The Ascension of Our Lord [A]

The Ascension of the Lord [A]
Acts 1:1-11  +  Ephesians 1:17-23  +  Matthew 28:16-20
May 28, 2017

“‘… behold, I am with you always, until the end of the world.’”

Some claim that “separation makes the heart grow fonder”.  That may on occasion be true.  But the heart growing fonder doesn’t mean that separation is easy.

On this next-to-last Sunday of the Easter Season, the Church is celebrating the Ascension of the Lord.  This feast recalls that bittersweet day, forty days following the Resurrection, when the Risen Lord rose to the Father’s Right Hand in Heaven.  On Easter Sunday, He rose from the dead to the earth, in order to spend forty days with His disciples.  Very likely, part of the Easter joy of those disciples was them believing that Jesus was back to stay:  back from the dead, in a glorified body!  Now the Messiah would rule among them forever!

At some point, of course, they realized that this sort of joy was unfounded.  Perhaps during those forty days Jesus plainly told them that He wasn’t going to rule on earth, but from Heaven.  Perhaps He told them exactly how many days He was going to remain with them.  Perhaps it wasn’t until the moment of the Lord’s Ascension that they realized He was leaving them, then and there.  Regardless of how it happened, their faith—even after the Resurrection of Jesus—had to mature further.  So does ours.  We need to purify our hearts and mind of false hopes and false joys.  We all have false hopes and false joys regarding our Faith, and regarding our spiritual lives.

On this day of the Ascension, Jesus rose from this earth to Heaven, in order to spend the rest of eternity with His Father.  But He leaves for a greater purpose.  He leaves for us:  for our sake.

The Father and the Son send forth their love to fallen man, in the Person of the Holy Spirit.  This is the Holy Spirit who descended on the Apostles at Pentecost.  This is the same Holy Spirit whom you received at your baptism and Confirmation, and in your private prayer.  This Holy Spirit is the Comforter, the Consoler, the Advocate who always pleads our cause.  Reflect on how important the Holy Spirit is in your spiritual life.

Sacred Scripture helps us in this regard.  Scripture gives us several concrete images to imagine what the mysterious Holy Spirit is like.  Three of those images from Sacred Scripture are:  fire, wind, and water.

All three of these bear certain qualities in common:  qualities which the Holy Spirit bears.  All three of these—fire, wind, and water—are not solid in nature.  You might say that each of them is very fluid.  None of them can be “pinned down”.  Jesus had to explain to Nicodemus:  “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”[1]

We here in Kansas know all about the wind.  The wind cannot be known, either in regard to where it comes from, or where it goes.  Of course, a man of science might say that with technology meteorologists can trace air currents with great accuracy.  But ask a meteorologist where exactly the wind that blows today against your house will be just a week from now, and you can bet the farm that his answer will be wrong.  Like they say, being a weatherman is the only job where you can be wrong more than half the time and still not get fired.  In other words, even science has its limits.

We can listen to the Scriptures and learn where and how the Holy Spirit has worked throughout salvation history.  We can go on a retreat, and be guided by a spiritual director, and trace the lines of the Holy Spirit throughout our own lives.  But we cannot predict where the Holy Spirit will lead us.

By contrast, we can lead ourselves wherever we want.  We can control our lives as strictly as we wish.  But the Holy Spirit can act like a tornado if He wishes and upset all our plans.  As the saying goes, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray.

We want to be able to chart, schedule, fix and determine our lives.  But the Holy Spirit doesn’t work like that.  Too many of us are Type-A personalities.  But the Holy Spirit most often is not just a Type-B personality, but a type-Z personality:  “Z” as in “zoo”, like the ark of Noah that floated on the raging seas, which resembles our lives at times.  That’s the ark that was buffeted by howling wind, until finally calm came, and a dove appeared to assure Noah of solid ground (the dove, of course, being another symbol of the Holy Spirit).

Another quality that fire, wind and water bear in common is more complex.  Fire, wind and water can all nurture life, but they can also destroy life.  The most obvious in this regard is water.  The example of Noah dramatically reveals the devastation that water can cause, as does the example of Moses at the Red Sea.  But the Exodus through the desert also illustrates the life-giving nature of water.  As Israel wanders through a desert, Moses strikes the rock at Horeb, and water gushes from the rock.  In our Christian Tradition, the symbolism of Baptism reveals that baptismal grace destroys sin while also bestowing new life as a child of God, and as a member of the Church.

