The Ascension of the Lord

Today’s readings 

Have you ever been at a loss for words? Have you been in a situation that was so astounding that you were just … speechless? Hopefully it was for something astoundingly wonderful, as for the apostles as their Lord ascended to heaven. Can you imagine what was going through the disciples’ minds as they stood there watching the Ascension of the Lord? Think about all that they’ve been through. Three years following this Jesus whose words were compelling and whose miracles were amazing and whose way of life was uplifting. But still, there was something about him that they just never seemed to get. He said he was the Christ, the Anointed One, and so their strong cultural definition of the Messiah was something they projected onto Jesus, but time after time it just never fit. Then he gets arrested, tried in a farce of a proceeding, put to death like a common criminal and buried for three days. After that, he is no longer in the tomb, but has risen from the dead and appeared to them many times. Now they’re gathered forty days later, and he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit. They breathlessly ask the question that has always been on their minds, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They still don’t get it.

And so Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit again, and ascends into the sky. Can you imagine it? It’s like a roller coaster of emotions for them. Their heads had to be spinning, they had to be completely lost as to what to do now. First he was dead and buried, then he came back, and now he’s gone again. What on earth are they to do now? Well, the two mysterious men dressed in white garments have all the advice they’re going to get: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” It’s almost as if God is telling them, “You’ll see what comes next, just get on with it.” And so they do, and they’ll get more help next week on Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit. But until then, it’s enough for them and us to be a bit speechless.

We should be a little speechless too. Honestly, I think these stories have become so engrained in our cultural experience of our religion that we just tend to treat them as nothing special. But we should be speechless, because the Ascension, as well as the Resurrection, are game-changers for us. Nothing like that ever happened before, and it made possible our eternity; the greatest gift we’ll ever have. We should be astounded!

And then, like the apostles, we need to get on with it. Because the Ascension has very specific meaning for our mission. I think we get three directions in today’s feast. First, Christ promises us that he will be with us always. That’s what Jesus says to the disciples – and to us! – in the very last words of the very last verse of the very last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” This is such an essential point of faith for us to get: Jesus our Lord will be with us every day, every moment, right up to the end of the age. And he is present in our Church today. His abiding presence is with us when we gather in his name, when we worship, hear the Word proclaimed and celebrate the sacraments. And he is with us, too, when we serve others, being those hands and feet of Jesus in a tangible way.

The second direction that the Ascension gives us is that Jesus has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us. He goes to heaven to pave the way, because we had lost the way, affected as we all are by original sin and by the sins of our life. Since we did not know the way, he prepares it for us: opening the door, so to speak, and greeting us. So we believers who have forged a relationship with our Lord can now look to him to see how to get to that heavenly reward. All we have to do is follow, and we will find ourselves in that place God intended for us from the beginning.

And finally, the Ascension reminds us that the Christian Mission has been entrusted to our hands. Christ has ascended into heaven, he has returned to the Father. So, yes, on this feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we are rightly struck speechless, but now it’s time for us to take up the Cross, to preach the Word in our words and actions, and to witness to the joy of Christ’s presence among us. If people are ever going to come to know Christ, if they are ever going to be challenged to grow in their faith, if they are ever going to know that there is something greater than themselves, they’re going to have to see that witness in other people, and it needs to be us. We have to be transparent in our living so that people won’t be caught up on us, but will come through us to see Jesus, to see the Father, to experience the Spirit. We are the ones commanded to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” The mission is entrusted to us now.

The speechlessness has to be over. The Psalmist tells us that God mounts his throne to shouts of joy. We must be joyous in living our life as Christians, assured of God’s abiding presence until the end of time, looking forward to our heavenly reward, and living the mission for all to see. We must no longer be speechless, but instead be a blare of trumpets for the Lord!

The Ascension of the Lord – Alternate

Today’s readings

“You are witnesses of these things.”

