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The Ascension of the Lord
May 28, 2017

Click here to listen to this homily! (mp4 file)

    I like the little story about a teacher who asked her class of nine-year-olds to draw a picture of the Ascension. She got some fairly predictable results: Jesus floating up in the clouds, high above earth, defying the laws of gravity. But one kid came up with something a bit more imaginative. His ascending Jesus looked for all the world like a rocket blasting off into space, afterburners blazing. And on the side of his flowing garment the kid had written the word NASA!  When he presented his creative effort to his classmates, he told them, “The Ascension was a real blast!” And his classmates responded, “Awesome!”

     Our personal images of the Ascension may lack that awesome rocket reference, but Jesus probably still cruises like an orbiter as we watch him piercing the heavens. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But gazing up into the heavens isn’t the whole story of this great feast. There are really three directions in which we are asked to look as we celebrate the Ascension. We are to look up, yes; but we are also to look in, and also out.

     The “looking up” part comes naturally.  With the disciples of Jesus on top of the Mount of Olives, our eyes today are firmly fixed on the heavens where Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father.  His ascension gives the finishing touch to his resurrection.  The Ascension “mission accomplished” for Jesus.

     The mission had begun when he embraced our human condition by becoming one of us, taking on our flesh and blood, traveling our roads, experiencing our pains, feeling our fears, embracing our limitations even to the point of undergoing death itself. And just when death had seemed to get the last word, God spoke an even more powerful word. And when he did, death gave up its grip on the lifeless body of Jesus, and he burst forth from the tomb radiant with new life. Forty days later, he returned to his Father where he intercedes for all of us. Ascension is about looking up, then: looking up to heaven where Christ, gloriously triumphant, is our hope and our joy.

     But looking up to heaven is not enough.  There is work to be done right here.  As someone once put it, we can’t afford to be so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good! And that’s where looking inward and looking outward come in.

      First, looking inward. The great St. Augustine, in a homily for this feast, had this lovely way of putting it: “Christ ascended before the apostles’ eyes, and they turned back grieving, only to find him in their hearts.” St. Paul, in today’s reading from Ephesians, speaks of looking with “the eyes of our hearts” -- coming to see the Christ who dwells within us by faith, awakening to the ways God’s grace is working within us right now, coming to know the hope that is ours, the “surpassing greatness of God’s power for us who believe,” (St. Paul’s words again).  The eyes of the heart are able, in times of pain and darkness and grief, to see, however dimly, the hand of a mysterious but loving God at work. Only the eyes of the heart can make sense out of life’s most perplexing mysteries. That’s why we look inward.

     Lastly, the Ascension gets us to look outward.  We are not only to meet the Christ who dwells within, we are also to take that same Christ out into the world where we live. “Go, make disciples of all nations,” Jesus told his disciples in today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel. He says the same to us. We don’t get the luxury of standing still gazing at the heavens any more than the disciples on top of the Mount of Olives did.  There is work to be done, a world to be transformed, a gospel to be preached, and we are the preachers.  We are the preachers.

      The Ascension reminds us that we who follow Christ are called to look outwards and to go outwards, to leave our comfort zone and plant the seeds of the Gospel in the soil of this world: soil that can be quite hostile to the Gospel, or at least indifferent to it.  We are called as Church to go to places where we are not always welcome and to proclaim good news that doesn’t always sound very good – certainly not to a culture with slim interest in the transcendent, a culture with eyes mostly for the here and now.

     My friends, the Ascension of Christ calls us to embrace the gospel of Jesus so completely that we will actually become a gospel that people want to read. We are to love one another so convincingly – especially the poor, the forgotten, the unattractive – that people will see that we really are different and that something new is afoot.

     Dear friends, this feast of the Ascension of Christ does require something of a balancing act.  We are at the same time to live at a heavenly plane and to slug it out on an earthly plane. That’s the life of a follower of Christ – not an easy one, to be sure, and never a dull one, but an immensely rewarding one.  And it all comes together whenever we gather to celebrate the Eucharist because it is here more than anywhere else that earth meets heaven.

     The Eucharist is like the Ascension: to quote those nine-year-olds, it’s awesome, really awesome!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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