20 May 2023

Homily - The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord - 21 May 2023

The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

This morning we ought to consider a question that might not even occur to us: Why is today’s Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord important? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops moved this liturgical celebration from the fortieth day after Easter so Catholics in America would see it as an important day. Whether that decision has proved fruitful is up for debate.

Saint Luke tells us the Apostles were with the Lord Jesus during his last moment on earth in human flesh. He relates that “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). Why is this significant?

Detail, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas and the Ascension
Golden Munich Psalter, MS Clm 835, fol. 28r

In the first centuries of the Church, a group of heretics arose who claimed Jesus only seemed to have a human body. Consequently, they said, Jesus only was not actually crucified, he did not actually die, and he did not truly ascend to the Father; he did these things spiritually but not physically. In our own day, a group has arisen that claims the first Christians had a mass hallucination when they saw Jesus risen from the dead and ascend to the Father. Each of these groups effectively claims the same thing: the accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension into heaven are false.

Saint Augustine of Hippo argued vigorously against this first group and his argument also works against the second group. Concerning the Apostles, the Doctor of Grace asked,

How did they see him go? In the flesh which they touched, which they felt, the scars of which they even probed by touching; in that body in which he went in and out with them for forty days, manifesting himself to them in truth, not in any falsity; not as an apparition, not as a shadow, not as a spirit, but as he himself said, not deceiving, “Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have” (Luke 24:39).[1]

If, as the first group claimed, Jesus only appeared to have a human body, how could he have eaten after his Resurrection? If, as the second group claims, the Apostles hallucinated the Resurrection appearances of Jesus, how could they have touched him? Here, then, we have one reason today’s solemnity is important: it confounds the skeptics. But there is still a more important reason to make much of this liturgical celebration, one concerning you and me.

Before we consider this second reason for rejoicing we have to ask what it means for Jesus to have ascended to the right hand of the Father. We can be sure of this:


It does not refer to some distant cosmic power, where God has, as it were, set up his throne and given Jesus a place beside the throne. God is not in one space alongside other spaces. God is God – he is the premise and the ground of all the space there is, but he himself is not part of it. God stands in relation to all spaces as Lord and Creator. His presence is not spatial, but divine. “Sitting at God’s hand” means participating in this divine dominion over space.[2]

This is why we sing today with the Psalmist, “God reigns over the nations” (Psalm 47:9).

The life of the Savior has several interesting paradoxes, curious bookends, if you like.

When Christ was born, heaven sent forth a new star, which announced the birth of God. Again, when he ascended to heaven, the heavenly cloud bowed down towards him, and received him: not that the cloud bare him, for he holds the throne of heaven, but he passed with the cloud from the sight of men. There were seen two angels in white garments. In like manner at his birth angels were seen; but the holy gospel has not explained how they were adorned; for God came to us very humble. At his ascension were seen angels adorned with white garments. Joy is betokened by white garments, for Christ departed hence with great joy and with great majesty. At his birth it seemed as though the Godhead were humbled, and at his ascension humanity was exalted and magnified. With his ascension is annulled the writ of our condemnation, and the sentence of our destruction is abrogated.[3]

Here we come to the second and most important reason to enter into the joy of this day.

Today’s celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father “expresses our belief that in Christ human nature, the humanity in which we all share, 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.”[4]

This is indeed a tremendous miracle, something unfathomable in times past. So great is God’s love for us that is not aloof from us. His love for us is so strong that he draws us into his very self, into communion with him, into his very life and love. We see this in the fact that Christ Jesus did not ascend to the Father only in a spiritual form, but with his physical, earthly, human body, which still bore the scars of his crucifixion. When he descended from heaven at Bethlehem, the only begotten Son of God humbled himself to give himself a human face; when he ascended into heaven he exalted humanity by keeping that face.

What this means for us is most profound, perhaps hard for us to even imagine: The Lord 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] You and I, my friends, if we live a life worthy of the call we have received, will also live with God (cf. Ephesians 1:18). It will not be just our souls that enter into the life and love of God, but our bodies, as well. How can anyone not be astounded by this, not be moved to tears of joy?

How is it, then, that you and I can follow where the Savior has gone before us? First, we must remember that “Christ, at the Father’s right hand, is not far away from us. At most we are far from him, but the path that joins us to one another is open.” Second, we must remember “this path is not a matter of space travel of a cosmic-geographical nature: it is the ‘space travel’ of the heart, from the dimension of a self-enclosed isolation to the new dimension of world-embracing divine love.”[6]

Soon, I will say to you, “Lift up your hearts” and you will answer, “We lift them up to the Lord.” Do not merely say these words, but actually do what you say: lift your heart up to God. Ask him to fill your heart with his love – with his divine love – so that when your heart comes back to you, you might love God and neighbor fully, with the same love of Jesus Christ. If you and I do this, if we travel with the heart, we can indeed “shout to God with cries of gladness” because we will follow where he has gone before (Psalm 47:2). Amen.

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 21.13.2.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 282.

[3] Blessed Aelfric of Eynsham, Sermon on the Lord’s Ascension.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching. Matthew J. O’Connell, trans. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1985), 62-63.

[5] Roman Missal, Preface I of the Ascension of the Lord.

[6] Joseph Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, 286.

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