I wonder what your favourite nursery rhyme was when you were growing up? Any suggestions?
Well, I don't know if it was my favourite but the Grand Old Duke of York is always one that has stuck in my head. If you remember he marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again; very possibly for no apparent reason!
Well, this week on Thursday morning, we celebrate Ascension Day – the day that Jesus ascends to heaven, not to be seen again. But unlike the soldiers in the Grand Old Duke of York nursery rhyme he is to go for a reason, to be with his Father, and ours – think of the words at the beginning of the Lord's Prayer – in heaven. In doing so, he passes the baton onto us; it is now our job to bring something of the kingdom of God, in heaven down to earth. He has shown us the way and, through his very persona, he has revealed what the Kingdom of God is like: a place of justice, peace (note the words from the Gospel – 'my peace I leave you,) love, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Jesus last promise before his ascension is the Gift of the Holy Spirit, which the apostles have already received and, the wider group of worshippers is to receive at Pentecost. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is saying to us: 'even though I am to ascend I will never leave you.' Of course the purpose of the Divine Gift is to equip us to carry on working for the kingdom, to become as Christ in a deeply shattered and broken world, to show Jesus to the world as 'the way, the truth and the life.' And, of course by following in Jesus' footsteps we hope one day to dine with Him in paradise.
But, here is the nub of the issue: in order to ascend, we have to first descend; just as Jesus did. Jesus the ascending God was also, in the words of Henri Nouwen, the 'Descending God.' What does it mean to descend and how can we do it? Again, I think Henri Nouwen provides some insights. Nouwen suggests, and this has been my own experience, it means abandoning false perceptions of our own self-worth, Nouwen wrote: ' I get the impression that under the blanket of success, a lot of people fall asleep in tears.'
To descend means to get over ourselves and throw away the illusionary, to recognise that my self-worth and yours is simply this: that we are children of God: 'The descending way of Jesus, is the way to find God. Jesus doesn't hesitate for a minute to make that clear. Soon after he has ended his period of fasting in the wilderness and called his first disciples to follow him, he says; how blessed are the poor in spirit.' Spiritual poverty means taking a realistic view of ourselves, and learning to love ourselves for who we are. And when we have done this, we can descend to help, or love, our neighbour because we then start to see our neighbour as our equal: 'the descending way of love, the way to the poor, the broken, the oppressed becomes the ascending way of love, the way to joy, peace and new life.'
So if we are serious about our faith, before we even begin to think of ascending we need to learn to value ourselves properly through the eyes of God, and then we need to value others likewise. Only under these circumstances do we experience peace, Shalom, right relationship. And, we will never get their under our own strength, only in the power of the Holy Spirit; Jesus' final gift to us.
Of course this gift is made present to us in the Eucharist. Through the Eucharist we are fed to become the sort of people who make Jesus' 'joy complete by being of a single mind, one in love, one in heart and one in mind.' If we expect God, through the Holy Spirit, to be at work in the sacrament of the Eucharist, it is reasonable for us to expect that we might become the type of people where 'nothing is done out of jealousy or vanity; instead out of humility of mind' and where we descend into a state where 'everyone should give preference to others, everyone pursuing not selfish interests but those of others.'
The logic of the Gospel is that this is the only real way to ascend; let’s do so in the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.