At the end of his Gospel St. Matthew keeps our attention firmly focussed on Jesus: he does not tell us about the promised Gift of the Spirit to be awaited with prayerful expectation and hope by the disciples, he fixes our minds on Jesus alone:
Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying,
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
All authority has been given to Jesus but He is going away; He is not, apparently, going to use this authority, not, that is, in the eyes of the world. The glorious work of making disciples of all the nations is to be accomplished by His disciples, His glory is to be theirs not His, so far as the world will be able to judge (John 14:12):
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.
This is in accordance with a consistent principle of Jesus He gives His own Self, He gives us His own Spirit, to help us in all things and to make us, in Himself, adopted sons and daughters for the glory of His Father; on the other hand, He takes our sins upon Himself and subsequently, consistently seeks to glorify us while, apparently, disappearing into the background Himself:
In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God. (Jn. 16:26s.)
Indeed, Jesus even goes so far on one occasion to speak of the Spirit and of the Father in our regard while omitting to mention Himself altogether (Mt. 10:19-20):
When they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak, for it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.
The reason why the world hated Jesus and still hates Him and His, is not because of His human character, which is universally admired by all unbiased students of His life; no, the great trouble, so to speak, with Jesus, is that He claims authority over us, and intends to make us divine in Himself, using His divine ‘version’ of our humanity to wipe out our sin and, ultimate, to totally destroy the sin of the word!!
Worldly men and women want to live morally-carefree lives, they want to feel themselves free to enjoy any, if not all, of the worldly pleasures available. Many modern scientists, delighting aright in their rational ability to scan and thereby gradually conquer the universe, cannot bear to think of mankind being in any way above and beyond their rational observations, calculations, and hypotheses: there must be other planets beside this earth where mankind – or the likeness of mankind -- is to be found; there is no such thing as a soul to make man essentially spiritual rather than merely natural, totally observable and predictable; sin is nothing real, and personal responsibility is a degrading myth. Mankind, many hold, is merely a most superb machine, governed by genes, and showing pre-determined attitudes and reflexes; Christian marriage is inhuman; and the Christian faith is not only an illusion, but even criminally judgmental.
Today’s celebration of Our Lord’s Ascension is -- for such opponents -- another example, indeed, perhaps the supreme example, of the objectionable nature of Christianity: for it tells us, they say, that Jesus goes away; goes away to pray, in order to effect the ultimate change on earth. Yes, it is the central teaching of Christianity that good -- all good -- comes from God, by the gift of God, for the glory of God; and the great glory of human beings is that they are made for, in the likeness of, God: able to delight in and respond to His Personal Self-communication and Gift; called to sing His praises and to glorify His Name by serving as a channel for the exercise and extension of His saving power on earth; and ultimately to find supreme peace and eternal fulfilment in His presence.
People of God, we who humbly and gratefully accept the authority of Jesus, can joyfully appreciate why, on this wondrous day, He should say (Mt. 22:38-40):
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
He loved us, He seeks our glory at His own expense -- according to human standards -- in all things; and today, He is gone to the Father, is eternally with the Father, though never leaving us alone. The Father’s glory and our salvation, that was always and is eternally Jesus’ aim and purpose; and He has left us – His disciples aspiring to be living members of His glorious Body – His own example, His words, and His Holy Spirit in the sacraments with which He has endowed His Church.
The Ascension of Our Lord is a ludicrous scandal to most of the exponents and expounders of modern scientific thought. They can only accept as real what can be seen in some way and correspondingly measured, what can be tested, replicated and repeated. But when you think on that, it means that scientific thought has a strictly limited awareness and minimal appreciation of our human life and experience. It can stir us to the most sincere admiration and indeed astonishment for its discovery of innumerable facts and forces, both great and small, that govern and hold sway within us and without us in our universe; it does indeed provide us with food and all sorts of instruments and appliances that make life healthier, easier and more comfortable; it provides countless things for our use and profit, countless facts and figures for our cogitation. But .. that is all!!
Science can tell us nothing – other than mere statistics – about the most immediately important aspect of life for the vast majority of human beings: it can tell us nothing about our relationships of love, our appreciation of what is beautiful and our awareness of truth; our sometimes vague but always most intimate and at times most objective (you are the guilty one!) sentiments of right and wrong; our awareness of, response to, and delight in innocence, which can cause, for example, the young of even the most rapacious of animals such as the tiger, polar bear, to appear almost irresistibly attractive.
People of God, Jesus has ascended into heaven! He has indeed opened up for us a totally new possibility for life; not, as our scientific opponents rightly say, for natural life, but for that supernatural life (which they deny!) that Jesus offers to us and bestows on us through our faith in His Resurrection: an eternity of loving fulfilment before the God and Father of infinite glory and all-embracing goodness! All of which is rubbish, those who deride us loudly and repeatedly proclaim. Why is it rubbish, one might ask? The reply is, ‘We can’t find any place like heaven, we can’t locate or allocate it, nor can we measure, test, reproduce its supposed effects nor can we imagine ourselves devising ‘filters’ or programmes that might ‘provoke’ some manifestation of its being. In other words, it is all RUBBISH!!
Are then our daily, most intimate and enduring experiences of love and friendship rubbish too? Are there no such realities as beauty and truth? Is there nothing behind our feelings of right and wrong? Science says that there is no great, grey-haired Old Man judging us from up there! Science is right there; but surely science cannot be proud to proclaim such a ridiculous idea. And by such derision does science, do such scientists, mean to say then, that there is no one, anywhere, greater than the individual ME? Am I known and answerable to no-one but Myself? Are each and every one of us inviolable, untouchable, little ‘me’s until publicly found out and criminally accused? Are goodness and wickedness illusions? Are legal and illegal perfectly the same as, indeed even better expressions than, right and wrong, for the good and bad experiences we have in the course of our lives?
For believers, the Ascension is a celebration of the Sacred Humanity of Our blessed Lord in His most glorious achievement for us, and the ground of our surpassing hope and heavenly aspirations in Him: a new and transcendent home awaits us, where sin and death are unknown, where divine love (charity) reigns supreme and all that such love -- in whatever measure -- has moved, guided and sustained us to become and to accomplish here on earth will find both acknowledgement and sublime fulfilment there:
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. (John 14:2-3)