Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Ascension Thursday, C
May 20, 2004
Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23 or Heb 9:24-28;10:19-23; Lk 24:46-53
1) On the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, we celebrate in a special way three things:
a) The reality of heaven where Jesus awaits us;
b) The mission he gave us with his last words as he ascended into heaven; and
c) The help he gives us to get to heaven and fulfill that mission.
We’ll focus on each of these in turn.
2) We turn our eyes first to Jesus and where he is now: heaven. Today we celebrate the day he 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. The whole point of human life is to prepare us for life with God, here in this world, and eternally with him in the next. 43 days before his Ascension, during the Last Supper, Jesus told his closest followers 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.
3) 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.
4) 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. There 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. But I think there’s a more influential cause: Too many have lost a sense of the meaning and importance of human life as a journey, either TO the eternal embrace of a God who loves us or AWAY from that loving God, a pilgrimage in one of two directions determined by our choices. And the way that has happened is what CS Lewis called one of the greatest triumphs of the devil. The devil fights to take away people’s desire for heaven not by making people desire hell — for who would ever desire hell? The Evil One is far more ingenious: he’s fights to take away people’s desire for heaven by convincing them that EVERYBODY GETS THERE.
5) My first year as a seminarian in Rome I attended a University where, I soon discovered, practically speaking everyone got an A, as long as they showed for class and didn’t do anything outrageous. The result of this was that soon, most of the students stopped working hard. They got lazy, took their easy A, and in many cases, didn’t learn much at all. This is an analogy for what the devil has tried to do in our day. He’s basically said everyone will make the eternal honor roll of the saints, no matter what they do. As long as someone is not an Adolf Hitler or Judas Iscariot, everyone else will graduate from human life with flying colors. But this is a lie from the “father of lies” (Jn 8:44). Jesus’ words in the Gospel show how this is a lie.
6) Jesus affirmed many times there are two final possibilities for a human life: one is everlasting happiness in God’s presence; the other everlasting torment in God’s absence. In his parable of the sheep and the goats, he mentioned that they will be separated at the end of time, some to eternal life, and others to eternal punishment, on the basis of their actions of love (cf. Mt 25:31-46). He said in St. Mark’s Gospel before his ascension, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:16). Jesus affirmed the same radical divergence in St. John’s Gospel, when he said, “The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [the Father’s] voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment (Jn 5:28-29).” Our moral choices, whether we have done good or evil, whether we have responded to God’s gift of love with love in return, will determine where we end up and where others end up. But most of us are good, right? Most of us will make it?
7) Once, after Jesus had spoken about the reality of heaven and the reality of hell, his disciples asked, “Are there many who are saved?” Jesus didn’t answer with a number; he didn’t answer with a percentage of those who are saved versus those who are damned; he answered with a command that they should follow to get to heaven. “Strive — struggle, make the supreme effort — to enter by the narrow door; for many will seek to enter and not be able” (Lk 13:24). Elsewhere Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13-14). Jesus implies, in terms of relative numbers, that more people are at least ON THE WAY TO HELL than to heaven. There’s a fork in the road of the life of every human being; to the left, there’s a wide, smooth, easy road going downhill, and many are on that road; on the right, there’s a thin road, a way of the Cross, going continually uphill. Each of us chooses by our actions which road we are on. Jesus tells us to strive to enter through him onto that narrow, ascending road that leads us via the Cross to heaven. He himself walked that journey and beckons us, “follow me!” But how great the sadness he must feel that not everyone is on that road.
