Happy feast day!
1) After Our Blessed Lord rose from the dead, he appeared to his apostles a number of times over a period of forty days, showing them by many proofs that he was alive after his passion. Then, in their sight, Our Lord was lifted up to heaven, that he might make us sharers in his own divinity. This is the Mystery of Our Lord’s Ascension.
2) In one way or another it’s always been a challenge to remain a faithful Catholic. There’ve been times in our history, as in some places of the world today, when it’s been physically dangerous to believe. Also taxing to belief is the daily cross of keeping God’s commandments; all of us, as some point in our lives, will find one or other of God’s commandments particularly irksome.
Another kind of challenge to keeping the Catholic faith derives from the very different way of thinking about the world our society has today – a different way of thinking that’s rooted in the development of modern science.
Scientific method focusses only on what can be observed and measured. This has led some to imagine that only what we can observe and measure is real, leaving no room for belief in spiritual realities – including God, who is pure spirit.
So dominant has this way of thinking become, and so scornful of supposed spiritual realities that scientific observation cannot verify, it’s tempting for us to start treating spiritual realities as if they belong to an utterly distinct world from this one, the one having no bearing on the other. Retreating from this world with our faith, we might fancy it’s then safely isolated from the challenge of science. But that would render this world a sort of no-go area for God – and that cannot be right.
Today’s feast of Our Lord’s ascension reminds us that the material world and the spiritual world, our life in this world and our life in the next, are, in reality, intimately connected. In Jesus, the eternal Son of God took to himself a human nature like ours, a nature of this world – the Spirit and the flesh united. Now, having won our redemption, he has ascended to the right hand of God the Father. As God the Son, he always was and always did sit at the Father’s right hand – now, as God the Son made Man, he’s taken the human nature he shares with us with him to heaven’s highest place, calling us to join him there. God made us for that eternal blessedness in Christ in the next world, through using our life in this world to believe in him, hope in him and keep his commandments. All our responsible thoughts, words and actions in this life bear on whether that blessedness will be our destiny in the next.
3) Everything goes wrong when we separate the material from the spiritual, our life in this world from consideration of life in the next. But here’s an example of the wonderful things that happen when we recognise how intimately connected they really are.
Have you ever read Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh? If not, you may have seen the 1981 Granada Television version. (I don’t recommend the cinema version made in 2008, which, in my opinion, twists the story completely!)
Brideshead Revisited is set between the two world wars, and tells the story of Charles Ryder and his dealings with the Marquis of Marchmain’s family – who live at Brideshead. Charles first encounters the family through the Marquis’ second son, Lord Sebastian, when they become friends while fellow students at Oxford. Charles is an agnostic, and is both surprised and intrigued to discover that Sebastian is a Catholic, when he notices him attending Mass one Sunday. Charles asks Sebastian if his faith really makes much difference to him: “You don’t seem much more virtuous than me”, he observes. “Charles, I’m very, very much wickeder” replies Sebastian crossly, not really wanting to discuss it.
Ideally, properly integrating our life in this world with our hopes and fears for what our recompense will be in the next life, will leave us open enough to God’s grace to attain here a life of great virtue. But even when we fail in virtue, even if we’re “very, very much wickeder” than others, as Sebastian claims to be – living this life with regard for the next, rather than treating them as utterly unrelated, still makes a huge difference: in the way, for example, we’re moved to repentance after every fall.
In Brideshead Revisited, each member of the Marchmain family struggles with their Catholic faith in a different way – and yet their life in this world and their hopes and fears for the life to come remain always interconnected, making a difference all the time. The end of the book implies that, many years later, that difference it made to the Marchmains has inspired Charles to become a Catholic too, from which he derives great strength and consolation during active service in the Second World War.
Keeping the material and the spiritual, this life and the next life, properly integrated – rather than treating them as if they belong in separate compartments – is also a powerful witness to our faith.