Fr. Kevin Hale on Ascension
I love the above image of the men of Galilee gazing upward at the Lord's departure. At Ascension I feel a lot like this...Left behind to some extent. After the ordeal of the Passion and death of Jesus, the disciples experienced the incredible shock of a fullness of life they could touch, see, talk to and with. This was called the Resurrection, that is, the same Jesus alive and living yet not the same but rather evasive and transcendent.
The Ascension is a further step into the Mystery. How must they have felt confronted with the Resurrected Lord? And could they have understood His departure? Or would they have felt lost and alone after His departure? Could they have understood that, now, although Jesus is no longer seen or touched, He is nevertheless, alive and present, near, intimate. We are left, like them "staring upwards, hoping and longing for a participation in God’s life".
Of course this is what He came back to confirm; He is The Lord.
And yet they remain terrified and unsure. They are with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, praying in the upper room and holding in faith the emptiness of the senses and the ignorance -maybe the overwhelming void- of the mind.
Just as Mary holds the womb in which new life gestated, she now is the person who makes the transition to a newly born interpretation, understanding, and evidence of God's action and presence possible. The Church will be born in Pentecost from the contemplative womb of faith.
Christ's body was glorified at the moment of his Resurrection, as proved by the new and supernatural properties it subsequently and permanently enjoys. But during the forty days when he eats and drinks familiarly with his disciples and teaches them about the kingdom, his glory remains veiled under the appearance of ordinary humanity. Jesus' final apparition ends with the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory, symbolized by the cloud and by heaven, where he is seated from that time forward at God's right hand. Only in a wholly exceptional and unique way would Jesus show himself to Paul "as to one untimely born", in a last apparition that established him as an apostle. ~ CCC 659
Father Kevin uses the feast of the Ascension in order to emphasise the metaphysical dimension to our existent which so many people seem to factor out of their reasoning these days. One of the fundamental tenets of our Catholic faith is that we have an eternal soul which will continue on after our death. When we die, we face judgement. That is the things we have done in our life echo through eternity and have eternal consequences. Today many people like to think that their loved ones are "in heaven", but they fail to consider what that actually means, or that there is purgatory and judgement to factor into heaven. I also think his insight and teaching on our experience in communio with heaven now, through the liturgy, is an important point. Finally, he affirms the unity of heaven and earth and how important it is that we have our eyes set on heaven, whilst we sojourn here on earth:
I celebrated a Requiem Mass for someone this week who died at the age of ninety-four. In preparation for the funeral the family of the deceased came and tad me a little about his life and how in 1979 she and her husband had been in a fire in their home. The whole house was engulfed and as she was escaping form an upstairs window she was sent by an explosion form within the house to other other end of the garden. By all accounts she "died", but with the help of doctors and nurses was brought back from what seemed state of death and was able to relate to her family that during the period when she appeared dead, she experienced heaven.
She was able to describe to her family in detail what she had seen and reassured them that there was nothing to fear, that is was going to be very beautiful and fulfilling. Now you may know others who have had near-death or out-of-body experiences, and what they may demonstrate to us is the fact that there are other realities, or a reality, outside of ourselves. I tell you this today because there is a mode of being, of existing that transcends our ordinary realm of being, of living. It is the spiritual world and we are part of that by our life in the Spirit of Christ.
We are celebrating today the Ascension of Our Lord into heaven, where He is seated at the right hand of God the Father; as we shall profess in a few moments time in the Creed. But even the lovers of science-fiction might wonder what this is all about, and even more, how does this relate to us in the early twenty-first century. The point is that we all tend to judge by what we see. We take a rather Greek philosophical approach to existence on earth, thinking that the only realities are those that impinge upon us. Whereas what the Ascension does is to make us focus on the more Jewish way of looking at existence, which is see how Heaven and earth touch upon each other all the time. So when Jesus died, rose form the dead and ascended into Heaven, we are saying that there is this possibility for us too. We may or may not get hints of it, but it is this life that awaits us. St Paul says the the resurrected body is a spiritual body, our same body, but with the powers and capacities of the Spirit.
The Ascension also signals to us a deep desire to worship. The Scriptures tell us that after the Ascension of Jesus the disciples were to be found constantly in the Temple worshipping and praising God. Once they had witnessed the transforming of Jesus into this higher dimension, into the life of God, they wanted to just worship God. Our worship here below, the liturgy, the Mass is not just a celebration of ourselves, not just our gathering to find deeper inspiration from each other. The liturgy is our participation now in the heavenly life. From the beginning of the Mass - when we make sign of Cross - we are situating our lives in the dimension of the Trinity; we are staring upwards, hoping and longing for a participation in God’s life. How often in the liturgy do we ask that our voices blend with those of the Heavenly Court. Here we anticipate the eternal (eschatological) banquet around the Throne of God. The Ascension awakens in us this liturgical desire.
This might make us uncomfortable thinking about Heaven because it’s not very grounded on earth. The paradox is that the more we think about Heaven the more we are concerned about what happens on earth. Think of the figures of the twentieth century who made the great differences, the Mother Teresa’s, the Gandhi’s, the Saint John Paul’s; the more they had their eyes fixed on things above, the more hey made a difference to life on earth. It is always precisely those who worshipped and praised in the liturgy and looked upwards to the heights of God, who could change things here below. These two worlds of earth and Heaven are mutually inclusive. The work of the Church commences when Jesus left the dimension of space and time. When He ascends to Heaven He clears room for us to do His work on earth.
With Mary, gathered with the disciples in the Upper Room from this day we can keep our eyes fixed on things above, awaiting the outpouring the Holy Spirit, so as transform this world by what we worship here now…
You can listen to Father Kevin preach this homily, as well as those from previous weeks, here.