Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Ascension of the Lord, Year C
May 24, 2001
Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20
1) This Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord into heaven leads us to celebrate several things. First and foremost, we celebrate the fact of heaven. There is a heaven. Jesus ascended their body, soul and divinity. He ascended to the right hand of the Father, where he not only intercedes for us, but where he has also prepared a place for us. As Jesus said during the Last Supper, “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, which is Jesus’ destiny, he has made our own destiny, provided we gratefully embrace that reality and live as citizens of heaven. Jesus by his resurrection and ascension has opened the gates to heaven and prepared us a place there. What an inheritance, which is ours to accept!
2) The second reason why we celebrate tonight is because of what his Ascension allows in terms of our progression in the faith. During the Last Supper, Jesus said, “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.” Jesus says it is better for us that he go, so that he can send the Holy Spirit to finish the good work he has begun in us.
3) At first glance, let’s be honest, it almost would seem absurd that Jesus would say such a thing. How could it be better, ever, that Jesus leave us? Jesus, however, knew it was necessary for him to leave, because he called us not just to follow him, but so that he could send us out. He wanted our relationship with him to be based not just on his physical presence, but on the spiritual reality of his abiding in us, his working in and through us. In order for us to enter into a deeper relationship with Jesus, we needed a physical separation in order to focus on his spiritual presence guiding us through the Spirit. Paradoxically, in order to follow his footsteps all the way, in order to allow Jesus to enter into us ever more, his physical presence had to be taken away. This was the only way we could become truly His mystical body, carrying out his mission — as we hear in the Gospel — to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation.” As St. Theresa of Avila said, “Christ has no hands on earth now but yours to care for those in need, no feet on earth but yours to bring the good news to others, no tongue to proclaim God’s love, no ears to listen patiently to those who need to talk. Christ ascended into heaven so that we could become more fully like him here on earth.
4) But we cannot do this just under our own power. It’s the action of the Holy Spirit whom God the Father and God the Son promised to send to carry out this work of us. Jesus said it was better for us to go so that the Holy Spirit would come to us. He also said the Holy Spirit would do several things:
a) Be with us forever
b) Teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus said to us.
c) Testify on behalf of Jesus, to us and through us to others. He says, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”
d) Prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgment.
5) The Holy Spirit will be with us forever to teach us everything and remind us of all Jesus taught us. Jesus, as I preached over the weekend, did not micromanage the Church, giving us a 6000 page handbook to answer all of our questions and difficulties over the course of the centuries, but gave us the principles in his words and in his actions that the Holy Spirit will start from to lead us to all truth in every subject that comes up regarding the faith. That action is not just so that we’ll know everything, but so that we, with the Holy Spirit, will give witness to Jesus, to the fact that this is not just “good news,” like the Red Sox beat the Yankees, but the Greatest News Ever told, that Jesus has risen from the dead and this changes everything. To do that, we really need the last thing Jesus mentions about the Holy Spirit’s action after the Ascension, that he would prove the world wrong about sin, about righteousness and about judgment.
6) These three elements are crucial, because they establish the true boundaries for our faith here on earth, the genuine foundations of who we are, who God is, and how we relate. The first of the three is that the Holy Spirit proves the world wrong about sin. Unless we recognize we’re sinners, we don’t need Jesus. Unless we recognize we’ve sinned against God, we don’t need the Lord to save us from our sins. Jesus might become a good teacher, or a friend, or a brother, but Jesus didn’t come down from heaven to be principally any of these things; Jesus came down from heaven to save us from our sins. For us truly to take Jesus seriously, for who he is, the God who loved us so much that he came down from heaven, suffered for us, was hammered to a tree out of love for us, then rose and ascended body and soul to heaven, we have to recognize how desperately we needed Jesus to save us from our sins. Without his action, our destiny wouldn’t be heaven at all, where he is with the Father, but eternal death. The world, as Jesus said about his time 2000 years ago, and which is still current today, doesn’t believe in sin, particularly moral sin. We live in a day of the “self-esteem,” “I’m a good person” heresy. People can be irritable, angry, envious, commit all types of sins, but if they gave $2 at Christmas to the Salvation Army collector outside the Supermarket think “I’m a good person.” The Holy Spirit’s first action is to convince the world it’s wrong about sin, that all of us, who were created good by God in the beginning, have indeed sinned, sinned often and our sins have had terrible consequences.
