Editor’s note: Homily preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan on the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord (May 10, 2018).
Living in the Northeast, we are fortunate still to be able to celebrate this feast on its proper day. As you probably know, in most of the ecclesiastical provinces of the country, Ascension Thursday has become Ascension Sunday, supposedly because a mid-week holy day is too much of a burden for either the clergy or the laity. Not only is this an embarrassing assertion, it also breaks a definite linkage with New Testament chronology (which tells us that Our Lord ascended to His Father “forty days” after His Resurrection); it also destroys the centuries-old novena to the Holy Spirit, whereby Catholics have joined with Our Lady and the Apostles in the Upper Room, waiting in prayer for ten days after the Lord’s Ascension for the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This deviation is particularly sad because it eliminates the biblical grounding for the Catholic practice of novenas; indeed, the first novena in the history of the Church was the one observed by the Infant Church from Ascension Thursday to Pentecost Sunday. Enough bemoaning liturgical silliness; let’s move on to rejoice in the profound significance of this lovely feast.
A French proverb declares: Partir c’est mourir un peu (To leave is to die a little). That adage encapsulates the almost universal human experience of sadness at the departure of a friend or relative, whether through death or a simple move to another place. In this regard, the Apostles were no different – except that they had been “catechized,” we can say, by Christ Himself on many occasions during His earthly life and ministry on this very point, but most especially as found in St. John’s account of the Last Supper. Thus we hear the Master say things like this: “Let not your hearts be troubled. . . I go and prepare a place for you. . . I will come again and will take you to myself. . . And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever. . . The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things. . . Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14, passim).
Then, in His High Priestly Prayer, during which Jesus had allowed His disciples to eavesdrop and recorded in the seventeenth chapter of the Fourth Gospel, we hear Jesus speak with filial devotion and serenity to His Heavenly Father: “I have manifested your name to the men whom you gave me out of the world. . . . I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me. . . I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. . . That they be one even as we are one. . . . I made known to them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
The promises Jesus had made to His chosen ones thus become the “stuff” of His prayer of union. He is faithful to His promises, just like His Father.
So, yes, there is an end in view. But that is not the whole story. Significantly, St. Luke ends his Gospel with the Lord’s Ascension as he likewise begins Volume II of that work in the Acts of the Apostles with the Lord’s Ascension. In other words, Christ’s departure ends one act of the divine drama, even as it begins the second act. In a somewhat amusing scenario, we see the Apostles gazing up into the heavens as Jesus leaves them, only to be brought back to reality by heaven-sent messengers: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). In other words, “Get busy, boys. There’s work to be done.” And what is that work? It is none other than “the Great Commission” conferred on the apostolic band at the Lord’s departure in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:19-20). And, how can I omit the last and most important line: “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
So, the Eleven got divine commands and assurances. That’s all quite lovely, but where does that leave you and me? Must we not conclude that this was not a one-day sale? That Our Lord, in some way, enfolded us in His prayer at the Last Supper? Most assuredly, as we read these most consoling words: “I do not pray for these [the disciples] only, but also for those who believe in me through their word” (Jn 17:20). That means that all the confidence the Apostles garnered from Christ’s valedictory words to them applies to us, two millennia on.
That said, we must ask ourselves exactly how the Risen and Ascended Christ is with us today? He is with us in and through His Church, most especially through her fidelity to His teaching and to the celebration of the sacraments. Permit me to invite you to take a journey back on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on that first Easter night as two disheartened disciples of Jesus encounter a Stranger, to whom they express their dismay and distress (cf. Lk 24). What does that Stranger do? He provides them with a guided tour of all the scriptural passages which have to do with the long-promised and long-awaited Messiah and shows how they apply to their beloved and presumably-dead former Master. Intrigued and, in all likelihood, buoyed by his exegesis, they invite the Stranger to “break bread” with them. And, in a marvelous reversal of roles, the Guest becomes the Host as He breaks bread for them. And, in that ritual action, they finally recognize the Stranger-Guest-Host as none other than their Risen Savior. What has St. Luke given us in that pericope? Nothing less than the outline of what we Catholics have experienced every Sunday for 2000 years: The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Risen and Ascended Lord is indeed true to His promise: He is truly with us “always, to the close of the age” in each and every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which is where we gain not only consolation for His seeming absence but also confidence to pursue the work of evangelization to which He has commissioned us.
