Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, New York, NY
Solemnity of the Ascension
May 14, 2015
Acts 1:1-11, Ps 47, Eph 1:17-23, Mk 16:15-20
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
Year of Consecrated Life
The Year for Consecrated Life we are marking this year is meant to influence everything the Church does and celebrates during this ecclesiastical holy year and therefore this year’s celebration of the Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension is meant to be unique, insofar as it is taking place during the Year of Consecrated Life in the history of the Church. Today what I’d like to do is to focus on three different ways that today’s Solemnity sheds light on the meaning of the consecrated life and the three related ways in which those of us consecrated to the Lord by baptism — or through the “more intimate consecration” of religious life — are meant to bear witness to the mysteries we celebrate on this day.
Eschatological Desire and Living
The first mystery is the eschatological dimension of the consecrated life, that consecrated men and women — and all of us who have been baptized — are supposed to be eschatological signs, signs of God’s eternal kingdom, of heaven, of eternity. The consecrated life is characterized, as the Vatican said in a 2008 document, by Psalm 27, “Your face, O Lord, I seek.” We’re called to see the face of the Lord looking on us forever with love. What we celebrate today is, in a sense, a foretaste of the fulfillment of that longing. The first thing we mark today as we reflect on Jesus’ return to the Father’s House is the reality of heaven. Today we celebrate the day Jesus returned home, to the place from which he came to earth to save us. He returned differently than he left, taking our human nature with him across the threshold of death into life. But we also celebrate the fact that Jesus awaits us there. 43 days before his Ascension, during the Last Supper, Jesus told us about this connection between his Ascension and our assumption. He said, “I am going to the Father, … the one who sent me” (Jn 14:17, 16:5). But he also said, “You have faith in God, have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Heaven is the place where Christ has prepared for us so that we might rejoice with him forever. Jesus often spoke about the great joy of heaven. He took his contemporaries’ most popular celebration — an eight-day sumptuous wedding banquet — and used it time and again to describe the unending joy of the eternal wedding banquet (Mt 22, Mt 25, Lk 12, Rev 19, Rev 21). St. Paul and Isaiah affirm that “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor the human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9; Is 64:4). This is what St. Paul prayed that the Ephesians realize in today’s second reading, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” Heaven is our hope. Heaven is our glorious inheritance. But it’s a hope and an inheritance to which we’re “called.” To obtain it, we have to respond to that call, by following Christ the Lord all the way, through a life of faith in him, in imitation of the love with which he loved us. And that begins with our desire. Our focus on Jesus’ Ascension, not just today but every few days when we pray the Glorious mysteries of the Rosary, is meant to stoke our desire. We heard St. Paul tell us on Easter Sunday: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:1-2). We are called to seek the things that are above, to hunger for heaven, for God, for eternity. That’s what you do in a particular way through living well the evangelical counsels, proclaiming to the world respectively through your poverty, obedience and chastity where you and all of us find our true treasure, our true freedom and true love. This Solemnity of the Ascension is meant to stoke our desire for Christ’s face, to see him with the eyes of our heart enlightened. We prayed in the opening prayer today that Christ’s Ascension may give us hope for our following him all the way: “For the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation, and, where the Head has gone before us in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.”
How need is this eschatological dimension of the consecrated life, to help the whole world to desire God, for being with him forever. There are many people today who have lost a hunger for heaven. One reason for this is because many have become too caught in things of this world — either its pleasures or its various problems — and cease to lift up their heads to God. Their eyes are so much caught up in the “junk food” of this world that they no longer enkindle their appetite for the sumptuous eternal wedding banquet. One of the greatest plagues of modern Christianity, Pope-emeritus Benedict said seven years ago in his encyclical Spe Salvi is that not many — and not enough Catholics — are living with this eschatological hope. Few Catholics really are focused on it. He vividly described how earthly attachments constitute one of the biggest obstacles to Christian faith and life today: “The question arises,” he poignantly asked: “Do we really want … to live eternally?” He answered, “Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment.” We focus so much on “lesser hopes” of every day that we lose sight of the “great hope” of heaven. We lose a hunger, a taste for eternal life. Our horizons remain horizontal not vertical. This lesser hopes are not bad, the Pope says, but even the best of them are insufficient. “We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.”
