The Sixth Sunday of Easter [C]
Acts 15:1-222-29 + Revelation 21:10-14,22-23 + John 14:23-29
“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit … will teach you everything ….”
This Sunday’s Gospel Reading is set at the Last Supper. Yet Jesus speaks in veiled terms about His Ascension to the Father, which of course took place less than seven weeks after the Last Supper. In Sunday’s Gospel Reading, we hear Jesus proclaim: “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father”. But how could we expect the apostles to rejoice over Jesus leaving them?
After His Resurrection, Jesus could have remained in Jerusalem instead of ascending to Heaven. Through His divine power, Jesus could have kept His resurrected, glorified body from ever aging, so that even today, He would still be just 33 years old. From Jerusalem He would be still ruling the earth, settling disputes, and working miracles to dispel hunger and disease.
“Would not that have been a better world?”, we might ask. Why, instead, did Jesus ascend to the Father’s Right Hand in Heaven, and establish in His stead a Church whose members have been unfaithful to the Church’s mission in every century of her history? The answer points our attention to the divine virtues of faith, hope and love.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summary of Theology, teaches that “Christ’s Ascension into Heaven, [by which] He withdrew… from us, was more profitable for us” because it can “increase our faith, which is of things unseen.” The apostle Thomas stands as a contrast to such a life of faith. Doubting Thomas would not believe until he saw the Risen Lord. Jesus calls us, instead, to fit our lives to His words: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” [John 20:29].
Likewise, “Christ’s Ascension into Heaven… was more profitable for us” because it can “uplift our hope”. We might like to imagine that the earth would be a perfect place had Jesus never ascended, remaining to guide us through this world. But it’s not for this world that Jesus became incarnate by the Virgin Mary, was crucified and rose again. Remember that while Jesus miraculously raised Lazarus from the dead, His intention was not for Lazarus to live on this earth forever. Jesus didn’t give Lazarus eternal life, but a reprieve from death.
Third, “Christ’s Ascension into Heaven… was more profitable for us” because it can “direct the fervor of our charity to heavenly things.” In other words, we need Heaven to focus all the many different forms that virtue can take. Every virtue is to culminate in the virtue of charity, and all charity is to culminate in an eternal share in God’s life in Heaven.
But here below, each of the virtues often wanders alone, degenerating into its own end. One of the great apologists of the 20th century, the English convert G. K. Chesterton, put it this way:
“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. … The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. [And so, for example,] some scientists care for truth; [but] their truth is [without pity]. [Also,] some humanitarians only care for pity; [but] their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”
In the 21st century also, we see the virtues isolated from each other. For example, there are scientists who would like to clone human beings. This search for truth is divorced from the need for ethics: specifically, from the need to respect the unique dignity of human nature. Also, there are strict federal laws in our nation protecting the eggs of certain birds that are endangered species. Yet this desire to have compassion for an innocent unborn bird is divorced by many from the need to have compassion for an innocent unborn human being.
In each such example, a desire to pursue a good is divorced from the larger picture. This leaves another, also needed virtue out in the cold. Looking to God—the Maker of all creatures and the origin of all Truth—focuses human efforts to do good, and helps us neither to do bad, nor to do good inconsistently. In our efforts to do good, we can grow in all the virtues, and open our selves more fully to the life of God the Most Holy Trinity.