Therefore, regardless of the opposition or scorn of “the world,” we Christians know that our efforts will bear fruit, ultimately, because they are taken up into the saving work of the Savior of the world. Hence, we understand the confidence exhibited by St. Mother Teresa, who could encourage her Sisters – and us – by reminding all that God does not call us to be “successful, only faithful.” Of course, in being faithful, we are successful. Our work is His work, which is why one of the lovely prefaces for this feast has us pray that “he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.”
But where “has [he] gone”? He has “gone” to Heaven. Now, to hear some theologians and even clerics talk, Heaven is not a “place” but a “state” of being – some kind of ethereal existence where “souls” can engage in a holy encounter. Such a notion, however, is contradicted by settled Catholic dogma: At least Christ and His holy Mother are in “Heaven” in their bodies! Many Orthodox Jews believe Moses to be there in that form as well. The Bible also tells us that Elijah exited earth into the heavens in a fiery chariot. Heaven’s being a “state” and not a “place” is not a new theory; few really are. The Gnostics in the early Church had an absolute antipathy to the flesh, and so denied that Jesus had a true human body; that He truly suffered and died; that He rose from the dead; and that the Eucharist was His true Body and Blood. Closer to our own time, many – influenced by the so-called “Enlightenment” in a Platonism-gone-wild – scoffed at the idea of a heavenly dwelling, supposedly because “modern” cosmology makes such a position untenable.
None other than the great Cardinal Newman, who had great respect for science, took on this approach as he teaches:
First, Christ’s Ascension to the right hand of God is marvellous, because it is a sure token that heaven is a certain fixed place, and not a mere state. That bodily presence of the Saviour which the Apostles handled is not here; it is elsewhere,—it is in heaven. This contradicts the notions of cultivated and speculative minds, and humbles the reason. Philosophy considers it more rational to suppose that Almighty God, as being a Spirit, is in every place; and in no one place more than another. It would teach, if it dare, that heaven is a mere state of blessedness; but, to be consistent, it ought to go on to deny, with the ancient heretics, referred to by St. John, that “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh,” and maintain that His presence on earth was a mere vision; for, certain it is, He who appeared on earth went up from the earth, and a cloud received Him out of His Apostles’ sight. And here again an additional difficulty occurs, on minutely considering the subject. Whither did He go? beyond the sun? beyond the fixed stars? Did He traverse the immeasurable space which extends beyond them all? Again, what is meant by ascending? Philosophers will say there is no difference between down and up, as regards the sky; yet, whatever difficulties the word may occasion, we can hardly take upon us to decide that it is a mere popular expression, consistently with the reverence due to the Sacred Record. (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Sermon 18)
Simply put, if the Act of Faith is correct, God “can neither deceive nor be deceived.” While a Heaven with a zip code may challenge certain contemporary assumptions, such a position is not irrational, supra-rational perhaps, but not irrational. Why do I spend time on this issue? Because the essence of the Christian faith is at stake. St. Paul put it starkly when he declared, without fear of contradiction: “Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? . . . if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:12-14, passim). Then he went on, even more fiercely, if that is all true, then “we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). And so, if Paul is right, namely, that Jesus rose in a body, then that body has to be in a “place.” Jesus and Mary are in a “place”; we have the right to expect to occupy the same space, God willing. This is no fairy tale, no “myth”.
Today, then, is a feast of joy and hope. Another beautiful preface sings: “. . . after his Resurrection he plainly appeared to all his disciples and was taken up to heaven in their sight” [lex orandi, lex credendi]. Why? “That he might make us sharers in his divinity.” Indeed, as so many of the Fathers of the Church taught, “God became man, that men might become gods.” By the process of “theosis” or “divinization,” begun at the baptismal font and strengthened in every worthy reception of Holy Communion, we are being prepared for an eternal dwelling place in Heaven. With good reason, then, we can say that because Christ is in Heaven, you and I – members of His mystical Body – are already there.
Amen, amen, I say unto you: Heaven has a zip code; therein lies our consolation and the reason for confidence in our Christian vocation.