Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (John 20:17)
At the tomb, on that greatest of all days, Jesus says this to Mary Magdalene. If many found it hard to believe that He had risen, how much harder did they find it to understand what He meant by “ascend” and “ascended.” Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Ascension when, at last, the meaning of those words was unfolded.
By His rising the gates of death and hell were unlocked, and salvation was brought to us poor banished children of Eve. But the gates of Heaven were also to be opened for us, and this is part of the symbolism of the Ascension. Our great High Priest has ascended. Before any ascent there has to be a descent. The Word who made the world became an infant without words. He who was with the Father before all worlds “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.” He who was sinless took upon Himself the sins of mankind. He who was eternal died for us. Then He rose in glorious victory over death. As Paul triumphantly told the Corinthians:
But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
23 But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming
Lancelot Andrewes draws a line from here for us to the Ascension:
For His being above before He went below, is nothing to us. But being below first, and then that He went up, that is it we hold by. As the Son of God He came down, as the Son of Man He went up. If as the Son of man, there is hope that the sons of men may do the like.
However low we have descended, we can be lifted high by Him.
But He has not left us, even though “the cloud from sight received Him, when the forty days were o’re.” As St Matthew tells us, He left the Apostles with a Great Commission and a promise:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.
The full meaning of that would not become clear until the day of Pentecost, but we have His promise and He is with us.
In 2016 the Archbishops of Canterbury and York launched an initiative, Thy Kingdom Come, which was designed to draw Christians to using the period between Ascension and Pentecost to deepen our faith. It has grown into an international phenomenon, and the Catholic Church plays its part in this. For myself, I find journeying with Our Lady during this period especially fruitful.
This Sunday, those following that journey, are asked to pray for forgiveness. The fact that we are forgiven never ceases to astonish me. As a human being, I feel that I somehow have to be worthy of it, and yet it is given freely as an act of love; only my pride and need to feel that I am in some way worthy can get in the way of that. But if I accept His forgiveness as it is given to me, as an act of love, then that frees me up; it liberates me to do likewise.
Bishop Andrewes reminds us that “as He ascended into Heaven, Heaven is to ascended to by the new and living way that is prepared through the veil of His flesh.” And I shall finish this, as he finished his sermin at Greenwich on 12 June 1614: “Christ being there for us, and the Spirit here for God; either agent for the other. It is the happiest news this, that ever came to mankind.: