From the Priest

Here are Fr. Stephen’s homilies for the 6th Sunday of Easter, and for Ascension Day:

EASTER 6: The Gospel reading from St John for both today and last week are taken from The Farewell Discourses – a block of teaching by Jesus to his disciples very shortly before his death. Time and again in these chapters Jesus uses the word ‘love’. Just now we heard: ‘Anyone who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I shall love him and show myself to him.’ A few paragraphs earlier Jesus says: ‘I give you a new Commandment: love one another, just as I have loved you.’ It is a happy coincidence that the two parishioners for whom Mass is offered this morning, Klaudia and Robert, tomorrow celebrate their first wedding anniversary. What better opportunity to look at what Jesus means when he speaks of love.

Pages of material has been written about the word ‘Love’ and what we mean by it. This is an example of how the English language can fail us when one word alone has a kaleidoscope of different meanings. The ancient Greeks had three words when they spoke of ‘Love’. The first was the word EROS, which they employed to describe Passionate or sexual love, the love without which none of us would have been conceived. The second was FILIA, by which they meant affectionate love, such that exists between parents and children, and without which we would not have been properly nurtured. The third was AGAPE, or CARITAS in Latin, which describes charity, kindness, and generosity to others. Of which meaning does Jesus speak when he speaks of love of God, his love for us, and our love of one another?

Many will plump for the third definition, Charity, which fits conveniently with many translations of St Paul’s hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians 13, which ends with the words ‘Faith, Hope and Charity, and the greatest of these is Charity.’ 

60 years ago, CS Lewis, Oxford Don and author, whose Christian faith influenced so much of his scholarship, wrote a classic work called ‘The Four Loves.’ As the title suggests, he breaks down ‘Love’ into four categories, not three. Of particular interest is his treatment of AGAPE, which he describes as the greatest form of love. For him, Agape is not a natural love inherent in all humans. It is Divine love, given through God’s grace. It is a gift of love from God, which must flow out from us to others. This supernatural love is very different to mere kindness or generosity. This love is utterly vulnerable. It keeps nothing back for the one who does the loving. It is totally selfless, desiring only what is best for the beloved. It is sacrificial. It never wavers or withers. It enables us to love in one another what is not naturally lovable. It reaches out over faults, weaknesses, irritations, hurts, failures and disappointments. It is a costly and risky love.

We often try to avoid it because we do not want our hearts broken, nor do we wish to be wounded. It is easier to harden our hearts and give our love to no one. And yet by doing so, we condemn ourselves to a sort of hell.

Jesus says, ‘I give you a new Commandment: love one another, just as I have loved you.’Why is this a new Commandment? Were we not commanded to love our neighbour in the Ten Commandments? It is a new Commandment because it is not with human love that we are to love others, but with Divine Love,  – the love with which God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to die for us.

Divine love should be the foundation of all Christian marriages. It is what keeps marriages together through thick and thin. Divine love is what flows from all those so close to the suffering, the dying, the broken hearted, as they care for their patients, at the present time. Divine love expects no reward, no publicity, no thanks, and often incurs only exhaustion and tears. Let us pray for this gift from God. Let us pray that it may never leave us. Charles Wesley: Love Divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down, fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown. 

ASCENSION DAY. People occasionally struggle with an understanding of The Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven and what it means for us. May be this is because this it is one of the events of the life of Christ that is so hard to describe in language: Jesus is lifted up’; Is taken up, ‘a cloud takes him from their sight’, we hear in the first reading from Acts. Jesus ‘sits at God’s right hand in heaven’ says St Paul in the second reading from Ephesians. Phrases that seem a little whimsical to us in the 21st Century. The writers struggle to find words that describe this extraordinary event, and so they use expressions that are full of imagery, almost theological jargon. St Luke, who wrote the book of the Acts of the Apostles wanted to emphasise by use of the words ‘lifted up’ that the Ascension was not something Our Lord did of his own accord. It was something done to or for Him. It was a manifestation of the power of God.

When biblical writers refer to ‘Clouds’ in connection with the presence of God, as they do in both the Old and New Testaments, the imagery is not a sort of child’s nursery view of heaven. Cloud in this context has deep theological significance signifying the intense holiness, mystery, power, glory and majesty of God; such as the three chosen disciples experienced at the Transfiguration. And when they speak of Jesus siting ‘at God’s right hand’ we are not to take this literally. It is a metaphor to demonstrate Jesus’s equality with his Father within the Holy Trinity.

But the real point about the Ascension is this: The Word, God the Son, who came down from heaven, 33 years before, and became incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, returned to Heaven not just in his divine nature that came down to earth, but in his divine and human nature. Jesus takes human nature up with Him, never again to be separated from the Godhead. In 1 Corinthians 12, St Paul reminds us that we are members of Christ’s body. Indeed we are, and where the head goes, the body follows. Jesus’s Ascension is the final part of the Redemption of human-kind. For as Christ shared our humanity, we will share his divinity. As we heard in The Collect a few moments ago: ‘Where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.

The Ascension is part of a mighty three part truth: The Crucifixion and death of Christ confirms his humanity. He shared our death, that gateway through which we must all pass. The Resurrection confirms his divinity. We will share in his Resurrection. The Ascension confirms the complete and indissoluble union between Jesus’s humanity and divinity.

In his Ascension, human nature ascends to heaven, to be in and with God. This final event of Our Lord’s earthly life is the guarantee that the gates of heaven are open for us. The words of Preface 1 of The Ascension makes the point very plainly: ‘Mediator between God and man, judge of the world and Lord of hosts, he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.’

We are reminded of Jesus’s words as recorded by St John: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God and trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house; if there were not, I should have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you, and after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you with me; so that where I am you may be too.

This is what the Ascension is all about.