Posted April 30, 2020
Today as we see the apostles gazing up to heaven as the Lord ascended (Acts 1: 1-11), we may be reminded of St Paul’s words: ‘Our homeland is in heaven’; and again: ‘Set your minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth.’ To be a Christian means to have your gaze fixed on heaven. Heaven must be our preoccupation. That’s the point of the Ascension.
It makes a lot of down-to-earth sense to have your gaze fixed on heaven. Part of our innate foolishness is to suppose that life goes on forever. But in fact, the day is not all that far away – indeed, it may be just around the corner – when all the work we have done, all the sufferings we have endured, all the love we have experienced and shown, all our earthly joys and hopes, will slip away from us in less than a second. There is no security here: no hope of permanence, no ultimate meaning.
Atheists say: too bad, but that’s the way things are: better to face reality than take refuge in religion. But to accept that all meaning collapses when we breathe our last: how can you call that reality? How can our minds, whose sole function is to grasp meaning, contemplate for one moment the collapse of all meaning? We Christians hold that ultimate meaning is to be found in God and in Christ: that to be with God is the fulfilment of the boundless potential of our minds and hearts; that all our best emotions, and our love and our yearning, all our deepest longings for ourselves and our loved-ones, and for humankind, are consummated in heaven; and that all our sufferings and our losses and our sacrifices and our disappointments find meaning only there. Our homeland is in heaven. Our great desire is to be with Jesus, who gave us a taste of heaven in the first place.
Now you would think, wouldn’t you, that people who went around saying ‘Set you minds on the things that are above’ would not have a lot of time for things down here. There were plenty of religions around at the time of Christianity’s birth that were like that: heavenly through and through, to the extent of seeing action in this world as morally indifferent. But what is surprising about the New Testament is that whereas it is forever pointing up to heaven, it is also at the same time constantly bringing us down to earth. On one page it speaks about setting your mind on the things above where Christ is, at the right hand of the Father, but turn over the page and you’re into feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. So whereas one page may give you the impression that religion is all about looking up to heaven, the next page will tell you that (I quote from St James): ‘Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows in their hardships, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.’
Similarly, St John the Evangelist, that heavenly mystic, could write: ‘If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?’ St Matthew even has Jesus saying at the last judgment: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ And isn’t it true that throughout the Christian centuries it has been the very people who had their heads full of heaven who were the most active in attending to the very earthly needs of the wretched upon earth?
The lesson is that Christianity is not just about heaven but also about the hard realities of earth: not partly about the one and partly about the other, but entirely about the one and entirely about the other. And it is not that clothing the naked is a means of getting a reward in heaven, as some Christians may be tempted to think. It is rather that clothing the naked is the anticipation of the generosity and concern that characterizes life in God’s presence. We clothe the naked because clothing the naked is already the language and culture of heaven, where Jesus has taken our humanity; just as surely as injustice and abuse, wherever it occurs, is the language and culture of the other place.
We should celebrate the Feast of the Ascension not only today but every day. We should have a very keen sense that our daily lives and all our humdrum acts of service are already anticipations of heaven – are already shot through with God’s glory. And, conversely, we should be keenly aware that our worship, our liturgy, and all our heavenly thoughts and desires, are only authentic when they are accompanied by practical charity and a down-to-earth concern for the needs of other people. The Ascension has carried earth up to heaven. But just as surely it has brought heaven down to earth, for Jesus merges our humanity with God, and God with our humanity.
But that, come to think of it, is a description of the Eucharist. The Eucharist, as the liturgy itself expresses it, is a ‘wonderful exchange’. We bring into God’s presence our very selves: we bring our daily tasks and our commitments and our worries and our problems; our responsibility for one another and for the world; our tears, but also our laughter and our enjoyment of God’s creation.
Under normal circumstances we would now proceed to enact this wonderful exchange in a physical, sacramental sense. We would be offering ourselves and our lives to God in the Offertory procession; and in exchange we would be receiving God’s very self in Holy Communion. This year, we cannot do that in the literal sense because of the pandemic restrictions. We must content ourselves with an inward enactment of this wonderful exchange. Let’s enact the exchange in our hearts, with our families around us. Let’s offer to God this world of ours, stricken and forlorn as it is; and ask God to give it back to us created anew, saturated with God’s beauty and majesty.
Fr Tom Deidun