Ascension of the Lord
Today’s feast is the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, 40 days after his death and resurrection. 'Where He has gone, we hope to follow' (Preface of the Ascension).
The Ascension reminds us of our calling, our identity and our destiny.
Have you ever thought about what we say about those who have gone before us who have died? Have you ever thought about what people will say about us when we die? I have often heard it said of someone ‘they must have gone straight up.’ We think of saintly people, people of peace, prayer, faith, devotion, integrity, kindness, who never had a bad word to say about anyone. ‘They went straight up, or else there’s no hope for us’! We are inclined to pray to them rather than for them. We think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or Pope John Paul II – we couldn’t imagine a heaven without them, and we count on their intercession.
We think too of the words and expressions we use in attempting to explain death to a young child, who can’t understand why a grandparent has died and can no longer be seen. We explain that they have gone to heaven. We all struggle to come to terms with the death of a young person; it doesn’t seem fair when their lives are cut short, and we who were born before them, outlive them. Life is short and mysterious.
Sometimes we say of someone who has died: ‘they have gone home’; ‘they have gone to their heavenly reward’ or we say ‘they have gone to a better place’; ‘they are at peace’; ‘their sufferings are at an end’, or ‘it was an ease to them’ or ‘God took them’. We just cannot explain death to our own satisfaction, but we can accept and let go of someone because we find some comfort in statements such as these. But such understandable sentiments should never distract us from our obligation to pray for them: 'It is a good and wholesome thing to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins' (The Second Book of Maccabees 12:46).
Christian funeral rites help us to try to make sense of death. At a funeral Mass we hear the words:
‘Open the gates of paradise to your servant and help us who remain to comfort one another with assurances of faith.’
One of the pieces of Scripture often read at the graveside in the Rite of Committal is from St Paul who tells us: ‘Our true home is heaven, and Jesus Christ whose return we long for will come from heaven to save us.’ (Philippians 3:20).
So heaven is our true home, where Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us. I remember once when comparing life to departures at the airport terminal, where we are all waiting for our flight to be called; someone ruefully said to me: ‘well Father, you’re alright, some of us are already on the tarmac!’
The second implication of the Solemnity of the Ascension is: what do we do now that Jesus has gone from our sight?
Like the disciples in Bethany that day 1980 years ago we too are called to be His witnesses.
A witness gives evidence in public to a fact and an event; is prepared to take an oath to that end; and some witnesses have died preserving the integrity of the truth of their beliefs. (Martyrs mean 'witnesses' in Greek). We have an opportunity each day through words, actions, example, behaviour, appearance, conversations, standing up for what is right, what is true, what is pure and honourable, unafraid of the consequences – for the right to life, the sanctity of marriage, chastity, honesty and unafraid to be identified as a Christian. We are called to be witnesses to the fundamental truths of our Faith.
It is by our persevering efforts to pray and live out our call to be His witnesses that we merit heaven: 'he who honours Me, honours the one who sent Me', Jesus said.
The promised Holy Spirit enables us, empowers us with His gifts of fortitude and courage to do this. We collectively re-await His coming at Pentecost next Sunday to renew us in our efforts. In the meantime let us pray continually praising God in company with Mary and the saints to help us usher in what Pope John Paul II called ‘a new springtime of Christianity