28 May 2017

Homily - 28 May 2017 - The Ascension of the Lord - Is it any wonder the Apostles stared into the sky?

The Ascension of the Lord (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

As we celebrate today the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father, Holy Mother Church presents for us two principle articles of the Christian faith: the divine authority of Christ and the Last Judgment. The two are, of course, connected to each other and to today’s solemnity when the “Lord Jesus, the King of glory, conqueror of sin and death, ascended to the highest heavens, as the Angels gazed in wonder.”[1] Today, he “mounts his throne amid shouts of joy;” the “great king over all the earth” now “sits upon his holy throne” (Psalm 47:6; 47:3; 47:9).

One might say the Lord returned to the Father in much the same way that he came to the earth: quietly, unexpectedly, and without much fanfare. What is more, in Saint Luke’s account of the Ascension, he “looks backward to its Old Testament foreshadowings and to Jesus’ prophesied return at the end of time.”[2] Because of the cloud upon which he ascended, we know that “everywhere creation offers obedient service to its Creator. The stars indicated his birth; clouds overshadowed him in his suffering, received him in his ascension, and they will accompany him when he returns for the judgment.”[3] 

The cloud is an ancient image found repeatedly throughout the pages of the Old Testament that reveals

the hiddenness of God who, in his very hiddennes, is close to us and exercises his power for us; who is always beyond our reach and yet always in our midst; who eludes our every attempt to lay hold of him and manipulate him, but by that very fact exercises a providential rule over us all.[4]

Is it any wonder, then, that the Apostles simply stood there “looking intently at the sky as he was going,” for in the mystery of the cloud the Lord Jesus revealed the fullness of his divine power (Acts 1:10)? He made this explicitly clear when he said to his Apostles, “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Having ascended to his heavenly throne, the Father “put all things beneath [Jesus’] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way” (Ephesians 1:22-23).

The Eleven were overcome with wonder and awe, with faith and hope, with a desire to be with their Lord, to follow him who said, “I am with you always (Matthew 28:20)” Is this not our desire as well? Do we not wish that we could have been present with the Apostles, to see with them the Risen Lord ascend to his glory? Do we not, too, wish to be with Christ the Lord? Is it any wonder, then, that they stood there gazing intently at the sky?

The Ascension of Christ, historiated initial ‘C’, Italy, 15C
(State Library of Victoria, RARES 096 IL I)
The medieval manuscripts perhaps portray this best. They show the Apostles gathered together outside with a cloud above them at the top of the image. From out of the bottom of the cloud extend two feet with nail marks and sometimes the hem of a robe. Jesus has just told them, “I am with you always” and then he goes up with the cloud. How were they to make sense of this? Does his Ascension not contradict his words?

It is for this very reason that the Church reminds us today that Jesus “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.”[5] Moreover, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit active through the Apostles and their successors, the Lord Jesus is present to every person in every time and in every place, in a heretofore unimagined way; he is present to us all – not just to a few – in the Holy Eucharist. Today, then, with the Apostles, “we rejoice that Christ our Savior has taken his place at the right hand of the Father, because where he has gone, we hope to follow.”[6] 

Here we come to the Last Judgment, for we know, as the angels announced, “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). When he comes again, he will come to judge the living and the dead, to judge us according to the measure of our love; we will be judged on how closely our hearts resemble his most Sacred Heart. Those whose love is worthy will be brought into the presence of the Father, into what we call heaven, to dwell with him forever.

We cannot forget that at the moment of our deaths, we will each stand before the throne of God and face our particular and individual judgments, which will be made known at the Resurrection of the Dead. We will be judged both for what we have done and for what we have failed to do, all in accord with the double command of the love of God and the love of neighbor.

The thought of being judged by the Lord often inspires a certain fear in many people as they consider the prospect of death and the way they have lived. But the image of the Last Judgment “is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope… [I]t is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear that … has its place in love.”[7] When we stand before the throne of God, justice and mercy will meet in the gaze of Christ Jesus.

When we look at least upon his face, we will know his power and his judgment. As I have said before,

Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives becomes evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire” [I Corinthians 3:15]. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the interrelation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us forever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love… At the moment of judgment we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.[8]

When we stand before his face, we will know that his power is the power of love, of love that is stronger even than death. The Seraphic Doctor tells us that Jesus took his body with him “so that, seated at the right hand of Majesty, he might show to the glorious face of his Father the scars of the wounds which he suffered for us.”[9] This is why the angels gazed on in wonder and why the Apostles stood there staring into the sky. Jesus took his body with him so that we, too, might one day look upon the signs of his love.

At the same time, since Jesus took his fleshly body with him when he ascended, it means that humanity

has entered into the inner life of God in a new and hitherto unheard of way. It means that man has found an everlasting place in God. Heaven is not a place beyond the stars, but something much greater, something that requires far more audacity to assert: Heaven means that man now has a place in God.[10]

            Let us, then, pray with Saint Bonaventure that,

Believing, hoping and loving with all [our] heart, with [our] whole mind, and with [our] whole strength, may [we] be carried to you, beloved Jesus, as to the goal of all things, because you alone are sufficient, you along are good and pleasing to those who seek you and love your name.[11]

Where he has gone, may we soon quickly follow. Amen!

[1] Roman Missal, Preface: Ascension I.

[2] William S. Kurz, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2013), 34.

[3] Saint Bede the Venerable, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 1.9b. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. V: Acts (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2006), 11.

[4] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching, Matthew J. O’Connell, trans. (Chicago, Illinois: Franciscan Herald Press, 1985), 62.

[5] Roman Missal, Preface: Ascension I.

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Regina Caeli Address, 21 May 2006.

[7] Ibid., Spe salvi, 44.

[8] Ibid., 47.

[9] Saint Bonaventure, The Tree of Life, 38. In Ewert Cousins, trans., The Classics of Western Spirituality: Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God, The Tree of Life, The Life of St. Francis (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978), 162.

[10] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching, 62-63.

[11] Saint Bonaventure, The Tree of Life, 48.

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