The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (A)
Dear brothers and sisters,
This morning I heard on the radio a song I had not heard before, but these words caught my ear: “I said, only rainbows after rain; the sun will always come again.” Having a great love of Hawaii, such words always grab me.
The more I listened to the song the more I liked it and it seemed a fitting song for today’s celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. The refrain to the song by Andy Grammer on an album soon to be released is the same as its title: “Keep your head up.”
The song’s title reminds me of the words the two mysterious men addressed to the Apostles: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky” (Acts 1:11)? The answer to their question is given by these same two men in their following words: “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” (Acts 1:11).
My favorite images of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven come from the Middle Ages when the artists of the period depicted this happy and wondrous event in a common way. The Apostles are generally shown looking up into the sky, with a variety of expressions on their faces. A few sometimes seem to have a knowing smile about them; others are clearly distraught; some look up longingly; and some seem simply confused and baffled. They keep their heads up for the various reasons shown on their faces.
Watching the Lord being taken up from them, the Apostles likely enough had similar questions running through their minds as these expressed in the song, “Keep your head up”: “My life and my purpose, \ is it all worth it? \ Am I gonna turn out fine?”
The Lord Jesus had only been with them a short forty days after his Resurrection and now he was leaving them. And though he had told them several times he would come back for them, still they did not understand his purposes; indeed, “when they saw him, they worshipped, but they doubted” (Matthew 28:17). They surely wondered if they had renewed their trust in him in vain. Are you and I any different than they? Do we not also worship and doubt? Do we, too, not ask, “Am I gonna turn out fine?”
We are sometimes tempted to think or to imagine that Jesus has left us completely alone, that he no longer cares for us, but Holy Mother Church gently corrects this thought and reminds us, as we soon will pray, that
The Lord Jesus, the king of glory, the conqueror of sin and death, ascended to heaven while the angels sang his praises. Christ, the mediator between God and man, 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” (Preface: Ascension I).
This, then, is “the hope that belongs to [Jesus’] call (Ephesians 1:18): to be with him forever in his kingdom where “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord. Alleluia” (Psalm 47:6)!
Looking back at the medieval depictions of the Ascension, if you look up above the Apostles to where their gazes are directed you will see something that at first seems rather curious and perhaps even comical: a pair of feet sticking out from the bottom of a cloud, and nothing more. But if you look closely at those feet you will know whose they are, for they bear the marks of nails in them: they are Jesus’ feet.
This intriguing way of showing the Lord’s Ascension is a stark reminder of the reality of the event: the Lord left the Apostles only to return to them ten days later and bestow upon them the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. But in that moment of his leaving them they forgot his promised return.
Why must we keep our heads up? Certainly not out of confusion or bewilderment, and certainly not out of despair. In today’s society it is customary to keep our head up to show our self-confidence and our self-esteem. These are not good reasons to keep our heads up, either. No, we ought not raise our heads to others in some arrogant gesture; rather, we ought to bow our heads to one another in humble recognition of their dignity and worth.
We must keep our heads up in order to keep our eyes focused on Jesus’ feet, or, perhaps better said, to keep our eyes fixed on the hope that belongs to his call. But what is this hope? What is this call?
Pope Benedict XVI begins his second encyclical letter Spe salvi by reminding us “that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey” (1).
Our hope does lead to a goal: life on high with Jesus Christ. Of this goal we can indeed be sure and certain, for the Lord Jesus has ascended there before us. He did not leave his humanity behind but took it with him – scars and all – to show us that he desires us to be with him. On our own, we cannot follow him, but he has opened the way before us and beckons us to follow him, to live as he has lived; he calls us to keep the commandments he gave us, the double command of the love of God and the love of neighbor (cf. Matthew 28:20).
We know, then, our hope has a goal and that this goal is attainable. But is this goal worth the cost? Is it worth the cross that must be carried? Is it worth the scars that we, too, are certain to receive? I daresay it is, and the lives of the Saints also testify that this goal is worth the cost.
The hope of Christians authentically living their faith is their distinguishing mark; it is
the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well (Spe salvi, 2).Those who have hope can say with Saint Josephine Bakhita who, while suffering greatly under slavery, said, “I am definitively loved, and whatever happens to me – I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good” (in Spe salvi, 3). To put it in the words of our song, “I’m gonna turn out fine.”
But what, then, is heaven and what do we mean when we speak eternal life? We often think of it as some floating place in the sky where the angels play their harps on fluffy clouds like those from which Jesus’ feet extend, but this is only a childish take on heaven and very far removed from the reality. Pope Benedict XVI describes heaven, the state of being with God, in these words:
It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time – the before and after – no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with great joy (Spe salvi, 12).This overwhelming joy is what makes this goal, this hope, worth the cost.
Let each of us, then, keep our heads up, looking to Jesus Christ so that where he has gone we, too, may follow. May each of us look for his feet and follow, confident that if we remain faithful to his call, if we live in hope, we are gonna turn out fine. Amen.