Every Baptism is a proclamation, a sign from God for us, that we are not just physical bits of flesh and bone but are spiritual beings as well. That’s why we are always reminded of our Baptism at every Christian Funeral. It’s the great proclamation that death is not the end if we are in God. Our Baptism therefore is the way God has given us to link us to him in a special way. Of course God is with us from the moment we are conceived. Life cannot exist without the power of God within it. But Baptism takes that implicit link and makes it explicit, a sign that we are destined, if we choose it, for the glory of heaven.
Today, we celebrate the same mystery, in the great Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. His risen Body may be visible to the disciples but it is a Body that is already transformed. The Ascension marks the moment when the disciples can see him no more, and yet know that he is still with them. This is exactly what Jesus tells them in our Gospel today (Matt 28:16-20) “Know that I am with you always, yes, to the end of time.”
But what exactly happened? How can we describe it? I sometimes try to explain it as the movement from one dimension to another. There is the physical dimension of space and time in which we live out our lives – the dimension that science can study and analyse. This is what we can see with our eyes, or at least with our scientific instruments. And then there is the spiritual dimension, which we humans can sense and yet not fully understand, a dimension beyond any scientific study. But remember both are made by God ; God is present in his visible created world but hidden, whilst in the spiritual world we will see him face to face. As we say in the Creed “We believe in one God…. Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
The writers of the Bible mainly describe this passing of Jesus fully into the spiritual dimension as “going up into heaven”. This is a description we 21stC people find a little hard, in a world of aeroplanes and spaceships and telescopes. We have to describe heaven in different terms, as I’ve just tried to do, not so much as a place up there, but as a different dimension outside space and time. But the Bible sometimes makes it clear that the writers do know it is much more than a spatial movement upwards. We get it a little in our 2nd Reading today (Eph 1:17-23) when the ascended Jesus is described as “far above every Sovereignty, Authority, Power or Domination” – so “above” here in the sense of “greater than” or “superior to”. But later in the same letter, (4:9-10) St Paul goes on to suggest that he is talking about something beyond a place as such, when he describes where Jesus goes as “above and beyond the heavens, to fill the whole universe with his presence.”
Some of you will remember me going on a few weeks ago about that TV programme about the Wonders of the Universe, showing as it did in a quite marvellous way its immensity and infinity. Think about that, and then think about Jesus filling the whole universe and you begin to see that what is described here is far more than Jesus simply moving from one place to another. In the end, whether we’re content with the way the Bible describes it, or like to think of it in my way as moving from one dimension to another, we have to face the fact that any way of describing what happens is only a metaphor, a way of trying to describe something that is beyond any description.
In fact, of course, so many of the most important things, even in our own lives, cannot really be described adequately. Whether it’s the birth of a baby, or being in love, or thinking of people being rescued after a great disaster, or a moment of natural beauty like a sunset, we know that there is more to be said than we can ever say ; that mere words cannot convey what we sense is happening. In such things, as in deep moments of prayer, as in the Mass itself, we are touching, feeling, sensing, something that we describe quite inadequately as “God”. How can any word, especially one so short, really do justice to what we are trying to say? So we add words “Almighty”… “Everlasting” and we talk of “Glory”.. “Power”.. “Majesty” . We say “Holy, holy, holy Lord” … “Heaven and earth are full of your glory”
In the end, words simply fail us. We just know that it is essential for every human being to know that they are not simply physical, because that is a vision that all humanity needs. No wonder Jesus says “Go therefore, make disciples of all nations” AND “Baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:19-20)