If you feel like your life lately has been a crazy, roller-coaster ride of an existence, you might probably relate to the Apostles and disciples of the early church in today’s readings, and perhaps the fruits of today’s feast will be of comfort to you. For those early disciples, today’s feast had to be a kind of “now what?” experience for them. Think about all they’ve been through. Their Lord had been betrayed by one of their friends, they watched him face a farce of a trial and saw him 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 indeed 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.
I think we need that same message today. As the Supreme Court is poised to strike Roe v. Wade, we have seen a plague of vicious hatred, and even some violence against the Church; we have had over two hundred mass shootings so far this year, and really horrific ones the last month; we hear daily of an unjust war against the people of Ukraine; COVID-19 is up again over the last several weeks; inflation is crazy, and supplies of many things are scarce. It’s a lot all at once. We can be tempted to all kinds of responses: anger, despair, even apathy. But today’s feast says none of that is helpful. Our Lord is in control, he always was and always will be.
So what is the appropriate response? Here I want to say a few important things about the issue of “thoughts and prayers” versus action. There is a prevailing narrative, even among some of the faithful, that thoughts and prayers are equal to doing nothing. Obviously, that is not the Catholic view. Thinking about those who are suffering unites us to them in solidarity. Praying for change is always the way we should begin our work. We believe that prayer does change things, and most of all, prayer changes people. Sometimes, most of the time really, it changes us. So it’s okay to send thoughts and prayers. For some, that’s all they can really do. For everyone, it’s at least a good start.
But action is important too. We have to call on our elected leaders to make needed changes, to promote a culture of life instead of boasting of how pro choice they are. We have to demand that they represent our view instead of aligning themselves with some other person. We have to insist that instead of taking sides on gun control when tragedies happen, that they work to control weapons of mass destruction AND take care of people’s mental health needs. The list goes on and on. Our pro-life stance has to embrace the unborn and the newly born, the child and the adult, those with special needs and the elderly, the sick and the poor: we have to reverence life at every stage and situation, and we need to insist that our elected leaders do the same. We have to stop taking sides, stop insisting one one course of action against another, and work together for the common good. That’s the Catholic response. It always is.
One of the great themes of Catholic theology is the idea of “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 many 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.
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:
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 and no regard for the sanctity of human life, 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 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 Christ’s ascension is our exaltation. 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. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!