Given on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, 17 May 2015, at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, Warwick Street.
On this feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we take a further major step in our celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the exploration of our Easter faith.
I am delighted to be celebrating this great Feast here in the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption Warwick Street in the community of the Personal Ordinaritate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Thank you.
Today we take to heart again the real impact of the glorious resurrection of the Lord. You will recall those words:
'In ancient times, Christians all over the world began with a morning salutation to his neighbour 'Christ is Risen'; and his neighbour answered him, 'Christ is risen indeed and hath appeared unto Simon'.
These words, of course, come from the Blessed John Henry Newman, from his Parochial and Plain Sermons. I have borrowed them from the booklet that has so carefully been prepared, in the Ordinariate, for the Novena of Prayer 'Called to be Holy' which is now in its third day. Thank you for that initiative.
Newman's first experience of Catholic liturgy and prayer occurred of course here in this church. It flowered slowly in his life yet the essence of the fullness of that Catholic faith can be recognised in this passage. In these reflections on the centrality of the resurrection, he develops that sense in two ways. Firstly he recognises the appearances of the risen Lord as a great act of God's mercy, for he continues: 'Even to Simon, the coward disciple who denied him thrice, Christ is risen; even to us who long ago vowed to obey him and yet so often denied him before men, so often taken part with sin and followed the world when Christ called us another way.' Today we renew in our hearts our loving gratitude to a Lord who looks so kindly and mercifully upon us.
Then, secondly, Blessed John Henry points to a further meaning of the appearances of the Lord to Simon Peter. He writes: 'To Simon Peter the favoured Apostle, on whom the Church is built, Christ appeared. He has appeared to his Holy Church first of all, and in the Church he dispenses blessings, such as the world knows not of.' Today we rejoice in our full and visible communion with Peter, with his successor, Pope Francis, for it is within this communion that the words of Newman find their fullest expression: 'Blessed are they in that they knew their blessedness, who are allowed as we are, week after week, and Festival after Festival, to seek and find in that Holy Church the Saviour of their souls!' Today we pray for the visible unity of the Church, despite our many divisions and scattered gifts, so that a more powerful witness to the full richness of all God's tokens of love may be offered to our world. May our faith in the risen Lord strengthen this resolve within us.
Today we particularly reach out to embrace the wonder of the Ascension of our Blessed Lord into heaven. This is surely the Festival of the unfolding of our destiny. We pray that where He the Head has gone may we his Body most certainly follow.
Our faith, and the witness we wish to give, is centred round this promise. Our destiny is, quite simply, the fulfilling in each of us of the Paschal Mystery we are celebrating. From the moment of our first existence, this has been the Father's loving purpose in creating us: that we will come to share in the eternal life of heaven, in the inexpressible joy of His presence. We too are to ascend into heaven and share in that eternal glory. This is what makes sense of all we try to do each day. And when that destiny, that true purpose or finality of life, disappears from human sight and striving, then faith is flattened and sooner or later loses its true depth and attractiveness.
Here too we learn about the Father's mercy. The first act of God's mercy towards each of us is the gift of life and of a life that is not without purpose, not ultimately futile just as many fear. Rather it is endowed with the most wonderful of promises. The mercy of God, on which we are invited to ponder continually, is nothing other than the restless love of the Father longing for us to receive and embrace our true destiny. His merciful love is never exhausted, but flows to us time and again that we may start out afresh after every failure and disappointment.
Those who counterpose the mercy of God with the commandments of God misunderstand both mercy and commandment. The commandments of God are given to us as a mercy, to help us how to live on the pathway of our true dignity and highest calling. They are not restrictions on our legitimate freedoms. They are not rules that above all else we have to obey. Rather they are the unfolding into practical living of our deepest nature and destiny. God's mercy then is not something which enables us to overlook those commandments or somehow imagine that we are excused their calling. Rather it is the eternal restlessness of God's love calling us again and again to raise our eyes beyond the horizons we have set for ourselves, the limits of what we believe we can manage, the limits of what we think can reasonably be asked of us. He calls us to reach out again for the fullness of his love, opening our hearts again to its light and joy. Mercy enables us to start out again, not stop where we are comfortable, not satisfied in just being accepted as we are.
At the heart of our spiritual lives, then, lies this deep desire: that all we do may be in accordance with this overwhelming will of God for our salvation, for our fulfilment. Our salvation is secured. This we know. My work is not to earn or effect that salvation, but to walk in its path, to grasp the gift and rejoice in it.
The 'Called to be Holy' Novena also brings us the teaching of Evelyn Underhill. She writes: 'What is asked of us is not necessarily a great deal of time devoted to what we regard as spiritual things, but the constant offering of our wills to God, so that the practical duties which fill most of our days can become part of His order and be given spiritual worth.' She continues, 'Among the things which we should regard as spiritual in this sense are our household or professional work, the social duties of our station, friendly visits, kind actions, and small courtesies, and also necessary recreation of body and of mind, so long as we link all these by intention with God.'
This, indeed, is our pathway to our ascension, for in union with Jesus all things can be turned to the service of the Father and brought, in His day, to be placed before his throne. No longer do our days lack a clear and definite sense of purpose!
At the Ascension, the Lord leaves behind his bodily presence among us so that he may be with us in new ways, not limited by time or place. Those new ways we celebrate most fully through the great Festival of Pentecost, with which the Paschal Mystery is completed. Though the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit the merciful presence of the risen Lord will abide with us always.
Lancelot Andrews writes so beautifully of this 'in-dwelling':
'He must dwell in us; and in us he will 'dwell' if the fruits of his Spirit be found in us. And of his fruits the very first is love. And the fruit is as the tree is. For he himself is love, the essential love, and love-knot of the undivided Trinity.'
Yet this new presence, by which he nurtures and strengthens us every day, retains a wonderful kind of physical presence, something that we can come to, locate, behold, touch, and receive.
Andrews continues: 'You shall observe: there ever was and will be a near alliance between 'the gifts he sent' (the Holy Spirit) and the 'gifts he left us'. He left us the gifts of his body and blood. His body broken, and full of the characters of love all over. His blood shed, every drop whereof is a great drop of love. To those which were sent, these which were left, love, joy, peace, have a special connatural reference, to breed and to maintain each other. His Body the Spirit of strength, his Blood the Spirit of comfort; both the Spirit of love.'
Today we bring all our best gifts to this celebration of the risen and ascended Lord. In this Liturgy we are again taken up into the mystery we celebrate, it is our destiny and therefore our deepest joy. Here, again, we learn who we are: a people bound together in Christ and in the mystery of His visible Church. Here we learn again what we are to be: raised on high into the fullness of the light and joy of God, a wonderful and awesome prospect which we could never imagine or grasp of ourselves, yet given to us by the gracious and free gift of the Father. In his mercy, expressed so fully in the face of our Saviour, and made so powerfully effective in the outpourings of the Holy Spirit, may we journey towards his Kingdom, using all our wit and wisdom to make known this great mystery, for which our world so painfully longs. Amen.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols