Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on the Solemnity of the Ascension (May 30, 2019) at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.
Those of you who have had kids go off to college know the bittersweet nature of the experience. Objectively speaking, you know that it is what needs to happen; that it has been part of the plan all along; that it is for your son or daughter’s good and flourishing. Subjectively speaking, it is hard to let go, and that child will be sorely missed.
In some way, those sentiments parallel those of the apostles and disciples on that first Ascension Thursday: they knew that Jesus had to return to the Father (for He had repeatedly told them so); that His Ascension was the next and necessary step in His saving Paschal Mystery as He would begin His glorious reign at the right hand of the Father and likewise send His Holy Spirit to His Infant Church. Nevertheless, letting go of their beloved Lord, Friend and Brother was difficult. Therefore, an angelic message is directed to that band of befuddled apostles and disciples: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11).
That angelic message is equally addressed to us disciples of Our Lord 2000 years later. So many of us are disoriented by the revived confusion sown in the Church over the past six years. So many of us are unsettled by a society growing increasingly secular and deracinated from its Christian origins. Looking up to heaven helplessly is not what is required of us, just as it was not the formula for those early followers of Jesus.
No, the “ascending Lord” we encounter in Matthew’s account of the Ascension issues His “Great Commission”: “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.” We have a job to do! However, we should not regard this as a “mission impossible” because that “Great Commission” is accompanied by a promise: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:19-20).
Luke concretizes the promise by telling us that “lifting up his hands [Jesus] blessed them” (24:50). In this priestly gesture, we receive divine assurance that our missionary discipleship will be fruitful. That final action of Christ had its desired effect, for we learn that they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Lk 24:52-53).
The last question we hear from those first disciples is interesting: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 2:6). In point of fact, Christ’s saving Passion, Death and Resurrection had truly established God’s Kingdom, planting the seeds of it in His Church, the agent of His life-giving Spirit, which is why He could say: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Notice: the work of “witnessing” is linked to and entirely dependent on the gift of the Holy Spirit. In leaving us, Jesus has done something better for us – because He sends us His Holy Spirit. Isn’t that what he meant when He said, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7)?
In the meanwhile, what is the Risen and Ascended Lord doing for His Bride, the Church? Allowed to eavesdrop on His High Priestly Prayer at the Last Supper, we discover that “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word” (Jn 17:20). That means that on the night before He died, Jesus the Priest enfolded you and me in His prayer – and continues to do so. That realization caused St. Augustine to declare: “Orat pro nobis ut sacerdos noster, orat in nobis ut caput nostrum, oratur a nobis ut Deus noster. Agnoscamus ergo et in illo voces nostras et voces eius in nobis.” (He prays for us as our priest, He prays in us as our Head; He is prayed to by us as our God. Recognize, therefore, our own voice in him and his voice in us.”).1
That prayer of Jesus and the action of His Spirit are most manifest in the Church’s sacramental life. Indeed, on the very night of His Resurrection, He instituted the sacrament by which our sins are forgiven, enabling us to live in His peace (cf. Jn 20:19-23). And so, St. Maximus of Turin could assert:
My brothers, each of us ought surely to rejoice on this holy day. Let no one, conscious of his sinfulness, withdraw from our common celebration, nor let anyone be kept away from our public prayer by the burden of his guilt. Sinner he may indeed be, but he must not despair of pardon on this day which is so highly privileged; for if a thief could receive the grace of Paradise, how could a Christian be refused forgiveness?”
What further consolation can we have on this festal day? Some lovely hymns provide beautiful and holy thoughts. “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise” offers these reassuring verses:
Highest heaven its Lord receives; Alleluia!
yet he loves the earth He leaves. Alleluia!
Though returning to His throne, Alleluia!
still He calls us all His own. Alleluia!
Still for us He intercedes; Alleluia!
His atoning death He pleads, Alleluia!
near Himself prepares our place, Alleluia!
He the first-fruits of our race. Alleluia!
There we shall with Thee remain, Alleluia!
partners of Thine endless reign, Alleluia!
see Thee with unclouded view, Alleluia!
Find our heaven of heavens in Thee, Alleluia!
No, He has not left us; He has gone to prepare a place for us, even as He promised (Jn 14:3). “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” puts it most poetically:
Alleluia! Not as orphans are we left in sorrow now
Alleluia! He is near us, faith believes nor questions how
Though the cloud from sight received him when the forty days were o’er
Shall our hearts forget his promise, I am with you evermore?
No, we are not orphans. In truth, Jesus is closer to us now than He was to His first disciples during His earthly life and ministry. How so? Once again, our hymn instructs us:
Alleluia! Bread of heaven, here on earth our food and stay
Alleluia! Here the sinful flee to thee from day to day
Intercessor, Friend of sinners, earth’s Redeemer, plead for me
Where the songs of all the sinless sweep across the crystal sea.
Alleluia! King eternal, thee the Lord of Lords we own
Alleluia! Born of Mary, earth thy footstool, heaven thy throne
Thou within the veil hast entered, robed in flesh, our great High Priest
Thou on earth both Priest and Victim in the Eucharistic Feast.
And so, our faith informs us that in every celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, Christ our Priest presides and Christ our Priest feeds us with His very own sacred Body and Blood. In this way, He is not only near us, but in us. Through our baptism, we were made members of His Mystical Body, the Church, and through every worthy reception of Holy Communion, our relationship with the Lord is strengthened – strengthened to fulfill His “Great Commission.” We do this by witnessing to the truths of our holy Faith when they are questioned or presented in a muddled fashion within the Church herself, always having recourse to the firm foundations laid for the “new evangelization” by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We do this by witnessing to a wobbly culture on the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, on God’s design for marriage and family, on the need to fill the “naked public square” with the presence of Almighty God and His Church.
Today, then, is a festival of joy and hope. Christ has returned to His heavenly Father, where He prays for us, where He is preparing a place for us. If all this is true, it is most fitting to laud Him in the stirring words of the Church’s greatest hymn of praise, the Te Deum:
Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
When Thou didst take upon Thee to deliver man: Thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
When Thou didst overcome the sharpness of death, Thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God in the glory of the Father.
We believe that Thou shalt come to be our Judge.
We therefore pray Thee, help Thy servants whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy Precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with Thy saints in glory everlasting.
1Augustine, Enarrationes in Ps. 85, 1.
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