In Memory of Me

In Memory of Me

Presence and absence. Communion and separation. Hollowness and hope. What does the Ascension say about these?

Reading: Ephesians 1:17-23

The following homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. You can listen here or read below:


In common parlance, memory – the act of remembering – presupposes impermanence, a persisting absence. We say we remember the words of a song, a hymn, a paragraph from The Lord of the Rings, but when we open our lips, we can only displace one syllable with another, in a seeming sequence of retrieval and release. My mind, my memory, is not an expanse I can have an eagle-eyed view of. I am incomplete: I cannot be attentive to all that is in my mind at any one time. I am separated from what I remember – I would have no need to remember something here present – and the things I remember are separated – I can only call them to mind as different grains of sand.

Surely this is not all I am. For Augustine, memory is self-presence: the fact that I have recourse to memories, however recent, shows how I see myself as a subject with a history, with a past I can make present to myself, a past that allows me to see the present as the product of contingent processes. And so, when clouds threaten, I can recover my past, and therefore I have hope (Lam 3:21).

Clouds. Men of Galilee, why do you stand here, looking into heaven, when a cloud has received your Saviour from your sight? I wonder how they remember the last time he ascended; most of them were not there, having betrayed or deserted him, for this previous ascent was his Crucifixion: ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself,’ he said, indicating the manner of his impending death (John 12:32). Christ is a king not of this world, but he ruled in the midst of his foes that day, trampling death by death. And so we saw his royal power in the day of his strength. ‘His throne was a Cross. His crown was made of thorns. His regalia were the wounds that pierced his body.’

This description portrays the Victim as Victor, which is only right: Christ is truly both, as our Easter liturgies have proclaimed. But would the Apostles have seen things the same way at the time? Why would they rejoice at the Ascension, at this apparent separation, when they carry about with them the witness – the memory – of their betrayal, desertion and guilt, or when they might themselves have felt betrayed that the Messiah was not who they had made him out to be? Could they have rejoiced just because their expectations were confounded?

Christ is Risen, and today he has risen to his throne on high, to his Father’s house, where he has gone to prepare a place for us. He has ascended, not amid the silence of sadness at his death, but with shouts of joy and victory from the great cloud of witnesses in the city of God. And when our feet are standing there, we will see the king who made earth’s lowliest choices, who chose for his throne a Cross all-forlorn.

And, with the Apostles, we will look on the One we have pierced. To see him like this is to see him as he is: our memory will find its culmination in him. He is not ashamed to appear before his angels with his wounds, with the memory of his Passion which he received from men. Augustine says that Christ’s flesh is like a voice, and here, it is as though he were saying to us, ‘You are my joy and my crown. I will never forget you, my people; I have carved you onto the palms of my hands’ (Phil 4:1, Isa 49:15-16). This is why the Ascension is cause for rejoicing: we are remembered in his Kingdom. The iniquity of man is repaid with the immensity of God. What a wonderful exchange: by his wounds we are healed (Isa 53:5, 1 Pet 2:24). By the mystery of his mercy, the Apostles’ memories are rid of shame and set upon the rock of his faithfulness (cf Ps 40:2(39:3)).

It is by this memory – ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven – that we can truly live the words, ‘Do this in memory of me’ (Luke 22:19). The Ascension is separation in a sense, but Christ is not lost to us: how can he be, when he has given himself so freely on the Cross? He is with us by a new mode of presence – the Eucharist – and it is with this kind of memory, the renewed memory of the Apostles, that the Church celebrates Mass. The narrative of the Institution begins by reminding us that the Sacrament of Christ’s self-gift is given ‘on the night before he was to suffer’ (Eucharistic Prayer I). Those at table turned their backs on him, but their friendship has been restored.

At Mass, we do not remember a far event in a far country, but are made present to ourselves as people complicit in the Passion, people redeemed by his Blood. He calls us sinners to be ‘partakers of divine nature’ (2 Pet 1:4). The supper at Emmaus was not separate from the memories of Gethsemane and Golgotha, but it remembered them in the light of Easter. In the Mass, we and our memories are healed in the here-and-now: in the Paschal Mystery is the pledge of the eternal Passover. Christ our God is in heaven, making perpetual intercession for us. It is in memory of this his Sacrifice that we can answer the angel: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ (Acts 1:11) We look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2): since we have been raised with Christ, let us seek the things that are above (Col 3:1). We participate in the purification of our memory, the healing of our souls and bodies, by celebrating the mysteries at his command and in his memory. Christ wills that where he is, we be there with him (John 17:24): the Eucharist is food for our journey there, just as Christ is the Way (John 14:6). ‘The Lord is my portion, says my soul; therefore, I will hope in him’ (Lam 3:24). May he remember us in his Kingdom. ‘Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb’ (Apoc 19:9).

Br Augustine was born and raised in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo. He came to England to study Law at the University of Oxford, where he was acquainted with and attracted to the Dominican way of life. A desire to proclaim the Gospel and to acquire a wider experience of religious life led him to work with the Salesians among young people in Glasgow before entering the Order. He finds nourishment in the works of St Augustine and the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and is seeking a deeper familiarity with Eastern Christian spirituality and the Metaphysical poets. Among his favourite books are St Augustine's Confessions and Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. He has an interest in the visual arts, and likes drawing and painting.

Comments (2)

  • Kathleen

    Thank you for this eloquent, elegant homily. On the Ascension, truly a transcendent concept- a physical and cosmic event rooted in history combining grief and joy through the centuries, uniting us with all those who have gone before and those yet to be born who will welcome the Lord when He comes. Blessings on you today.

  • A parishioner of Blackfriars

    Dear Br Augustine
    I have been pondering the Ascension of the Lord for many years. When I am at my best, Yes, I see the work of Jesus Christ continuing in heaven, leaving us an image of the exact place in which we can raise our faces heavenward and see the doorway that leads to where we yearn to follow and finally rest. For now it is obscured by cloud, but one day, the clouds will part.
    Yet, on days when I am not at my best, it feels like yet another “Noli me Tangere” moment, and I want to grasp and cling to what I know I cannot, and I feel separate, lost and abandoned yet again.
    Your exquisitely written words above, ground me, they root me to the place where I actually can stand and literally look up at the doorway, if I stand in that place, just before receiving the Blessed Sacrament, then I can know that I am not forgotten, but invited, known, and wanted at the supper table, to meet in this most perfect way, until we meet again.
    Thank you for your profound words , and the gentleness and authority with which you have spoken them . PS You are a wonderful artist.


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