That is what Jesus tells the disciples at the close of today’s Gospel reading. He is just about to ascend to the Father, and so he takes care to make sure that the disciples are ready for the mission. They are the ones who will have to testify to the death and resurrection of Christ, and to preach forgiveness of sins in his name to every person on earth.

And we can see that the disciples did indeed take up this mission. If that were not true, we would not be here right now. The Word has been proclaimed, the sacraments have been handed down, and we have benefitted from it.

And so now we are the witnesses of these things. We may not have seen the events unfold in front of us, but we have seen them in the Liturgy, and we believe that our celebration of the Liturgy is not some simple re-enactment of the events of our salvation, but in a very real sense is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in our own day.

We are the witnesses now. And people have to see us preaching with the way that we live our lives. We have to preach it by going to Mass faithfully, by keeping the commandments, by being people of integrity and fairness at our jobs or in our schools, by reaching out to those who are poor, needy and marginalized, by giving ourselves to others whenever, wherever, and however we can.

We are witnesses of these things. The question is, will others witness Christ in us?

Monday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Today’s readings

In these days after the Ascension, the Liturgy calls us to turn and find our hope and security in God.  Certainly this was difficult for the early disciples, who tested Jesus to see if he was who he said he was.  They were satisfied with what they found, and said they believed in him.  But Jesus here speaks an essential truth of the spiritual life: it’s easy to believe when things are going okay.  He prophecies that they will all be tested, and indeed they were, and were scattered, and had to come to belive in him all over again.

The same will be true for us disciples in our own lives.  We can make an easy enough profession of faith when we are well and things are going smoothly.  But the minute some kind of challenge enters our lives, we have to decide if we are believers all over again.  It’s not easy to believe in the ascended Jesus – he is not immediately visible to our sight.  But, even though he is unseen, he is still very much with us.

He may be in the heaven of our hopes, but he also walks among us.  We have to look for signs of his presence everywhere we go.  And we will find those signs in moments of joy, times of inspiration, words from others that uplift us, and, especially, in the Eucharist.  Jesus didn’t disappear from our lives when he ascended into heaven; he promised to be with us until the end of time.  We are sustained by the hope that we will join him one day in the place he is preparing for us.

The world may very well scatter us and give us trouble; Jesus said as much.  But we can take courage in the fact that Jesus has overcome the world and has not abandoned us.

Saturday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Today we’re gathered on what is, for us, the eve of the Ascension.  While the reading that we have in today’s Gospel is from John’s account of the eve of the Passion, the words could well have been spoken to the Apostles on the eve of the Ascension too.  So Jesus is speaking of a day in the future when his disciples could go directly to God the Father and ask for their needs in Jesus’ name.  That would be possible because Jesus has redeemed fallen humanity, and brought us back to the Father, cleansed of our iniquity.  But as they hear it, they had to be confused and maybe even a little brokenhearted at the idea of Jesus leaving them.

But Jesus did have to leave them, because the truth of it is that nothing will happen with the fledgling Church until he does return to heaven.  Only then will the Father send the Holy Spirit to be with the Church until the end of time, giving the early disciples and us later disciples the grace and strength to go forward and proclaim the kingdom and call the world to repentance and grace.  If God’s purpose is to be advanced on this earth, then Jesus has to return to the Father.  If the Spirit does not descend, the Church would not be born.  If the Church were not born, the Gospel would be but an obscure footnote in the history of the world.

The Good News for us is that the Holy Spirit has indeed come into the world, and continues to work among us today, as often as we call on him.  “Ask and you will receive,” Jesus says, and so we ask and receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the glory and praise of God.  We disciples, we friends of Jesus, can count on his blessing, the rich gift of the Holy Spirit, the great witness of the Church.  Our lives are enriched by our faith and our discipleship.  On this eve of the Ascension, we are yet again on the edge of our seats, longing for the fullness of salvation.  But even our waiting is glory for God: what we do here on earth, what we suffer in our lives, all that we celebrate — all this will bear fruit for the glory of God.