This type of desire for heaven is what helps a Christian really live and proclaim the Good News, especially in the midst of difficulties and hardship. A certainty of the reality of heaven if we follow Jesus faithfully is what can give us great joy on earth. This is what gave joy to the martyrs even while suffering torture. This is what gives us the courage to face the pain of hospitalization and terminal diagnoses and diseases. To use the image of the Letter to the Hebrews, the ascended Jesus is like the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” tossed into heaven that gives us hope in the midst of the storms of life. We know that nothing — tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword or death — can to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We know that everything works out for the good. A real ardent hope and desire for heaven provides us with a joy that the world can’t give or rob. If it can give joy to the martyrs, then it can help us keep our cheerfulness no matter what we have to endure. The solemnity of the Lord’s ascension is a time for all of us who love Christ to be inflamed with the desire to be with him forever in the kingdom of love and become eschatological signs the eyes of whose hearts are always seeking an eternal treasure.
Fulfilling The Great Commission
The second aspect of the consecrated life that this Solemnity accentuates is mission. By our consecration, we are cut off from worldliness in order to be united with God, but once we really are in union, he draws us out with him, to share in his mission of the salvation of the world. On this Feast we hear Jesus’ valedictory address, the great commission he gives us as he is ascending. “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation,” in which he tells us, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus loved us enough and he trusted us so much that he placed his own mission into our hands. He could have chosen to remain on earth and done all the work of the salvation of the human race himself. But he didn’t. He ascended. And in doing so, he took the training wheels off of our Christian life. He wanted to send us just as the Father had sent him in order to bring others to happiness, holiness and heaven.
In the Acts of the Apostles in the first reading today, the two angels ask the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Seeking the things that are above doesn’t mean statically looking up to heaven. The angels were helping the apostles to realize that the way they seek the things that are above is through the fulfillment of the earthly mission Christ has given them. But it’s worth asking: What is this witness they were called to give, that we’re called to give, to the ends of the earth, beginning in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our schools. What does it mean to be a disciple and to make disciples of all the nations? Pope-emeritus Benedict answered these questions in the second part of his great three-volume work Jesus of Nazareth, published a couple of years ago. He said that they were to be witnesses not just of what he taught. Not just of what he did. But that he was alive.
“First and foremost,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “they bore witness to the fact that he is alive now, that he is Life itself, in whom, we too, come alive.” But then he goes on to ask, “But how can this be? Where do we find him? Is he, the risen Lord, now exalted at the right hand of God, not for that reason completely absent? He’s with them at the right hand of God. He’s with them in a new way. “Ascension does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but, rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.” “Because Jesus is with the Father, he has not gone away but remains close to us. Now he is no longer in one particular place in the world as he had been before the Ascension. Now, through his power of over space, he is present and accessible to all — throughout history and in every place. “In our current existence, we are already ‘raised’ with him at the Father’s right hand. If we enter fully into the essence of our Christian life, then we really do touch the risen Lord, then we really do become fully ourselves. Touching Christ and ascending belong together. And let us not forget that for John the place of Christ’s exaltation is his Cross and that our own ever-necessary ascension, our going up on high in order to touch him, has to be traveled in company with the crucified Jesus. …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. And 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 self-enclosed isolation to the new dimension of world-embracing divine love.” Our heart is supposed to be ascended even here. It’s supposed to travel the exodus from the self toward the world-expansive love of God that has been poured into our heart. Our heart is where our treasure is and our treasure is supposed to be in the love of God and the love of others. Our journey is to be with the crucified Jesus who gave of himself to the end.
Thirty years ago, in 1985, then Cardinal Ratzinger gave a radio address in his native Bavaria. In it he stressed this connection between Christ’s Ascension and our commission to proclaim Christ’s Gospel by deeds of love. He focused on the “delightfully naïve pictures” of the Ascension in which the disciples are looking upward as Jesus is passing through the clouds and all we see are Jesus’ feet. These are the feet, he says, that the women wanted to grasp onto after the Resurrection. Pope Benedict said we need to recognize his feet and reverence them in disguise in the feet around us as we follow Christ’s example of washing the feet of others just as he cleansed the apostles’ feet in the upper room. “The true ascent of mankind,” he said in that radio address, “takes place precisely when a man learns to turn in humility to another person, bowing deeply at his feet in the position of one who would wash the feet of the other. It is only in the humility that knows how to bow down that can raise a person up.” In order to ascend, we need first to descend humbly in acts of love. That love is shown in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. That is the particular form of mission Christ sends us to the end of the earth to accomplish. That’s what you’re carrying out, Sisters, when you care for women who are pregnant and often afraid.