8 ) This brings us to the second point, the mission Jesus gives us as he ascends: to be witnesses to him, to his message, to proclaim “repentance and forgiveness of sins … to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk 24:47), to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). As he was ascending into heaven, Jesus gives us a share in the mission which the Father gave him, the salvation of the world. He basically has us look at the reality that there are many people on that wide road leading to eternal perdition and says to us, “What are you going to do about it?” Jesus gives us the mission to proclaim to them, by our words, by our deeds, by our love, by our service, the Good News, call everyone to repentance, to baptism, to Jesus. This is the greatest mission we’ve ever received or will receive — a share in Jesus’ own mission. He loved us enough and he trusted us so much that he placed his own mission into our hands. He died for those on that wide road, that broad dead end, but he sends us to try to help them turn back, to get on the uphill road that leads to life. After his massive conversion from a dissolute life, St. Augustine went back to his friends and said to them, “I don’t want to be saved without you!” We’re called to do likewise.
9) Eleven years ago, one of the most powerful movies ever made was released. It was called Schindler’s List and based on the life of a nominally-Christian man in Germany during the Holocaust. His name was Oskar Schindler. He was a notorious womanizer and very greedy. When he discovered that Hitler was sending hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps, he thought that he had a chance for cheap labor. So he purchased some of them more or less to work as his slaves in his factories. One of the slaves he bought was brilliant with money and organization. Another was a pretty young woman to whom Schindler was immediately attracted. Through them, he soon realized that the people being brought to the concentration camps were not subhuman, were not slaves, were not insects to be killed industrially and incinerated, but real human beings. He had a massive conversion. And eventually he started to use all the money he had to buy Jews, not to make him money, but to save their lives. He liquidated his cash, he started to sell his property, then he put his his business interests on sale. Toward the end of the movie, he breaks down in tears because he doesn’t have any more money to buy another, to save another’s life. Eventually 1300 people made it onto Schindler’s list, the list of those Jews he bought. That number might not seem like a lot in comparison to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. But at the end of the movie, the last scene was not filmed in Hollywood or in a movie studio. It was shot in Jerusalem in a cemetery. And it didn’t have any actors in it. It had all of the children and grandchildren of those whose lives Schindler saved putting a rock on his tomb. “If you save one person, you save a nation,” they were saying. The numbers of those whose lives are owed to Schindler’s work has multiplied with each generation.
10) What does God ask of us? He wants us to become spiritual Oskar Schindlers. He tells us that there are many on the broad highway that leads to destruction, many who are heading toward a fate far worse than the human death of the concentration camps — who are heading to eternal death — and asks us, what we’re willing to do. Many in Germany did nothing during the Holocaust. But Schindler did. Many in our day are doing nothing as our people, our culture, our society are becoming more and more hostile to God. But God gives each of us the mission to proclaim his Gospel, with the money he’s given you, with the talents with which he’s blessed you, with the time he gives you in this world, and ultimately with your life, he gives you the opportunity to save those for whom he paid such a costly price. You may, over the course of your life, maybe be able only to save one person, but that person may be your spouse, or your parent, or your child. You may be able with his help to save ten, or 100, or many more. The important thing is to try. At the end of your life, you may have the same feeling that Schindler did, “If only I had done more. If only I hadn’t waited so long.” Start now.
11) To help us accomplish this mission, God has given us an incredible gift. During the Last Supper, Jesus said something startling: “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7). The Holy Spirit would be sent as tongues of fire, so that we could preach this mission with ardent love.
10) On this solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, therefore, we pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And we learn from the example of the first apostles. As soon as the Lord ascended, they went back to the Upper Room, surrounded themselves around Mary, and prayed for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Nine days later, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Those who previously were cowards and abandoned the Lord on the night he was betrayed, now gave fearless witness to him, such was the help that the Holy Spirit gave. We ask Mary to teach us how to pray, so that we might respond just as courageously. If we do this, if we live with our hearts set on the Lord, set on heaven, set on eternal life, we will be fearless. This is what gave the early martyrs the strength to bear all the tortures they suffered, because 1000 deaths were nothing compared with the joys that awaited them. If we keep our eyes on that prize, stay on that narrow, difficult, uphill road, and try to arrive in that destination with our hands and arms full of others we’ve loved back onto that way, we will be eternally embraced by the Lord in heaven, in that eternal wedding banquet of which this Eucharist is a foretaste.