Chronicles of Narnia, was also a profound Christian thinker. Reading the Chronicles of Narnia aware of Lewis’ faith transforms those well-loved children’s stories into a rich narrative of the Christian life. Lewis was a practicing Anglican who, amidst the vast range of theological opinions amongst Anglicans, held views of the sacraments and the Church with which Catholics can (on the whole) be quite comfortable.
Lewis’ writing is what we call “apologetic.” This means that he wrote in defence of the Christian faith. He was not “on the defensive” but sought to communicate in a way designed to attract others to the truth. This is perhaps why, like G. K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, Ronald Knox, and many others, Lewis chose to write stories as well as purely theological and philosophical works. One of his most famous apologetic arguments, found in his book Mere Christianity, is known as his “trilemma” (as opposed to dilemma). Lewis, seeking to prove the divinity of Christ, argues that Jesus was one of three things: a lunatic whose teachings were the result of mental illness, a liar who sought to deceive his followers, or exactly who he claimed to be, that is Christ. He was, we might say, lunatic, liar, or Lord.
This trilemma comes to mind as we approach the event of the ascension of the Lord. Scripture tells us that forty days after his resurrection Christ was lifted up and a cloud took him from the sight of his disciples. Yet in the gospel passage from which we read today we also hear the Lord’s promise: “I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” And here we find an apparent inconsistency. Christ disappears from our sight, and at the same time says: “I am with you always.” Met with this we can conclude with Lewis that Christ is either a lunatic for suggesting he can be in two places at once, a liar seeking to deceive us, or—as we rightly believe—the Lord who, through this apparent contradiction, is pointing us toward a more profound truth.
As Christians we obviously believe that the event of the ascension and the Lord’s promise are both true. The question is how we reconcile this apparent inconsistency in order to learn more about our participation in the life of Christ. In other words, how is Christ’s promise—“I am with you always”—fulfilled?
The first and most obvious way is in the life of the Church. Next Sunday we will celebrate the feast of Pentecost; the day on which the Holy Spirit was sent upon the apostles for the founding of the Church. Christ fulfils his promise to remain with us by joining us to himself in his sacrifice on the cross, and perpetuating that union through our participation in his Mystical Body, the Church. As Christians we are united to Christ in baptism. The Church is the unique means by which that union takes place, and it is a constant and steadfast witness to the presence of Christ in the world. Christ fulfils his promise to remain with us in his Mystical Body, the Church; in her mission, in her teachings, and in her action in the world.
And what is that action in the world? How is Christ made known in our own time through the work of his Mystical Body, the Church? It is in the sacraments, and in our participation in his life, first and foremost, in the life of grace presented in the liturgy of the Church. Christ fulfils his promise to remain with us in the Church, first of all, by going to heaven and in the same moment bringing heaven to us. His departure doesn’t so much distance him from us, but brings us into his heavenly realm, deepening our union with his life through our participation in his own action: the Sacred Liturgy, the very thing we are here to do today.
This underscores an important reality. Our worship, and particularly our worship in the Mass, is not the “cherry on the cake” of the Christian life. What we do in Church is not simply one strand of who we are as Christians. It is our participation in the life of Christ in the here and now, and the primary means of our participation in that life after the event of his ascension. Without the liturgy, that moment in which Christ disappeared from sight would have been the end. With the liturgy, the life of Christ continues in and through the Church, bringing the life of heaven—the worship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—into the realm of man. The Sacred Liturgy is fundamental and essential and foundational.
This is a point that needs reinforcing ever more strongly in our own day. Too often the “goodness” of a person or an institution is separated from true goodness, necessarily rooted in a relationship with Jesus Christ. This is even the case within the Church, whose concern for the poor, for the unborn, for the destitute, for the environment, all demands, first and foremost, a relationship with the Lord that is grounded and rooted in his own life. And that life is found, in a unique way, in the Sacred Liturgy; in the economy of worship, grace, and salvation that is offered us in the Mass and the sacraments of the Church.
All of this is why it is fitting that today we bless our new altar candlesticks and crucifix. The very point of the feast of the ascension is that the liturgy is our contemporary place of encounter with Christ. For this reason Pope Benedict taught that “everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty.” The generosity of our parishioners in contributing to these worthy additions to the sanctuary is a response to this call. By them we reaffirm the centrality of the cross in the life of this parish, and we insist that—as you will be accustomed to hearing me say—the altar is the focus of our church and the focus of our life together. These items are a testament to our faith that the Lord does indeed fulfil his promise—“I am with you always”—and invites us, through that promise and by our participation in his life, in the liturgy, to follow where he has gone before.
May this feast of the ascension encourage us to enter more fully into the life of heaven that is offered us in our worship. May we grow in love of the liturgy, that ever-unfolding source of grace, seeking to be ever more faithful to the Church’s own life of prayer. And, through this experience of God’s grace, may we be so united to Christ in this life that we may follow where he has now gone, and so be crowned with him in the glory of the world to come.