7) Secondly, once the Holy Spirit has convinced us of the “bad news,” that we are sinners who sins ultimately killed the Lord, did terrible damage to us, and terrible damage to others and to the world, the Holy Spirit’s mission is to convince us of righteousness, of salvation, that Christ has indeed come and saved us from these sins. We’re forgiven! The depth of our sorrow for our sins is surpassed by the extraordinary heights of gratitude and love for God who has done so much for us. On the day of our baptism, we died in Christ and he rose again in us to new life. The sacraments are all means in which we allow the Lord to continue his action of salvation in us, inserting us into his life, death and resurrection. So our sins, our failings, our frail human nature isn’t the end of the story; the story continues with the fact that God loved us so much — that we were so precious to him — that he traded his only begotten Son’s life for ours. That all of human life, with all its difficulties and Crosses and sufferings, has a point to it, because Christ has redeemed it all.
8) But that isn’t the end of the Holy Spirit’s mission. There is that great news, but Jesus says the Holy Spirit will be sent to convince us about judgment as well. Each of us will be judged on how we respond in faith to this gift of the Lord. How we carry out the Lord’s mission. Many in the world, including many in the Church, think we’re all bound for heaven. God loves us so much that no matter what we do here on earth, whether we’re like Mother Teresa or like Adolf Hitler, we’re all going to heaven because God loves us. God does love us, but he loves us so much that he created us with freedom, and respects our freedom, even when we use that freedom to reject his awesome gift of salvation. And some do. Some never “open” the gift but just leave it like an unopened box. Some push the box into the corner while they put their treasure in so many other things, in themselves, in money, in booze, in sex, in work.
9) The Holy Spirit’s mission to convince us about judgment is not meant to scare us! It’s meant to inspire us always to prepare ourselves for that judgment by following the crystally-clear instructions Jesus left us, to respond by keeping his double-commandment to love God and love our neighbor with all we’ve got. Jesus gave us the criteria on the final exam of life. This is a great gift of the Lord, just like when a teacher in school tells his students exactly what will be on their final exam. That way there don’t have to be any surprises and they can prepare themselves well. Jesus says, “When the Son of Man comes in all of his glory to judge, he will separate the dead into two groups, on the basis of their actions of love. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you comforted me.” Those on the right, those who are saved, will ask the Lord, “When did we do all of this for you?” And Jesus will reply, “I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers and sisters, you did it for me.” To those on his left, he’ll send them off to eternal perdition, because when he was in need in any of these ways, they didn’t lift a finger to help him. Jesus didn’t give an exhaustive list here of deeds of love, but he did say he takes every action personally.
10) There’s a story that gripping Canada right now. A week ago in Montreal, a 16-year old girl who had been stripped, sexually assaulted and beaten, was thrown out of a van on the sidewalk in downtown Montreal. She had no pants on and just a simple shirt. She was writhing on the sidewalk. People saw her there from the office building immediately above her. What did the office employees there do? They thought she was just some drug addict, so they left her alone. The people in the office across the street saw her there. Some wanted to call the police, but their boss commanded them not to get involved, because they were on work time and he didn’t want them wasting time talking to the cops. Countless people passed her on the streets, but no one did anything. She lay there, in the cold, for two hours. Finally one of the women in the office complex across the street, at the risk of losing her job, called the police. They rushed the poor girl to the hospital, where because of all the delay in getting her treatment, she fell into a coma and her doctors don’t expect her to make it. What do you think Jesus would say to all of them who abandoned him in time of need? Jesus says he came into the world to save, not to judge, but that our actions judge us. What do our actions say? If our actions aren’t what Jesus would be doing, if our priorities aren’t his, thanks be to God the Holy Spirit is calling us tonight to convert again back to the Lord so that one day we might come to experience the fullness of the Kingdom he died to give us and sent the Holy Spirit to help us obtain.
11) Jesus’ Ascension into heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church until the end of time are both great gifts of God the Father to help us return to our Father’s House. At this Mass, on this solemnity, All three persons of the Blessed Trinity are at work to sanctify us on this journey. At the beginning of Mass, we confess our sins. Then we praise God for his glory in the Glory to God in the Highest. We carry out the Lord’s command, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to “do this in memory of” Him, and then we’re sent out, with God’s blessing (just as he did before he ascended from among the apostles) to go out to the whole world, to go out to the whole Flint, in peace to love and serve the Lord.