Death and life are always two sides of the same coin.  The Great Flood destroyed all of mankind, with the exception of Noah and his family, the remnant through whom man would again live.  At the Red Sea, the Egyptians were destroyed just as Israel gained a life free from slavery.  On Calvary, Jesus sacrificed His life, so that you could have the opportunity to enter into His Father’s life in Heaven.

Fire, wind and water can both nurture as well as destroy life.  Perhaps the most mysterious in this regard is fire.  In the Old Testament, one of the earliest stories in which fire is key is also one of the more mysterious:  the narrative of Moses and the Burning Bush.  That fire does not destroy life, but only gives life, by revealing the Most Holy Name of God:  “I Am Who Am”.[2]

However, ordinary fire does in fact destroy.  Even here, though, nature reveals to us an important truth about the Catholic Faith.  The Old Testament’s Wisdom literature often speaks of this truth.  In Psalm 12, for example, the Church proclaims that “The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace… purified seven times.”[3]  In Proverbs, this same image is applied to sinful man:  “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tries hearts.”[4]  Likewise, we often hear at funerals from the Book of Wisdom, which says this about the righteous dead:  “Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them, and found them worthy of Himself.  As gold in the furnace, He proved them, and as sacrificial offerings He took them to Himself.”[5]

All these passages are speaking about the purity that the Holy Spirit brings about in sinful man.  Our Catholic Faith puts a lot of emphasis on this truth, that the Christian who walks this earth is in constant need of spiritual purgation.  In God, purity is His by His very nature.  But for us sinners, the spiritual life demands purification in the way that fire purifies gold.  In this specific image of fire purifying gold, the fire brings death of a sort, and life of a sort, at the very same time:  the impurities inside the gold are burned up, leaving the gold more like gold, more itself.  Likewise, our souls and bodies are purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Our fallen selves fall away, and the original Image and likeness of God in which He created us come more to the fore.

During Holy Mass, the Church prays about how God accomplishes all this.  A few minutes after the homily, within what’s called the “Preface” to the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest prays on the feast of the Ascension that Jesus Christ “ascended, not to distance Himself from our lowly state / but that we, His members, might be confident of following / where He, our Head and Founder, has gone before.”  We might wonder:  what in the world does all that mean?

This preface calls Jesus “our Head and Founder”.  He is the Head of the Church.  The Church is the Body of Christ, and Christ is the Head of the Church.  So Jesus ascended for our sake, “not to distance Himself from” us, “but that we, [the] members [of His Body], might be confident of following” Him.  But to where are we to follow Him?  The obvious answer might seem to be Heaven:  Jesus ascended to Heaven, and in due time, if we live our earthly lives in Christ, then each of us will follow Jesus to Heaven after our death.

That’s the obvious answer.  But there’s also an another answer:  one that puts the Ascension of Jesus within the perspective of the entire Easter Season.  Jesus has left us so that someone else can come to us.  That “someone else” is the Holy Spirit.

Jesus leaves us so that we can accept the Holy Spirit.  It’s the Holy Spirit who binds together all the various members of the Body of Christ.  It’s the Holy Spirit through whom we’re united with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, to form one Mystical Body.  And through this Mystical Body of Christ—through us who are His members, bound to each other by the Holy Spirit—Christ walks this earth in a new manner.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is no longer limited to working miracles in the Holy Land.  He no longer is limited to proclaiming the Good News to those within earshot.  Through the members of His Mystical Body, the Gospel can spread to the ends of the earth, and His Mystical Body can become a universal—a “catholic”—Church:  not limited to one tribe or nation, language or people.

Of course, that might sound lofty compared to the lives that you and I lead.  Our lives our simple.  We may occasionally travel, but most of our lives are spent within a fairly small radius, and we interact with the same people week in and week out.  Nonetheless, these people who are in our daily and weekly life are those whom Christ wants us to work with, as fellow members of Christ’s Body.  It’s in our love for them, and in working alongside them, that the love of God and love of neighbor are wedded.

In your own life, it’s through the Power of the Holy Spirit that you can love your neighbor by seeing Christ in him and her.  Next Sunday on Pentecost, we celebrate the Holy Spirit’s descent into our midst.  So between now and then, ask Jesus to open your heart more fully to the work He has for you within His Church.

[1] John 3:7-8.

[2] Exodus 3:14.

[3] Psalm 12:6.

[4] Proverbs 17:3.

[5] Wisdom 3:5-6.