HOMILY, Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
May 17, 2015
Fr. Charlie Fox, Spiritual Director, St. Paul Street Evangelization
(Become a member: https://streetevangelization.com/begin-training/)
The heaven-driven life
A while back, I saw an odd commercial for one of the new tablets on the market at that time. The commercial featured a kind of scruffy looking young man who was performing a show-and-tell of different aspects of his life. He showed off some strange pictures of himself and his hobbies, and at the end of the commercial, he summed it all up by saying, “My life is so random.” That was right around the time “random” was becoming a buzzword.
I remember thinking to myself that it’s kind of sad to boast about having a “random” life. It also occurred to me that the Christian life is definitely not random. And today’s feast of the Ascension demonstrates how un-random, that is, how purposeful, the Christian life is.
It might be tempting to think of the Ascension as kind of “random”. Yet the Ascension is both Jesus’ triumphant entrance into heaven and the beginning of His preparation of our place in heaven. In today’s First Reading and Gospel, Jesus gives His apostles their final instructions before ascending to heaven. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see the Ascension only from the perspective of the apostles, which is to say, we don’t see much. We read that, “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” They didn’t completely understand the Ascension at first, and perhaps if they knew today’s idiomatic expressions they might have described it as being kind of “random”. Why does Jesus have to go? Why now? What’s next? In a certain sense they knew the answers to these questions, but in another sense they still didn’t “get it”.
We get a peek into what Jesus’ Ascension really meant, however, in the Gospel of Mark. There it says that Jesus, “was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.” So the Ascension is only beginning at the moment when Jesus is concealed by the cloud, and even that beginning was more meaningful than we might think. In the Bible, a cloud is a symbol of heaven, of the presence of God. Think here of the pillar of cloud where God was present among the Israelites in the desert during the Exodus.
This cloud, according to St. John Chrysostom, is a sign that Jesus is already in heaven. Jesus here begins His ascent up through the ranks of heaven, above all the angels, to sit at the right hand of the Father in glory. This is not about just floating up into the sky. It’s about Jesus’ victory march. He has just conquered sin and death by His Cross and Resurrection, and now He goes to claim the Kingdom He has won and to sit upon His rightful throne.
And there is something else Jesus is doing in heaven, or rather a set of things: He is doing all He can to help us join Him. Remember that Jesus said in John’s Gospel, during the Last Supper, “now I am going to him who sent me” (John 16:5), and, “it is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7). The reason Jesus’ return to the Father will be advantageous for us, He says, is that He will be able to send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.
Jesus also says the Last Supper: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3). So Jesus is preparing a place for us in heaven, not just somewhere up in the sky, but in the very life of God. As members of the Church we are one with Jesus, and so He is preparing a place for us, not just somewhere in His neighborhood, but in His very household with the Father and the Holy Spirit. There is nothing “random” about this. This is our true destiny, the goal that gives our whole lives order and meaning.
So Jesus sends the Holy Spirit and He is preparing a place for us in heaven. And a third thing Jesus is doing to help us join Him in heaven is to plead with the Father on our behalf, asking the Father to have mercy on us. Jesus is our High Priest, as we see Him described in the Letter to the Hebrews. He always prays for us, intercedes for us with His Father.
So it is clear that the Ascension is not just a divine disappearing act, but rather Jesus acts with a purpose, doing everything He can to save us and to bring us to heaven with Him. The very fact that He brings our human nature, which He redeemed, to His heavenly throne is already a beginning for us. As the Letter to the Hebrews describes it, Jesus is the “leader” of our salvation (2:10). He is the first to take our human nature where we could never have taken it on our own, to His own place at the Father’s right hand.
So we see that Jesus acts purposefully in his Ascension, and we are called to act purposefully ourselves. We are called to do so in our prayer. St. Augustine gives us some direction here when he says in a sermon included in today’s Office of Readings, “Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him.” He then quotes St. Paul, who writes in his letter to the Colossians, “If you have risen with Christ, set your heart on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth” (see Colossians 3:1-2).
We need to think regularly about heaven. At each Mass the priest tells us to “Lift up (our) hearts,” and we answer, “We lift them up to the Lord.” Our hearts are so easily dragged down to earth, to earthly desires, earthly loves, earthly worries and problems. Keeping our hearts set on heaven is one way we cooperate with Jesus and travel the path to joy in heaven, but also to joy on earth. If we set our hearts on earthly things—on success or money, on things or even on human relationships apart from God—it is unlikely that anything will give us joy. But if we set our hearts on heavenly things, ironically, then not only the things of heaven and but also the good things of earth will bring us joy.
The Ascension helps us to be purposeful not only in our prayer but also in our activity. Just as Jesus works on our behalf in heaven, so we need to build up His kingdom on earth. Jesus tells His apostles in today’s Gospel, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” And in today’s reading from Acts Jesus makes it clear that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the apostles will “be (His) witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The Christian life has always been one of prayer and action, and we see in these readings that we are called not only to set our hearts on life with God in heaven, but to invite and help others to do the same. As you receive the Eucharist today, and as we approach the feast of Pentecost next Sunday, I invite you to pray that God will give you new strength to share your faith with others, beginning with your own family members and friends. Pray that God will clear out of your hearts anything that bogs you down, that makes you think only of this earthly life or makes you think of your life as “random”. Ask God to “lift up your hearts” to heaven, so that you will think often of your true home, and travel the straight and narrow road that leads there.
[Pictured: Ascension of Christ, Garofalo, 1520]