Homily for Lichfield Cathedral School on the Feast of the Ascension
The natural law says, “what goes up must come down.”
The supernatural law says, “what comes down must go up.”
You’ll remember that forty days before Easter (give or take a few) was Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent. On Good Friday, Jesus died; on Holy Saturday, descended into Hell to liberate the dead; and on Easter Day, rose from the dead.
The Word of God which came down from heaven becoming human flesh on Christmas day went down, reached lower and lower to the sinners and blasphemous, down lower to be executed with the criminals, and further, all the way to the souls trapped in Hell, then sprung up again out of the tomb to new life. Now, forty days after Easter, he soars higher still, as he goes up to the top of a mountain with his disciples, and vanishes from their sight in a cloud.
Sometimes, I call Ascension Day “Christmas backwards,’ because it’s the day when the One who emptied himself of glory to come from heaven into that stable in Bethlehem now returns to his place with the Father. It’s the day when what came down goes up.
So that’s it, the end of the story: in Jesus, God dropped in for a visit and now he’s gone back home. God’s in his heaven, we’re down here on earth, and all’s well with the world, so let’s just carry one like we did before. Right?
Wrong! – because the story of the birth, life, death, resurrection and today, the glorious Ascension of Christ is the story of the world: what comes down, must go up.
Now, I’m not so daft that I think heaven is a physical place somewhere up in the sky on the clouds that you get to on a space rocket to go and visit God; nor that if I dug a hole deep enough, I could go and find the devils roasting people in Hell. Up and down are just helpful ways of thinking about these things: we have to use physical metaphors about spiritual realities, because we are physical beings. What I’m getting at is that the universe has come from God, and is on its way back to God. What has come down, must go up, like Jesus.
But how? How, when we are so dragged down by the gravity of worldly things, by our cares and concerns and desires, our worries about the world and our place in it, can we float up carelessly into the endless beauty and glory of the realm of pure spirit, pure beauty, goodness and truth, which is God? It’s like were trying our best to swim away from a shipwreck through a choppy sea wearing a suit of armour. We need some kind of buoyancy aid, or better still, a ship to come and rescue us.
That’s where Pentecost comes in.
Back to the maths: remember, Ascension Day is forty days after Easter. Well, add another ten to that and you get fifty, and pentecostos is the Greek for fiftieth (think of ‘pentagons’ and so on). A couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus promise in the readings for the Eucharist that even though he was going away, he would send a Comforter to be with the disciples forever. Pentecost, that fiftieth day after Easter, is when the Comforter arrived in wind and flames: the Holy Spirit, the breath of God which blows us up, inflates us like a life dinghy or even a hot-air balloon, so that we, too, can be “lifted up” into the spiritual realm of heaven.
Enough hot air from me. I’ll leave you with encouragement to invite that Spirit of God into your hearts and lift you up in this rather downhearted time: to look out and see all the beautiful and good things in this world, to remember that they have come from God, and by contemplating their beauty, to be lifted up closer to the One who is Beauty itself, and is always reaching out his hand to lift us up, through the Cross, to the eternal life of the his Resurrection.
May truth be with you: may Christ be with you. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!