Today, Christians in many parts of the world celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, otherwise known as Ascension Thursday. We were prepared in a way by current events. Elon Musk’s rocket made another successful landing back on earth, or rather on a ship at sea. And North Korea successfully launched an intercontinentally capable missile. Such events are almost commonplace today.
Human beings have been climbing the heavens for almost two centuries, a feat undreamed of by people when St. Luke was writing his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. To ascend the heavens was something only a divine being could do. It was plainly supernatural. And so it was a fitting symbol of the divine nature of the risen Christ that the final portion of Jesus’ life on earth would take him beyond its confines. But, as the angels warn the apostles, it is useless to look up into the sky to see where he has gone. Christ’s presence now and for all time is of another character entirely. Still, we may ask, why the Ascension?
Is there something to ponder in that affirmation we make so often, “We believe… that he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead”?
According to St. Luke, the Ascension of the Lord lies between Easter and Pentecost, which celebrates the coming, the parousia of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, into the Church – into the hearts and minds of the early disciples and of all disciples. But that lies ahead. Now, like the disciples on the hillside, we are left wondering about Jesus’ ascent into heaven. Did he go up into the sky? Is heaven someplace up above the clouds, somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps? Or are we still looking in the wrong place, as the angel said?
Centuries ago, perhaps even decades ago, the idea would not have seemed absurd. Today, when exploring space is as real in fact as it is on TV and in the movies, and the most distant parts of the universe are as familiar to us as our old neighborhood thanks to the Hubble space telescope and its successors, it’s far more important to understand clearly what Christians believe and what that belief means.
To begin with, the Ascension does not mean that Jesus went into orbit like some ancient astronaut, but that a cloud hid him from their sight. The Ascension was never a crude, physical doctrine that asserted that Jesus was hanging around in the air, or on some other planet, much less out in space somewhere. Belief in the Ascension affirms the Cosmic Lordship, or we might say today, the Leadership, of Christ spiritually, but also sacramentally. It means that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead and exalted by God, has fully entered into the fundamental reality of Creation itself. Christ, St. Paul tells us is now co-extensive with the universe. God, he says, “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” [Eph. 1:22-23]. There is no “where” that Jesus Christ is not present.
This is the famous pleroma passage, which one translation has as “the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts.” However we interpret it, clearly St Paul portrays Christ as universal Lord, majestic in triumph over every cosmic force and principle, over the angels and every spiritual power. To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos.
But the Ascension is also the Feast of Christ as Lord of Time, that is of history as lived time, not only past, but present and future: “Christ yesterday, today, and tomorrow” [Heb. 13:8].
There is more – and this is even more important. Paul writes to his Christian disciples at Ephesus that it is this same Christ Jesus who is the head of the Church, which is filled with his Spirit. And through that Spirit we are all members of the one body of Christ, the people of God. Christ is present to the world especially in the lives and works of those guided by and filled with his Spirit.
The meaning of the Ascension is the completion of the paschal mystery, the return of Jesus to the heart of God, the triumph of innocence over the guilt of the world, the final victory of life over death, of grace over sin. It is the culminating moment of the passage of Christ to the Father, but also of salvation history itself. Yet the Ascension is also preparation and prelude, the necessary movement prior to the descent of the Spirit, the beginning of the transformation of the world’s history and its very structure, a spiritual transformation leading to universal jubilation. That’s what the Church ultimately is.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “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” [John 16:7]. And, the text goes on, “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth…. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. …I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Jesus has not gone away anywhere. He is present everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention. We look in the wrong places or we simply look wrongly. When we see with the eyes of faith, or, as St. Paul had it, “having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” we see him in many ways.
So as we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus and also of this parish, let us return with the disciples to that upper room to prepare for the advent of the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who will enlighten our minds and warm our hearts and lead us into all truth and all joy. Because, as St. Matthew tells us, we still have a lot of work ahead of us before Jesus returns in glory.
Backtracking on his promise not to take “the low road” unless Hillary did so first, Donald Trump launched a pre-Mother’s Day attack on both Clintons that was on a road that can’t descend much lower (Ted Cruz may still hold the title of low road-runner, however, after his astonishing personal attack following the trumping he received in Indiana). But perhaps the billionaire property developer was just reacting to the news that a Muslim had been elected Lord Mayor of London by a sizable majority the day before. Or that “El Chapo” had been moved to a prison just across the border from El Paso… it’s difficult to tell. But we will no doubt hear about it soon enough. The corporate media outlets seem happy to offer the presumptive candidate yet more free air time.
No, despite his repeated pledges, the leopard has not yet changed his spots. The question is, can he?
