Wednesday 8 May 2024

Life Begins At Forty

Forty is a very significant number. In the Old Testament we read how the rains poured for forty days before the flood came and Noah boarded the ark to await a world renewed by the waters sent from Heaven. Moses fasted for forty days in order to prepare himself to meet God upon Mount Sinai and then spent another forty days atop the mountain to receive the Law from the Almighty. For forty years the people of Israel wandered in the desert before reaching the land promised to them. Elijah walked forty days and forty nights to reach Mount Horeb where he was to know God in the gentle whisper. In the life of Christ there were forty days between his nativity and his presentation in the temple, then the fasting for forty days and forty nights after his baptism, when he was led out into the desert to fast, to pray, and to do battle with Satan in order to prepare for the beginning of his public ministry. This we mirror in our own observance of the forty days of Lent. After his Resurrection from the dead, Our Lord was amongst his followers and friends and seen by all people for forty days before he ascended to Heaven, there to sit at the right hand of the Father.

Forty days, forty years, they all represent the passage of one thing to another — of God perfecting, preparing, changing us anew to make us fit for the next step he has in mind for us in our life with him. We come now, this Thursday, to the culmination of the forty days of Easter with the celebration of the Ascension. The scene of Christ being taken up to Heaven whilst the men of Galilee look on is one that has given rise to beautiful art, music, and those rather fun images and sculptures we sometimes find in churches of a pair of feet seemingly going through the roof. But those feet still bear the wounds of the cross — a reminder that it is the now glorified humanity of Christ that ascends — there to prepare for us the place he has promised us if indeed we are faithful to his commandments.

Life begins at forty we are told, or tell ourselves. The reality is more often, as one of the Fathers says, that just being alive begins to hurt at forty. In the Ascension however the life of the Church really does begin anew at this point, forty days after the Resurrection. The apostles, strengthend, comforted, and renewed by their encounter with the Risen Lord, see him go to prepare that place, and receive from him the Great Commission to preach the Good News and to baptise so that all people might know the Way to the place where on the Ascension he is going.

One might think there is something rather sad about the Ascension — but a parting of friends it is not. With the coming of the Holy Spirit sent by the Father and the Son the presence of God fills the Church and with it the earth. This is expressed in beautiful simplicity by the Penny Catechism:

Where is Jesus Christ?
As God, Jesus Christ is everywhere. As God made man, he is in heaven, and in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.

And this is why St Jean Vianney, the holy Curé of Ars, reminded his people that they were much more fortunate than those who lived in the time of Christ: they had to travels hours, days, weeks, to be in the presence of Jesus Christ but all we need to is to go to Church and there to find him in the tabernacle of the altar.

This Ascension we have that opportunity God so often gives us: the opportunity to begin again. To look, for just a moment, up at the Heaven he has won for us and the place that is there waiting for us. Then encouraged by this to go and preach the Good News in our own place, to win others to Christ by our efforts to love and to co-operate with all that Heaven sends us. The Ascension points us to Heaven and thus to the End — of Christ’s earthly ministry and where we hope to be when our life ends, but it is a beginning too. Our Cardinal, St John Henry Newman, wrote “Fear not that life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning”. Forty days after the Resurrection we begin again. We embark upon the ancient but ever new task that Christ places before us. May this Ascension be the proof for us that life really can begin at forty.