Homily at St Philip Evans on Ascension Sunday, Year B.Christ, clothed in red and purple, ascending

The Seven Word Sermon: Jesus, who ascended, said “Lay on hands!”

We believe in One Lord, Jesus Christ, who ascended into heaven.

It’s part of the Creed. We say it every Sunday. But I wonder, if you stop to think about it, doesn’t it seem a little farcical?

Jesus, in his Risen Body, lifting off from terra firma, gliding gracefully upwards, until he disappears into a cloud?

Surely some skeptical part of your mind is resisting this idea. And that part will probably have one of three objections. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Or: he didn’t.

Now, common sense tells us that human bodies simply don’t lift off heavenward, so that will push us towards thinking Jesus couldn’t have done it. But let’s remember who we are talking about. Jesus Christ, born of a Virgin, who healed the sick, raised the dead, calmed storms, turned water into wine, fed crowds from a single picnic basket, and who has just spent the last 40 days appearing to his friends in a death-proof body. Couldn’t is a word we must use cautiously when it applies to Him! Our instincts are quick to believe that Jesus can do something when a person we care about is sick. We pray to Jesus for a cure, and then we are very ready to blame him for failing to deliver a miracle. So we end up blaming Jesus for not answering our prayers, while at the same time doubting that he has the power to do something no less spectacular. If Jesus can glow with light at the Transfiguration and rise from the dead at Easter, ascending into heaven 40 days later shouldn’t be too tricky.

There again, you might read the story of the Ascension and think, “Jesus wouldn’t have done that. Not his style. Too showy.” But how can you possibly know what Jesus would or wouldn’t have done? Only a person who knows Jesus really well could make a decision like that. And the only way to get to know Jesus that well is to meet him in the pages of the Bible. St Jerome once said that “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”, and that’s why we offer a monthly Bible Study in our parish Call to Question group and are promoting monthly Scripture Saturdays which start next month in Bridgend. We can’t rely on second-hand things we have heard about Jesus. We can’t rely on our inner light, which tells us more about ourself, than about Christ dwelling within us. The best place to meet Jesus is in the Gospels.

So we know that Jesus could have bodily ascended into heaven, if that was part of God’s plan. We can only find out whether Jesus would have done something like that by getting to know Him through the Bible. And in today’s readings from Scripture, we are told that Jesus did ascend into Heaven. St Mark’s Gospel simply says ‘he was taken up into heaven’. St Luke, in his opening chapter of Acts, says he disappeared into a cloud. Even St Paul refers to Jesus ascending into heaven. In one of his earliest writings, the First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul makes it clear that the first Christians were waiting eagerly to see Jesus re-appear in the clouds in the same way he had departed. Slowly and painfully, in the later books of the New Testament, they were beginning to realise this might not happen during their lifetime. We can’t claim that Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven without saying that all these authors in the Bible got it wrong.

So, fight back that attack of common sense that’s getting in the way, and face facts. Jesus ascended into heaven. OK. Why did He do that?

NOT because heaven is a place in the sky. As Catholics, we believe that Our Lord and Our Lady have their bodies in heaven, right now, so whatever we mean by ‘Heaven’, it is a dimension where both bodies and souls can exist. But it was not necessary for Jesus to fly through the air to get there. At Emmaus, he simply vanished in front of the Apostles. Heaven is ‘somewhere’, but not the kind of somewhere we can reach with an aeroplane or a space-rocket.

Rather, on this day, Our Lord made a dramatic gesture to show that the work of God had been passed on to his apostles and disciples. And the work he passed on included the tasks of healing bodies and souls. God cares about our bodies. He wants our bodies to be healthy. Jesus said: “Believers will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.”

Watch out! That same bit of common sense which laughs at the idea of Jesus ascending is now going to rubbish another idea. What should you do if you fall sick? Ask a Christian believer to come and lay hands on you and pray. But we don’t do that, do we?

If someone is really sick, close to death, we call a priest and ask for the Last Rites. We take comfort from knowing that a person has died with the Church’s blessing and their sins forgiven through the Sacrament for Anointing.

If someone is ill, but able to travel, we might take them to Lourdes, where Our Lady did ask that people should come in procession.

If someone is less severely ill, we write their name into the Bidding Prayers at Mass and perhaps ask the priest to say a prayer for them too.

These are not bad things to do. But they are not what Jesus told us to do. Rather, Jesus said that people who believe in Him will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover. Elsewhere, the Letter of St James says that if a community elder, a priest, does so, the person’s sins will also be forgiven.

If the god you believe in couldn’t heal someone through the laying-on of hands, your god is too small.

If the god you believe in wouldn’t heal someone through the laying-on of hands, your god is not the one Jesus was speaking about.

If the god you believe in didn’t heal someone through the laying-on of hands, have you given God a chance? We are not told that every Christian will have this gift. We are not told that the gift of healing will be granted every single time. But we are told, pretty clearly, that when there is illness in the Church community, the right thing to do is to ask a Christian believer to lay their hands on the sick person, and Jesus also teaches us to be persistent in our prayer.

But the very idea of it! Can you even imagine what our parish community would be like if every time we faced illness, we asked another parishioner to lay hands on us and ask God for the gift of healing? Isn’t that a silly idea, as silly as the very thought of Jesus’ own body disappearing up into the clouds like a Chinese lantern?

I believe in One Lord, Jesus Christ, who ascended into heaven.


For further reading:

  • A story of healing experienced through my own ministry as a priest.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Yuri Gagarin did not say that he had failed to find God when he orbited the Earth.
  • Some claim that sober saints such as Francis and Teresa had the gift of levitating too!