Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on Ascension Day 2021

We are made for freedom—made to soar—made to share the unlimited life of heaven.

The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor

Thursday, 13th May 2021 at 12.30 PM

For several years I worked in a school for students with profound physical and learning disabilities, and before that in a hospice that worked with youngsters facing similar life-limiting challenges. They lived lives that would seem to most of us terribly limited, restricted. And that wasn’t just because of the limits in their physical and mental capabilities. It often felt like the (thoroughly well-meaning) efforts to keep them safe at all costs actually limited them even further. We have all had a taste, I think, of being limited for the sake of our safety, but it has left many wondering whether we end up with a life that feels worth living. As I remember an elderly woman telling me, on a visit to a nursing home, ‘there are worse things than dying, you know.’

This is very difficult territory. We were all told that the mental health crisis would be every bit as serious as the physical, but we have probably only just started to see what that will mean. Limitation is depressing—we long for agency, freedom; the capacity to do things, to achieve.

Those youngsters with whom I was privileged to work were very patient teachers. When I struggled to understand what they were saying, they just kept saying it. When I was clumsy with their personal care, they forgave in the hope that I would learn. When I was anxious and uncertain around them, they carried on being themselves, allowing me to get my act together.

They were models of how to live with limitation, with restriction, and they did so with considerable patience and dignity. But they also felt the depressing undertow of their limitation. Many of them struggled with anxiety, depression, and some actively wondered whether their life was really worth living. They felt more acutely, more unremittingly what we all must feel or know at some point—that we are each of us limited in all kinds of ways.

I have never, ever, been able to kick, hit, throw or catch a ball. Fortunately, I have found ways of living where I don’t have to feel that limitation very often. The choristers have asked me to play football and cricket on many an occasion—each time I have politely declined. But physical limits are common to us all—more constraining, as years encroach. The difference is that we can find ways of making sure those limits don’t matter too much, so that we don’t have to think about them or worry about them—people with disabilities are given stark reminders of those limits every single day.

We each have intellectual limits too; limits in our capacity to communicate or even to know what we actually think. Again, most of us can find ways of living so that those limits don’t bother us too much, but they are there. To be human is to be limited, but the more limited we feel the harder we find it. We long to have agency, freedom, the more unfettered the better—we struggle along, one difficult step at a time, but we long to fly, to soar.

At the heart of our faith is the unique concept of Incarnation—that God (not a god, but God), in the person of Jesus, takes on the limitations of a human life. God, whose being is infinite, takes on the limitations of a physical being. God, who dwells eternally, choses to be constrained within time.

Today, the feast of the Ascension, we celebrate the return of the Son of God to the right hand of the Father—his moving out of the ‘here and now’ of earth to the ‘everywhere and forever’ of heaven—rising from the limits of created time and space into the eternity and infinite existence which he shares, and ever shared, with the Father.

But this is not just a spiritual rising, it is a bodily ascension—he left no body on earth—his whole resurrected form ascends, including the wounds of his passion. He came from life without limit, and to that he returns, carrying his humanity, and all the limitation it suffered, with him.

And, of course, what he does, he does for us. It is our humanity he carries, imbuing our wounds, our mortality, all the limits and restrictions we suffer with eternal meaning and hope. The hope that we will triumph through those limits, as he did—not shrugging them off or denying them for shame, but seeing them transfigured, like his wounds; part of the glory to be revealed.

It has been hard to live within such strict limits; depressing to endure restriction. We have been made to feel our limits in ways that few of us are used to. But the Ascension of our Lord assures us that we are indeed made for freedom—made to soar—made to share the unlimited life of heaven, the life we taste in the Eucharist; the life poured into us through the Holy Spirit. But we will attain this unlimited life not by pretending that we are already unlimited (some kind of superhuman), and certainly not by maximising our freedom at others’ expense. We will attain it by learning how to live well, together, within these human limitations—with sympathy and compassion. In this, I believe, our brothers and sisters with disabilities are the most excellent teachers.

Christ has ascended, beyond all limits of time and space—he has returned to the unlimited life of heaven—but he has done so as a human; one of us; bearing the wounds. Our humanity, in all its fragility and limitation, is called to unlimited life and eternal glory in him. Alleluia!