The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Homily: Solemnity of the Ascension

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47; Eph 1:17-23; Lk 24:46-53

Let’s see, is anyone here retired? Hmm, maybe I should have asked if anyone wasn’t retired.

As most of us here know, retirement can be a wonderful experience, but it can also be a confusing time for some folks, especially when it’s compounded by a move away from long familiar surroundings. It’s hard to leave a place where you raised your children, to sell a home filled with memories, and start all over in a new place. It’s hard to say, “Goodbye,” to the old friends, to the children and grandchildren…

Of course, we try to soften the pain of parting by making promises: “I’ll phone you every week.” or “We’ll email pictures to each other.” or “We’ll visit every summer.” Yes, we try to convince ourselves that nothing will change, but it’s just not the same, is it?

Now, what does all this have to do with the Ascension?

Well, I suspect Jesus’ disciples experienced some of these same emotions. Once again, Jesus had left them alone. Once again, they faced an uncertain future, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of loss, feelings of emptiness. This Jesus, whom they loved so much, this Jesus, whom they had known in His humanity, was lifted up in His divinity right before their eyes.

He was gone. And as often as he’d reminded them — in a little while I will leave you — it really hadn’t sunk in. They realized that Jesus would no longer be present as a matter of fact; no, his presence instead would be a matter of faith. He’d no longer be seen and heard with eyes and ears, no longer be touched.

To make matters more frightening, He’s left them with an enormous responsibility, one they couldn’t begin to comprehend. Tell them about me, he commanded. Preach about me, tell them everything I told you…and tell everyone…tell all the nations of the earth.

And so what did they do? The angel tells us: "Why are you just standing there staring up at the sky?" Yes, there they were, unable to move, staring skyward in their disbelief, awestruck by what they had just witnessed.

There was something urgent about Jesus’ departure, wasn't there? Just a few words…and He was gone. The disciples must have wondered why: Why did He have to go now? We wanted more time with Him. There’s still so much we don’t understand. Why couldn’t He have stayed with us a little longer? Eternity can wait. We need you here now!

They’d followed Him, watched Him, and learned from Him. They were eyewitnesses to all He’d done and all that had been done to Him. But that had simply been their time of preparation. And now, the preparation was over.

As they stood on that mountain with Jesus, He assigned them the monumental task that would bring new purpose to their lives: You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth. Of course they weren’t ready for it. They weren’t ready for His departure or for the task.

How could they part from the one they loved and go on without Him? But they could and would go on…because of the promises that Jesus made. You see that’s what the Ascension is all about. It’s really all about promises. And unlike us, Jesus always keeps His promises.

It was those promises, and the assurances they brought with them, that softened the pain of parting. I’ll stay in touch, He said. I’ll never leave you alone. I’ll be with you always. I’ll send you the promise of my Father. I’ll send you an advocate, the Holy Spirit who will teach you all things. And, don’t be afraid, because I will come back to you. Yes, for Jesus a promise is more than a good intention, more than a sentiment. It’s a divine truth. It’s a reality.

And here’s the wonderful part of all this. Jesus’ makes the same promises to us. That’s right, just like the disciples, we shouldn’t stand around staring up at the sky wondering when he’s coming back.

We wait because He told us to wait, but He told us to wait productively. For we share in same task, the same responsibility, He gave to the disciples. What He gave to them, He gives to us. What He was to them, He is to us.

The Jesus we wait to see, the Jesus we hope to see, is the same Jesus who walked with the disciples…the same Jesus who was beaten and crucified…the same Jesus the disciples watched ascend into the clouds of heaven…the same Jesus who gives Himself to us in the Eucharist at this Mass and at every other Mass. Body, blood, soul and divinity – He is present just as He was present to the disciples. But the disciples hadn’t understood any of this yet.

He must have felt sorry for them. He loved them so much. And so He lingered with them a while. I’m sure it was hard for Him to leave, as it always is with people who love one other. His human heart made Him take them aside one last time.

Then He left. He left so they could receive His most precious gift, the Holy Spirit, the gift He instructed them to pray for. And we too need to accept His Spirit of Truth, especially when it challenges the spirit of the world.

And let us never forget that Jesus, God incarnate, took human form. He suffered the very real death of that human body, rose from the dead and lives today…all in that human body. The Risen Jesus who ascended to the Father did so in a human body, sanctified by His Divinity. In all of this Jesus sanctified the body by taking on human flesh. He sanctified all human life and brought a new holiness to our humanity.

And so, when I hear someone speak of an unborn child as if it were only a useless piece of tissue, something to be discarded in the trash, I can only imagine the reaction of our Savior. How did He put it? “…as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” All those useless pieces of tissue with their tiny beating hearts, those least brothers or sisters of Our Lord, have been sanctified by their Creator Who shares in their humanity. And so, whatever we do to these least ones, we do to Jesus Christ Himself.  Do you see now why the Church has consistently called abortion an inherent evil, one that can never be condoned?

Indeed, in our sinfulness we need repentance today just as the world always has. We need to thank God for God, for our Risen Lord, that He lives in His risen, human body. He is as present as He ever was, in the Eucharist, in His Holy Word, in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, and in each of us, in our community of faith here in Wildwood. And His work, the work He gave to his disciples, continues through all of us.

We haven’t been left alone; we have His Spirit to guide us, and we have each other. This Church He founded is not a church of the few, not a church of the elite…No, it’s a universal Church – go to all nations, He told them. It’s not a church of the perfect, but a Church of sinners, a messy, complicated, fragile, often confusing Church. But it’s a Church that, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, brings God’s Word, God's love, and God’s truth to a broken world.

It’s Jesus’ Church; it’s the Apostles’ Church; it’s our Church; and it will continue to exist, continue to thrive, continue to bring God’s grace to our sinful and problem-filled world until Jesus comes again in glory.

And for all that we say: “Thanks be to God!”

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