The joy of the apostles: sermon on the Sunday after the Ascension

“When the Paraclete cometh, whom I shall send you from the Father, he shall give testimony of me.”

St Luke tells us that after the apostles and the other disciples had seen the Lord ascend into heaven from Mount Olivet, they went back to Jerusalem “with great joy”. One might have expected that they would be sad to know that they would see Him no more on earth; but in fact, such natural feelings were entirely swallowed up by the supernatural sentiments that filled their hearts, even before the day of Pentecost. They understood, even before Pentecost, that the Ascension was a magnificent blessing, first of all for our Lord Himself, and then, for themselves.

For our Lord, the Ascension was the final reward for His earthy life. By His fidelity to His Father for thirty-three years, and especially during His Passion, our Saviour merited a reward. This reward began at His Resurrection, when He received back His Body, now immortal and indestructible. But the reward was only completed on the day of the Ascension, when He left this place of exile and entered, for the first time as man, the only part of creation which is worthy of Him, heaven itself. More than that, the Ascension was the day of His coronation as king. Publicly, in the sight of the angels, Jesus took the throne of His kingdom, the kingdom which will have no end. Cuius regni non erit finis. This is recalled in the verse from the psalms which is used for the alleluia of this Sunday’s Mass, both in the Roman and in the Carmelite rite: “The Lord hath reigned over all nations: God sitteth on his holy throne.” St Paul expresses this idea of the Ascension as a reward which the Father bestowed upon His Son, in these words to the Philippians: “He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted him.” Christ, as man, has the highest place in heaven.

This by itself would suffice to explain the joy with which the apostles returned from Mount Olivet to the cenacle. They were showing in this way the truth of the words that Christ spoke at the Last Supper, about His imminent return to the Father: “If you loved me, you would rejoice.” They loved Him, and therefore they rejoiced. Yet the Ascension is a cause of joy not only because Christ has been fittingly rewarded for His life on earth, but also because of the benefits which it brings to us who remain here. This is why we recall it during every Mass. In the Roman canon, immediately after the consecration, the priest says, “Wherefore, Lord, we Thy servants, as also Thy holy people, mindful of the blessed passion of Christ Thy Son, our Lord, but also of His Resurrection from the dead and His admirable Ascension into heaven, offer unto Thy most excellent majesty, a pure, holy and unspotted host.”

What are some of the benefits that come to us from Jesus’s admirable Ascension? First of all, the Ascension exercises us in the three theological virtues, and therefore it makes these virtues grow. Faith, for example. The apostles did not need faith to speak to Christ while He was still on earth, since they could see Him. But as soon as He had ascended, all the words which they spoke to Him became acts of faith. Likewise for us: because we make all our prayers either to Christ or through Him to the Father, all our prayers are acts of faith in His Resurrection and Ascension to the Father’s right. Then, the Ascension nourishes our hope. Would we dare to think that this human nature, weak as it is, could enter the heavenly kingdom, if we did not know that, in Christ, it has already done so? As the communion of the Mass says during this Octave, this is the day on which “Thine only-begotten Son established at thy right hand in glory the substance of our fragility which He had united to Himself”. The substance of our fragility — that is, human nature itself — is now in heaven. Then the third and best of the three great virtues, divine charity. The apostles already had charity for Christ, before His Ascension. But while they were still living with Him on earth, it was easy for that charity to be mixed with and, so to say, diluted by a merely human kind of love: the kind of love which St Peter had shown when he tried to dissuade our Lord from going to the Cross. Once the Lord had been exalted into heaven, their love toward Him became purer and therefore stronger. They cannot think of Him now except as the God-man, and their love is in accordance with their faith.

So, simply by the new relation which the Ascension established between Jesus and ourselves, it nourishes the three greatest virtues, faith, hope and love. This is already a cause for joy.

But even more than this, the Ascension benefits us because of what Christ does for us in heaven. He alluded to this at the Last Supper, saying, “I go to prepare a place for you.” What does it mean, to prepare a place for us? I think it must mean, to prepare us for the place. Heaven is ready for us; it is us who need to be made ready for it. How then does He prepare us by going to heaven?

In heaven, the Lord intercedes for us. As once He stood on the hill in Galilee and saw His friends in the boat labouring on the Sea, for the wind was against them, so now He sees us and our needs as we make our way through life. As man, in heaven, He intercedes for us with His Father; He asks that we may receive the graces which we need to come safely to eternity. The wounds themselves which He wished to retain on His risen Body are a perpetual and eloquent prayer to His Father on behalf of us, for whom He received them. 

And just as, on that occasion in Galilee, Christ intervened dramatically to help His disciples in the boat when He came to them walking across the waters in the fourth watch of the night, sometimes in the life of the Church on earth, He intervenes in some special way, beyond the general help which He always gives to us through the sacraments and through faithful pastors. We can think of how in the early centuries, He raised up a Catholic emperor to put an end to the Arian heresy which had kept the Church in a perpetual crisis for sixty or more years; or much later, how He preserved the papacy during the French revolution, and brought the successors of St Peter triumphantly through those dark years, in a way that seemed miraculous to the people of the time. When our Lord does such things for the Church, as the psalmist says, Tunc dicent inter gentes: magnificavit Dominus facere cum eis, even among the pagans it will be said, the Lord has done great things for them. It is not necessary to say that we are living through such a time now, when the winds are against us, and we must perseveringly ask our Lord to look down upon His Church from heaven and deliver us. The Leonine prayers which we say after Mass remind us of that.

But finally, although as man, Christ intercedes for us in heaven, He does not intercede as the saints do. He is the God-man, to whom all authority has been given in heaven, as well as on earth. Therefore, He does not simply ask that graces be given to us on earth, He sends the Holy Spirit upon the Church “the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father”. The Holy Spirit, He tells the apostles, will give testimony of Him. Accordingly, on Pentecost Sunday, the apostles received from the Holy Ghost a much deeper conviction of the divinity of Christ than they had ever had before. It was in virtue of this deep conviction that they were able to be His witnesses in Jerusalem and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

What happened on the first Pentecost is renewed for the Church each year. That is no doubt why, according to St Augustine, the apostles themselves decreed that the feast of Pentecost must be celebrated every year until the Lord’s return. St Paul says that when our Lord ascended on high, it was “to fill all things” (Eph 4:10), and a mediaeval commentator explains this as meaning “to fill all things with His gifts”. In the Old Testament, we read that when the ark of the covenant had been safely brought into Jerusalem for the first time, King David gave presents to every man and woman of Israel. In the same way, now that the Son of David has brought into the heavenly Jerusalem the ark of His own Body, He will give gifts to all the faithful. Ask, therefore, for the gifts that you desire, that this Pentecost may bring you much further in your journey toward heaven.