The Perfection of Christ’s and Our Consecration
The third aspect of the consecrated life that we mark on this Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension is how the Lord seeks to help us to live as eschatological signs on mission precisely by uniting us to his own consecration. The Letter to the Hebrews describes that Jesus “took his seat forever at the right hand of God [and in so doing] has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated” (Heb 10:12-14). Jesus’ ascension is meant to be the perfection of our consecration because it was the perfection of his consecration into which we entered through our baptism. As we seek to love each other, to wash the feet of others, to bring them not just the words of the Gospel but the love of the Gospel, we are not acting alone. We are entering into Jesus’ love, his service, his proclamation. And Jesus is constantly helping us to do this. We see in Christ’s gesture as he is ascending. St. Luke tells us, “Then he led them out as far as Bethany and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven.”
Pope Benedict comments on this gesture: “Jesus departs in the act of blessing. He goes while blessing, and he remains in that gesture of blessing. His hands remain, stretched out over this world. The blessing hands of Christ are like a roof that protects us. But at the same time, they are a gesture of opening up, tearing the world open so that heaven may enter in, may become “present” within it. The gesture of hands outstretched in blessing expresses Jesus’ continuing relationship to his disciples, to the world. In departing, he comes to us, in order to raise us up above ourselves and to open up the world to God. That is why the disciples could return home from Bethany rejoicing. In faith we know that Jesus holds his hands stretched out in blessing over us. That is the lasting motive of Christian joy.” Jesus is continually blessing us. He is blessing us when we wake up in the morning. He’s blessing us as we do our work. He’s blessing us in our homes and family life. He’s blessing us when we eat. He’s blessing us in hard times. He’s blessing us right now. He’s blessing us always. And through his hands raised in blessing, he’s seeking to transforms us into his consecrated hands, into his enfleshed benediction of the world. St. Teresa of Avila famously said, “Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.” Today on this Solemnity of the Ascension Jesus wants to help us to enter ever more deeply into the perfection of his own consecration, which is the point of this whole holy Year.
There is no greater way that Jesus blesses us than here at Mass, as he continues to speak to us and most importantly continues to be with us blessing us from the inside with his own life, allowing us to receive his risen and ascended Body and Blood, which is our participation here on earth in his ascension even now. Jesus pointed to the Ascension when he was describing his continued presence in the Eucharist until the end of time. When his disciples were mumbling in Capernaum about how he could give us his flesh to eat and blood to drink, he said, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending to where he was before?” Living a truly Eucharistic life, entering into Jesus’ consecration in the Mass, is the path of our Ascension. “Amen, amen I say to you, … he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day,” because “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.… He who eats me will live because of me.” Eternal life is knowing Christ Jesus, and we know him in a Biblical way through the consummation of the one-flesh spousal union between Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the Church here at Mass. This is also the means in which we stoke our desire to see Christ’s face as we Behold the Lamb of God lifted high. This is the means by which we become ever more eschatological signs as we “await the Blessed hope and the [second] coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” This is the means in which, united with Christ, we are sent out by him with his blessing at the end of the liturgy, to “go and announce the Gospel of the Lord!”
The Daily Ascension
As we prepare to receive in mere moments Jesus’ ascended body and blood, we ask Him to fill us with a great desire for heaven, to seek the things that are above as we now lift up our hearts, while at the same time committing ourselves to be his witnesses, to be his presence, to be his hands in the midst of the world so that we, filled with joy at his Ascension, may help others to share our Christian hope and come to receive his blessing forever in that kingdom to which Jesus ascended today and in which he has prepared a place for us!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 ACTS 1:1-11
I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them
by many proofs after he had suffered,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While meeting with them,
he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for “the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptized with water,
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”When they had gathered together they asked him,
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, “Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
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.”
Responsorial Psalm PS 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
All you peoples, clap your hands,
shout to God with cries of gladness,
For the LORD, the Most High, the awesome,
is the great king over all the earth.
R. God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.
God mounts his throne amid shouts of joy;
the LORD, amid trumpet blasts.
Sing praise to God, sing praise;
sing praise to our king, sing praise.
R. God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.
For king of all the earth is God;
sing hymns of praise.
God reigns over the nations,
God sits upon his holy throne.
R. God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.
Reading 2 EPH 1:17-23
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation
resulting in knowledge of him.
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
what are the riches of glory
in his inheritance among the holy ones,
and what is the surpassing greatness of his power
for us who believe,
in accord with the exercise of his great might,
which he worked in Christ,
raising him from the dead
and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,
far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion,
and every name that is named
not only in this age but also in the one to come.
And he put all things beneath his 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.
Alleluia MT 28:19A, 20B
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Go and teach all nations, says the Lord;
I am with you always, until the end of the world.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel MK 16:15-20
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Go into the whole world
and proclaim the gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them,
was taken up into heaven
and took his seat at the right hand of God.
But they went forth and preached everywhere,
while the Lord worked with them
and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.