Monday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Today’s readings

In these days after the Ascension, the Liturgy calls us to turn and find our hope and security in God.  Certainly this was difficult for the early disciples, who tested Jesus to see if he was who he said he was.  They were satisfied with what they found, and said they believed in him.  But Jesus here speaks an essential truth of the spiritual life: it’s easy to believe when things are going okay.  He prophecies that they will all be tested, and indeed they were, and were scattered, and had to come to belive in him all over again.

The same will be true for us disciples in our own lives.  We can make an easy enough profession of faith when we are well and things are going smoothly.  But the minute some kind of challenge enters our lives, we have to decide if we are believers all over again.  It’s not easy to believe in the ascended Jesus – he is not immediately visible to our sight.  But, even though he is unseen, he is still very much with us.

He may be in the heaven of our hopes, but he also walks among us.  We have to look for signs of his presence everywhere we go.  And we will find those signs in moments of joy, times of inspiration, words from others that uplift us.  Jesus didn’t disappear from our lives when he ascended into heaven; he promised to be with us until the end of time.  We are sustained by the hope that we will join him one day in the place he is preparing for us.

The world may very well scatter us and give us trouble; Jesus said as much.  But we can take courage in the fact that Jesus has overcome the world and has not abandoned us.

The Ascension of the Lord

Today’s readings

For the early Apostles and disciples, today’s feast had to be a kind of “now what?” experience for them.  Think about what they’ve been through.  Their Lord had been betrayed by one of their friends, he had been through a farce of a trial and put to death in a horrible, ignoble way, they had been hiding in fear thinking they might be next, they had questioned what they were supposed to do without their Lord, and then they witness the Resurrection: Christ walks among them for a time, appearing to them and making himself known.  They had seen redemption of a way of life they almost had abandoned, and now, on this feast of the Ascension, their Lord is leaving them again.  In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, you can almost feel the amazement and desperation they are experiencing as they stare up into the heavens, incredulous that their Lord is gone, again.

So once again, God sends two messengers, two men in white garments, to set them straight.  God had sent two men in dazzling garments to the women at the tomb on the day of the Resurrection as well.  That time, the men reassured the women that the Lord had not been moved or stolen, but had risen from the dead.  This time, the men appear to the Apostles, assuring them that the Lord would return in the same way as he had just departed from their sight.  Both times, it was the same kind of messengers, with the same kind of hopeful message.  Go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.

One of the great themes of Catholic theology is the “already, and not yet.” Basically, that means that we disciples of Christ already have a share in the life of God and the promise of heaven, but we are not yet there. So we who believe in Jesus and live our faith every day have the hope of heaven before us, even if we are not home yet. And this hope isn’t just some “iffy” kind of thing: it’s not “I hope I’ll go to heaven one day.” No, it’s the promise that because of the salvation we have in Christ, we who are faithful will one day live and reign with him. This gives us hope in the midst of the sorrows that we experience in this world.

Another great theme of Catholic theology is that our God is transcendent, but also immanent. Transcendent means that our God is higher than the heavens, more lofty than our thoughts and dreams, beyond anything we can imagine. Whatever we say about God, like “God is love” or “God is good” – those things only begin to scratch the surface of who God is, because God is transcendent beyond anything our limited words can describe. But our God is also immanent. God is not some far off entity that has brought the world into existence and set the events of our lives in motion and then drops back to observe things from afar. No, our God is one who walks among us and knows our sorrow and our pain and celebrates our joy. Saint Augustine said that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Our God may indeed be mysterious and beyond us, but he is also the one we can reach out and touch.  If that weren’t so, the Eucharist would be pretty meaningless.

