Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Ascension of the Lord, Year B
May 29, 2003
Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 16:15-20
1) On the feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we celebrate remember in a special way three things:
a) Jesus and the reality of heaven
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) The first thing we focus on is Jesus and where he is now heaven. During the Last Supper, Jesus foretold his ascension, when he said that he was going to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house so that where he is we also may be. He promised that he would come back to take us to where he is. He spoke often 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. 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.” Heaven will far exceed our greatest earthly joy and that joy, that the kingdom of love, that communion with God and with all are loved ones who are in heaven, will last forever.
3) Today we celebrate that reality and that calling, that place Jesus prepared for us and from where he awaits us. This is one of the three days of the year — the other two are Mary’s Assumption and All Saints’ Day — when we are called to focus explicitly on heaven and enkindle our desires for it. But for many, this isn’t much of a celebration. Many don’t even come to fête this fact. Many others who do come, don’t really celebrate at Mass. Why is this? I think the reason goes to the heart of one of the most successful campaigns of the devil in the last few decades. The devil has taken away people’s desire for heaven, not, of course, by making people desire hell. In fact, it’s much more ingenious than that. He’s taken away people’s desire for heaven by convincing them that EVERYBODY GETS THERE.
4) I remember when I was a student in Rome. I ended up going to three different universities. When I arrived at the first one, I discovered that it was the type of place that basically everyone got an A. As long as you showed up for class and really didn’t do anything outrageous, you ended up with an A. What was the result? Basically almost everybody stopped working hard. It didn’t matter what you did, whether you worked hard or not, you ended up with the same grade. The only people who continued to give 100% were those who had an inner drive really to learn for learning’s sake, to learn for the Lord. But most people got lazy, took their easy A, and in many cases, didn’t learn a thing. The devil’s strategy to zap people’s desire for heaven has capitalized on that dynamic. He’s convinced people that everyone is going to heaven, whether you live a really good life or whether you do the absolute minimum. He’s convinced people that unless they’re a serial killer, unless they’re an Adolf Hitler or a Judas Iscariot, they’re going to go to heaven. This has zapped the desire for heaven from way too many people, and really only those who are driven like a Mother Teresa, or a Pope, or a particularly zealous priest, or nun or lay person strives anymore to give God everything, a 100% of our mind, heart, soul and strength. But this is a lie from the Father of Lies. Jesus’ words in the Gospel show how this is a lie.
5) Jesus clearly affirms that there are two final possibilities for human existence: one is everlasting happiness in God’s presence; the other everlasting torment in God’s absence. How many go to one place, how many to the other? Once the disciples asked the Lord that question. “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.” 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.” 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; on the right, there’s a thin road, a way of the Cross, going continually uphill. Each of us has to choose which road to be on. Jesus tells us to strive to enter through him onto that narrow, ascending road that leads us through the Cross to heaven. Jesus tells us at the end of time, when he comes on the clouds of heaven escorted by his angels to judge the living and the dead, he will separate them into two groups. To those on his right, those who are saved, he will say, “Come, O you blessed of my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of time. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, naked, ill, a stranger, in prison, etc., and you took care of me.” Jesus will judge us on how we loved him in others. To those on his left, those who are damned, Jesus will say, “Depart from me, you accursed, you wicked, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was in need and you never lifted a finger to help me.” Two types of living one’s life. Two radically opposed destinies. And more are going downhill than up with Jesus. 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.” Our moral choices, whether we have done good or evil, will determine where we end up and where others end up. But we have nothing to fear here, because even though Jesus said the way is hard, the way is also clear. He’s told us everything we need to do to enter into life, and he who died on the Cross for us will give us all the help we need, but he won’t choose for us, he won’t drag us up hill. We need to start on the journey, and we need to bring companions on that journey.
6) This brings us to the second point, the mission Jesus gives us as he ascends. Listen to him again give us our marching orders: Jesus said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” He reaffirms the point above about the role of our choices in our eternal destiny: those who believe in the Lord, in who he is, in what he says, and enter into his life through the sacraments and live that life, they will be saved; those who refuse to believe will be condemned. As he’s 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 destruction 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 them to repentance, to baptism, to Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life. This is the greatest mission we’ve ever received or will receive, a share in his own. 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, but he sends us to try to help them turn back, to get on the uphill road that leads to life.
7) About ten years back, one of the greatest movies ever made was released. It was called Schindler’s list and it was about a nominally-Christian man in Germany during the Holocaust. His name was Oskar Schindler. He was a 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 bought a few hundred 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 whom Schindler had the hots for. Eventually he realized that the people being brought to the concentration camps were not subhuman, were not slaves, were insects to be killed industrially and incinerated, but real human beings. He had a massive conversion. And eventually Schindler started to use all the money he had to buy Jews, not to make him money, but to save their lives. Eventually he started to liquidate his cash, then his property, then his business interests. 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 — if my memory serves me correctly — about 3000 people made it onto Schindler’s list, the list of those Jews he bought. That number might not seem like a lot in relation 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.
8 ) 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 people, our culture, our society is becoming more and more hostile to God. But God gives you 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.
9) Now we turn to the last point. God knows that such a mission exceeds are capacities. God didn’t want us to do it alone. Hence Jesus gave us an incredible gift. During the Last Supper, Jesus said something startling: “It is good for you that I go.” Huh? Good for you that I go? Most of us would think it would be better for Jesus to have stayed in the world, to continue his work of salvation personally. We’ll eventually fail; he won’t. But Jesus, who cannot lie, told us that it was better for us that he go, so that the Father and he could send us the gift of the Holy Spirit. Imagine how great a gift this must be if Jesus said it’s better for us that he go. Jesus ascended to heaven on this day so that the Holy Spirit would be sent into our hearts to help us fulfill this mission. God the Father’s plan didn’t end with Jesus’ incarnation, when Jesus became Emmanuel, God-with-us. God the Father’s ultimate plan was to have Jesus ascend to the place from which he had descended and then to have the Holy Spirit descend upon us, not to be God-with-us, but God-IN-us. The Holy Spirit would dwell within us as in a temple, like in this tabernacle, like in this Church. We were to become the temples of the Holy Spirit, through, with and in whom we would carry out this mission of giving witness to Jesus, who is the Good News, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and the Way, the Truth and the Life. As we celebrate in the Sacrament of Confirmation, which literally means “strengthening,” the Holy Spirit strengthens us so that we may faithfully fulfill this great mission Jesus gave us as he ascended.
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, and perhaps here on earth, others will come to our tombs, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those whose souls we’ve helped to save and leave on them not just rocks, but TEARS of love.