Although the first of the wildly expensive party conventions is still a month away, voter fatigue seems to be settling in. I wonder if many will still care enough to vote in November… In the meantime, as the Democrats seem resigned to having Mrs. Clinton seal her bid for the nomination, Republicans are torn (sometimes literally) between competing candidates. Discounting John Kesich (which seems to be the order of the day), the race is getting down to what one observer called accepting the lesser of two evils. But which one is that?
It’s May Day—from ancient times, a celebration of high spring, and more lately (despite some wonderful holdover traditions such as dancing around the Maypole), it is observed around the world as the international celebration of workers’ rights. That all began right here in Chicago, when May 1, 1886, was set as the target day to begin an 8-hour working day – followed three days later by the infamous Haymarket Massacre of protesting workers by the police. Ordinarily for Catholics, May 1st is
dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker, a feast instituted by Pope Pius XII in 1955, largely to deflect the socialist and Communist appropriation of the date.
But on this May Day, the sixth and effectively the last Sunday of Easter, we are looking ahead to the Feast of the Ascension — Christ’s return to the Father, and with him, the beginning of the return of all things to God. And after that, the descent of the Spirit, the Feast of Pentecost. The Advocate, the promised parakletos, is Jesus’ greatest gift to his followers, for the Holy Spirit is his spirit. And then, in today’s gospel, Jesus gives us his peace. So, Jesus tells his disciples not to feel distressed or fearful. But why should we not be afraid? Things can get scary.
We fear terrorist attacks in our cities, we doubt our ability to make things come out right, to find work, to provide decent housing and education for our children, to stop the killing in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and on the streets of Chicago. We worry about North Korea. We wonder how we can ever find ways to bring food to millions of starving people, to make peace more than an ideal in an imperfect world, to halt the wanton destruction of the life-sustaining capacity of this planet. Did I mention some pretty strange weather? And the ongoing theatrics of the 2016 presidential race?
What we hear Jesus saying is, simply, do not fear: it all makes sense. Not perhaps to you or me, but that does not so much matter. What matters is that the reins of time and human history are in the hands of God. We do not have to save the world — for one thing, we couldn’t, not by ourselves. For another, it isn’t necessary — the world has already been saved. It is always being saved, perhaps little by little according to our human standards, but nevertheless saved. First of all, by God’s grace. But grace works through the efforts of God-minded people. Not by observing religious laws, which so concerned some of the first Christians as we hear in the first reading, but by faith in the grace of God, by hope in the wisdom and the power of God, and by love — every kind of love, but especially the love that does justice.
During the Easter season, the daily readings for the Liturgy of the Hours are taken from the Book of Revelation, as are many of the second readings at Sunday masses. It can be pretty harrowing reading, and you might wonder why this, the last and for many people scariest book of the Bible is chosen for this time of year.
But the Book of Revelation is in fact a testament of hope, a promise of the ultimate victory of God in Christ, which is conveyed so well in the passage we have just read. Despite sin, oppression, and suffering, God triumphs in the end, and every tear is wiped away and there is no more death or mourning. God makes all things new.
At the end, the City of God, the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven, is not only beautiful. It is big. We tend to miss that, and the dimensions are given in a different chapter, but when you work out the volume, as I make my students do when I teach a course on this fascinating work, they describe a cube 1,500 miles on each side and 1,500 miles high – about 3,375,000,000 cubic miles – two-thirds the volume of the moon. It is the largest structure ever imaged by the human mind. But the simple point the author is making is that there is enough room for everyone. Everyone who ever lived, who is living now, and will ever live. Salvation is inclusive.
Years ago, a young Jesuit I knew wrote a song that has become a great favorite – “We shall build the city of God — and our tears shall be turned into dancing, the night shall be turned into day.” It’s a good song, but only partially right — it is not we who build the city of God, not alone. It comes from God, the human home for everyone as the heart of the new heaven and the new earth. And the Psalmist was right — if God does not build the city, in vain do its builders labor. It is a grace, a gift from God, not the product of human ingenuity, much less money or technology.
But we must also remember that God builds with human hands, God loves with human hearts, God’s light shines forth from human hopes. We are responsible for the city, for we are the city, a city built of living stones, with the prophets and apostles for its foundation. Each of us is an essential part of that structure, being built up to the glory of God. But it is still God’s doing, God’s gift, God’s glory.
And so our fears are groundless. We have no reason to fear, to be afraid of the dark. To the extent that the world turned from God, Jesus overcame the world. And in the gift of the Spirit, sent from God as the earnest of Christ’s return, we have the pledge of an everlasting home. A very big one. The return of Christ to the Father that we will soon celebrate is the beginning of the end, a prelude to the coming of the Spirit of Christ that fills the whole world, the Lord and Giver of Life, making all things new. And in that Spirit we build our human city, which one day will be taken up and transformed into the true and eternal City of God.