Many of you will know Swakeleys Road cutting through Ickenham, just within our parish boundaries. You might have noticed a little tree - the latest in a long line of trees on that spot - and a plaque calling it a ‘Gospel Oak’, dating back to medieval times. There are many such gospel oaks around the country – including the one that gave its name to a north London suburb – and they have a link with today’s feast. Trees were obvious landmarks and they could often be found on the boundaries of parishes, estates or fields. It is little wonder that during religious processions the priest would stop under a well-known oak tree and read a passage from Scripture – hence the name, ‘Gospel Oak’. This was especially the custom in the days before the Ascension, when so-called ‘rogation’ processions were made around the local fields, often following the parish boundaries (‘beating the bounds’). Litanies were sung as they did this and every tree and stone was blessed. As people got ready for the Feast of the Ascension, they were reminded that the Lord was still very much with them, protecting and loving His people.
We often think of the eleven disciples standing passively as Jesus ascended to His Father in Heaven, or (more accurately) disappeared beneath a cloud. But what must have gone through their minds?! They had had the roller coaster experience of first losing Jesus (on the cross), then finding Him again (after the Resurrection) and now saying goodbye to Him once again, all in the space of forty days or so! So this feast is a strange celebration. We celebrate a loss, a departure - the end of Christ’s earthly ministry.
The disciples, however, seemed not to be too glum; St Luke even says that they returned to Jerusalem full of joy. It seems that, as they turned their gaze back from the heavens to the earth, something shifted inside them. They had been disciples, students learning from the Master, but now they were apostles, sent by God on a particular mission to proclaim the Good News and baptise. Ascension Day is, if you like, the moment when the baton passes from Jesus to us. And this process is completed next Sunday by Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit gave the disciples (and us) the gifts they needed to be faithful apostles.
Just as the Gospel was read under that oak tree in Ickenham in olden times, so today we are called to proclaim it through our words and actions, publicly and privately, at home, at work, at play. Just as Christ was brought to every corner through these processions of old, so we are called to bring His light to every nook and cranny of our world.
All of us are apostles, with a great mission. Being an apostle means, often, waiting on God and listening for His voice. It means being willing to turn away from sinful habits and take risks. It means engaging with the world around us rather than simply staring cosily at the Heavens. It means being faithful to Christ’s message and always acting in union with the community of believers. It means trusting in God’s promises, even when all seems lost and abandoned.
Today’s Feast is a call to action: to exercise our particular apostolate and to witness to the Gospel of Christ, knowing that all along, whether we meet with great successes or intimidating obstacles, He is with us until the end of time. Alleluia.