24 May 2020

Livestreamed from St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Why are you Jews gawking at the sky?

Well, because God told Abram, ‘Look up at the night sky, for your descendants shall be as many as the stars of heaven.’ Abram believed the Lord and this was reckoned to him as righteousness. (Gen 15:4-6)

Moses also said, ‘Look up to the heavens, and see the sun and moon and stars. Admire but do not worship them, for the Lord it was made these, and made you for his own people.’ (Deut 4:18-20)

David, too, looked to the heavens and saw the angel of the Lord with his sword drawn over Jerusalem. He did penance, so God would spare his people from their plague. (1Chr 21:16-17).

After the patriarchs it was the prophets’ turn to look to the heavens. They said, “Listen, you who are deaf, and you that are blind, look up and see!” (Isa 42:18; Jer 3:2; Zech 5:5 etc.).

Why are you Christians gawking at the sky?

Well, because wise men looked up and saw a star in the East, and followed it to Bethlehem, to the Infant King of the Jews. And shepherds looked to the heavens too and saw the angel of the Lord also pointing that way. And apostles looked up and saw Jesus transfigured  (Mt 2:1-12; 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 2:8-13; 9:28-36).

Jesus, too, looked up to heaven, and sighed a deep sigh when He said to a deaf-mute, ‘Ephphatha – be opened’ and to a dead friend, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ (Mk 7:34; Jn 11:38-44)

A group of people in a room

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And, on the night before He suffered, Jesus took bread in His holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven, to His almighty Father, giving Him thanks, He said the blessing, broke the Bread and gave it to His disciples… (Roman Canon; Mt 14:19; 26:26; Mk 6:41; 14:22; Lk 9:16 22:19-20; 1Cor 11:23-25)

Which is why Christian priests to this day raise their eyes to heaven at the consecration.

And why the faithful, even great sport stars, often look upwards when they pray. ‘Why are you men from Galilee standing there gawking at the sky?’ the angels asked (Acts 1:1-11) And still we stare.

Is it just nostalgia? In a sense, yes. St Thomas Aquinas teaches that the history of salvation is essentially one of God’s exitus and reditus, His comings and goings, especially his coming in Christ Jesus to dwell among men, before returning to the right hand of the Father. However sad for those left behind, the Ascension celebrates a homecoming for Jesus (Jn 16:5,10,17,28; 17:11,13; 20:17). As His mission began with kings and shepherds looking up to the skies, it comes now full circle with new-made-shepherds gaping upwards. People gawking at the heavens bookend the Gospel.

Which is an interesting part of Jesus’ story. But why do we, too, feel nostalgia for heaven? Why do we talk of someone who has died “returning to the Father” or “going home” when they’ve never been there before? Well, Aquinas explains, those goings and comings of the persons of God that theologians call ‘processions’ and ‘missions’ are also the principle of our creation and redemption,  our identity and mission, our destiny and completion. If we are made from heaven, we are also made for heaven. Heaven is our homeland.

Young boxer praying for a win as he psyches himself up before a fight sitting on a stool with his hands clasped in prayer and eyes raised to heaven

On great feasts like this one you might notice some tweaking of the First Eucharistic Prayer. You can expect an inclusion like “Celebrating that most sacred day on which your Only Begotten Son, having completed his mission on earth, returned to his throne of glory at your right hand”. But no, the focus even here today is on what the Ascension does for us: “Celebrating the most sacred day,” the prayer declares, “on which your Only Begotten Son, our Lord, placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself”. You see, God the Son didn’t leave the heavenly realm, assuming the form of a servant, for the sake of some cosmic tourism. It was for our sake, pure and simple, so He could take us back with Him.

And so in the Ascension window of our cathedral, as Jesus is flying through the air and the disciples gape up at the sky, He is not looking upwards to His Father, but downwards to us below, with love on His face and blessing in His hand. And in the little scene beneath that window we see two angels encouraging the grieving disciples, “Why are you guys gawking at the heavens. Jesus has ascended but He will return to take you with Him.”

What to do in the meantime? Consumed by nostalgia, we could easily just keep staring upwards at heaven and give up on this earth. But had father Abraham done that, we’d have had no descendants at all, let alone a whole night-sky’s worth of Jews and Christians. If teacher Moses had remained sky-gazing, we might be mired in astrology and nature worship, as he warned. If king David had kept focused on heavenly visions, he might never have repented and so saved his people from plague. If the magi and shepherds had kept looking upwards, they would never have seen the Christ child in the manger below. If the apostles had focused only on higher things, they would have neglected to bring the deaf-mute and the dead Lazarus to Jesus. And if Jesus Himself had cared only for the things above, He would never have condescended to leave us His Body and Blood.

When we look upwards in our prayers, it is with our knees or feet firmly on the ground. And so in our Gospel today Jesus’ last words are not “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Stay, therefore, and worship, praise and thank me” as well He might. No, His great commission is this: “All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them… and teach them”. Easter isn’t a free pass, it’s a procession, a mission, a sending forth into the world, so that we might bring that world with us back home to heaven. And “know that I am with you always”, Jesus says, “yes, to the end of time!”


Before Genuflecting

Because current circumstances continue to impede attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Communion, I invite you now to ask God that by spiritual communion you might receive the graces you would in sacramental communion. Offer this Mass and your hunger for the Eucharist for the safety of your loved ones, yourselves and our world.


Livestreamed from St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Welcome to our Solemn Mass livestreamed from St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney. In this last week of Eastertide we celebrate three solemn feasts: today, the Ascension of the Lord into heaven; tomorrow the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians; and a week from today Pentecost Sunday.

In this time of pandemic the Bishops of Australia will reconsecrate our land and entrust our people to the intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Help of Christians. Under this title she is the patron of this cathedral church, of our Archdiocese and of our country. So tomorrow is a feast for us all. Then at Pentecost we celebrate the birthday of the Church, another anniversary for every Christian.

Thanks be to God, as the COVID-19 pandemic abates and public health restrictions are relaxed, we are gradually returning to ordinary life, including worship. But we continue to exhort people to download the CovidSafe app, abide by public health advice, avail themselves of our online spiritual resources, counselling and practical assistance to help carry each other through.

A special welcome to the deaf community who have been joining us through livestreaming every Sunday here at St Mary’s since the lockdown began. And to everyone watching I say: a very warm welcome to this week of feasts!