As you can see, Catholic theology is generally speaking not exclusive. We are not either already sharing in the promise or not yet sharing in it, but we are “already and not yet.” Our God is not either transcendent or immanent, but both transcendent and immanent. These two great theological themes come to a kind of crossroads here on this feast of the Ascension.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, our share in the life of God and the promise of heaven is sealed. We have hope of eternal life because our Lord has gone before us to prepare a place for us. If he had not gone, we could never have shared in this life. So, although Jesus has left the apostles yet again, they can rejoice because they know that the promise is coming to fulfillment. We do not possess it yet, because we are not home yet, but we share in it already, because Christ is our promise.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, he once again, with the Father, is transcendent, because we, along with the Apostles, can no longer see him. But he remains immanent by his promise to be with us always. Again, I will quote St. Augustine who said of Christ that “He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.” St. Augustine teaches that the notion of time is that everything is present to God all at once. This explains how our celebration of the Eucharist in a few minutes brings us to Calvary at the moment when Jesus gave his life for us. And it explains how Jesus can ascend into heaven and yet remain among us. Time is a limitation for us humans, but not for God who created time in the first place.

All of this theology can be heady stuff, but what it boils down to is this: because Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, we now have the hope of heaven and of sharing in the very life of God. Even though we do not possess heaven yet, we know that it belongs to all who have faith in Christ and live that faith every day. And even though we do not see Jesus walking among us, he is still absolutely present among us and promises to be with us forever. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer which I will sing in a few minutes makes this very clear; it says:

Christ, the mediator between God and humanity,
judge of the world and Lord of all,
has passed beyond our sight,
not to abandon us but to be our hope.
Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church;
where he has gone, we hope to follow.

Jesus, having explained the Scriptures to his Apostles yet again, tells them “You are witnesses of these things.” And so they don’t have the luxury of just standing there, staring up into the sky for hours, dejected and crushed because the One who had been their hope had disappeared. No, as the Gospel tells us today, they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.” They are witnesses, “clothed with power from on high,” and they must be filled with the hope and joy of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord.

We disciples are witnesses of these things too. We must witness to a world filled with violence and oppression and sadness that our God promises life without end for all those who believe in him. And we have that hope already, even though not yet. We must witness to a world languishing in the vapidity of relativism and individualism and New Age Oprah and Dr. Phil philosophy that it is Jesus Christ, the Lord of All, who is one with us in heaven, and present among us on earth, who fulfills our hopes and longings and will never leave us. We must be witnesses to all these things, living with great joy, continually praising God because, as our opening prayer said so eloquently, Christ’s “ascension is our glory and our hope.”  We too might hear those men in dazzling white garments speak God’s words of hope to us: go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.

Saturday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Today we’re gathered on what is, for us, the eve of the Ascension.  While the reading that we have in today’s Gospel is from John’s account of the eve of the Passion, the words could well have been spoken to the Apostles on the eve of the Ascension too.  Jesus speaks of leaving the world and going back to the Father, this time until he returns in glory.  The Twelve had to be broken hearted all over again.  They had lost their friend and Lord briefly to death, but had been encouraged by him as he appeared to them after the Ascension, and now he is preparing to leave again.

But the truth of it is that nothing will happen with the fledgling Church until he does leave.  Only then will the Father send the Holy Spirit to be with the Church until the end of time, giving the early disciples and us later disciples the grace and strength to go forward and proclaim the kingdom and call the world to repentance and grace. If God’s purpose is to be advanced on this earth, then Jesus has to return to the Father. If the Spirit does not descend, the Church would not be born. If the Church were not born, the Gospel would be but an obscure footnote in the history of the world.

The Good News for us is that the Holy Spirit continues to work among us today, as often as we call on him.  “Ask and you will receive,” Jesus says, and so we ask and receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the glory and praise of God. We disciples, we friends of Jesus, can count on his blessing, the rich gift of the Holy Spirit, the great witness of the Church. Our lives are enriched by our faith and our discipleship. What we do here on earth, what we suffer in our lives, what we celebrate — all this will bear fruit for the glory of God.