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The Ascension of the Lord
during the coronavirus pandemic
May 24, 2020

Click here to watch the video of Father Ryan's homily
(homily begins at 28:15)

    The feast of the Ascension invariably brings to my mind a pilgrimage to the Holy Land I made years ago. We visited the Orthodox Church of the Ascension which overlooks Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, the traditional site of the ascension. An old monk showed us around the church with its beautiful mosaics and icons, but he saved what I’m sure he thought the best for last. Gathering our little group into a circle, he waited till he had our attention, and then pointed to the stone floor in which, even in the dim light, we could see, worn but unmistakable, traces of two footprints which, we were given to believe, were the very footprints of Jesus, wondrously burned into that spot as he left his followers to ascend into heaven.

     Now, students of scripture and archaeology would raise an eyebrow, and a question or two, at the old monk's claim. The footprints are almost certainly the work of some pious believer from the Middle Ages who wanted to make the holiness of the place even more tangible and visible than it already was.

     More than fifty years have passed since my visit to that church, but I remember it clearly -- remember standing near those footprints made holy by the faith of countless believers down through the ages, watching people bend low to touch them reverently.  I did it myself, but I must confess that a rather irreverent thought crossed my mind. It was this: the message of the angels to Jesus' followers when he left them to ascend into heaven -- the one we heard in today's reading from Acts -- was, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand there looking up toward heaven?"  Had those angels appeared to us, I wondered, what message would we have received?  Would it have been, "Why do you stand there looking down?"

     I don’t mean to be glib, and I certainly don't mean to trivialize the Ascension by reducing its meaning to a couple of directional adverbs.  But looking up and looking down are more than directional adverbs: they are symbolic words, highly symbolic words, that are worth reflecting on this day.

     The apostles stood there on the Mount of Olives looking up toward heaven because they wanted to hold onto Jesus.  They were frightened at the thought of going on without him.  And our little group of pilgrims in the church that day -- so taken by those footprints in the stone -- we weren't all that different.  We wanted to hold onto Jesus, too.  In those few moments in that holy place, with the old monk standing by, Jesus seemed very near:  close enough to touch.  Who could blame us for wanting, in this way, to hold onto Jesus like the apostles of old?  But they didn't get to, and we didn’t either.  That's not what faith in the Risen Jesus is all about.

     So may I give you another way of looking at what this feast of the Ascension is all about?  Forget for a minute the apostles of Jesus anxiously staring at the heavens; forget, too, my little group of pilgrims, eyes intently fixed on the ground, and listen instead to St. Paul in today's second reading, and listen to Jesus in the passage we just heard from Matthew's gospel.

     In the reading from Ephesians, Paul gives us an entirely new direction in which to look.  He speaks of looking inward -- looking inward with what he calls "the eyes of the heart."  For Paul, the "eyes of the heart" are able to see so much more than these eyes.  They are able to see what he calls the hidden things of God.  Listen again to Paul's words:  "I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ may give you a spirit of wisdom...so that with the eyes of the heart...you may know what is the hope to which you are called, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God's power in us who believe."

     Now that may sound a little abstract and theoretical to you, but I assure you it is not.  Paul is telling us that there is absolutely no limit to what the “eyes of the heart”, the eyes of faith can see.  They are able to look inward with a kind of `x-ray vision' and see the wondrous workings of God's grace.  The eyes of the heart are able, in times of pain and darkness and grief, for instance -- as well as in times of abundant blessing -- to see the hand of a mysterious but loving God at work.  Only the eyes of the heart can make sense out of life's deepest and most perplexing mysteries because the eyes of the heart are really God's eyes: God's "great and immeasurable power working in us."

     So, my friends, you can see why I suggest on this Ascension Day that looking up or down isn't half as important as looking inward, looking with the eyes of the heart.  Long ago, St. Augustine, in a homily for this feast of the Ascension, put it this way: “Christ ascended before the apostles’ eyes, and they turned back grieving, only to find Him in their hearts!”

     And then, one further direction: look outward. That’s what Jesus told his followers to do before he ascended into heaven. "Go and make disciples of all nations," he told them. That, too, is what the feast of the Ascension is about.

     The Ascension reminds us that we who follow Christ are called to look outwards and to go outwards.  We are called to leave our comfort zone and to plant the seeds of the Gospel in the very dirty soil of this world: soil that can be hostile to the Gospel, or at least painfully indifferent to it. We are called to proclaim good news that doesn’t always sound very good.

     My friends, make no mistake: the Ascension is about directions. Inward directions and outward directions. It is about internalizing the gospel to the point that it takes root in us and totally transforms us. And it is also about what so many of you do so well: taking that gospel to the streets - preaching it - not so much by words, but by the love you give, the stands you take, the poor you serve, the justice you promote.

     My friends, even though we are deprived of the Eucharist these days, we are still given the Word – the all-powerful Word of God, the nourishing and challenging Word of God. May that Word come alive within us and send us forth – fired up to carry out the command Jesus gave his friends as he left them: “go and make disciples of all nations!”

Father Michael G. Ryan





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