He is taken up
The Ascension of the Lord. Fr Brendan Slevin preaches on the great mystery of divine ascent and descent.
The solemn feast of the Ascension of the Lord is one of those feasts that can bring fear into the life of the preacher. How does one speak or write about this event? There is nothing in our experience that we can use to understand this event.
It is not like death. Jesus died on the cross and is risen to die no more. But neither is it comparable with someone going away. If our friend goes away they go somewhere. We can read about that place, we might even visit them, but Christ is taken up beyond the old creation.
In these days when men have walked on the moon, we might be forgiven for thinking that Christ is up there somewhere. Indeed, some have pondered the thought of a spacecraft picking him up. But Christ is not like those brave men who at this very moment are circling overhead in the international space station. Christ is no longer confined by his creation.
What we celebrate today cannot be understood as an isolated incident. It cannot be separated off from the death and resurrection of the Lord, and neither can it be separated off from the descent of the Spirit of the Lord. Death and descent into the grave, rising to new life, ascension into glory and descent of the Spirit are all parts of a single dynamic unfolding of the divine mystery in time; as well as the unfolding of our new life in the eternal.
In Olivier Messiaen’s fourth organ meditation on the ascension, Prière du Christ mentant vers son Père, we hear a phrase slowly and relentlessly ascending up the registers until the final unresolved chord hangs there as if suspended in time. A moment becomes an eternity.
Within this moment the confines of human potential have been swept away. Within this eternal moment life becomes endless, the Son returns to the Father, and ‘earthbound’ creation finds a new home beyond the limits of mortality.
In this endless moment Christ transforms his followers into instruments of the divine. This transformation is both the glorification of the Father in the Son and the glorification of man and woman in Christ. We might say, then, that the ascension is as much about ourselves as it is about Christ.
We tend to focus on Jesus disappearing from sight, but the movement of the divine reaches out beyond the figure of Christ. In Mark’s Gospel the ascension is sandwiched between instruction and action. Before the ascension the disciples are sent out by the risen Lord into the world. After the ascension the disciples take up this call and leave behind their former reality to enter into the world as instruments of the divine.
In Mark there is no explicit account of the descent of the Spirit, but we are told that when the disciples went out into the world the Lord worked with them. In John’s Gospel, Jesus comes to the apostles in the locked room and breathes on them and they receive the Spirit.
In the Acts of the Apostles the apostles are in the room when the Spirit descends on them as if it were tongues of fire. But last Sunday we read in Acts 10 that, as Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit came down on all the listeners, even the pagans. The descent of the Spirit is not restricted to one event but streams out from that moment of ascension into all times and places.
Here is the great wonder of the ascension. By being lifted up Christ has not deserted us but made it possible for his Spirit to enter all times and places. In this way it is possible for each of us to be transformed by the power of the Spirit into the agents or instruments of Christ. We become enlivened with his Spirit. Our actions become animated in a new way by the Spirit of the God we love and serve. We have become Christs in the world.
The resurrection, ascension and decent of the Spirit continues to be realised in our lives. We draw on that moment suspended in eternity and hope that it will lead us to eternity with God.