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“Where Christ Has Gone, We Are to Follow.”
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
(Year B; Lect: 58)
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9; Ephesians 4:1-13; Mark 16:15-20
Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, OP
“Ascendit Deus in jubilatione. God mounts his throne to shouts of joy.” This is what our stained-glass window of the Ascension proclaims; and this is what we have proclaimed in our Responsorial Psalm. Yes, we believe and profess that Jesus “ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” The Ascension does not mean merely that Jesus is taken from our sight – although it certainly means that. In the Letter to the Ephesians, we hear that Christ “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” The Doctrine of the Ascension concerns this reign of the Incarnate Word, the Crucified and Risen One, as Lord over all of creation: over heaven and earth. Yet the Doctrine of the Ascension tells us not just about Jesus’ destiny and his role as Lord of heaven and earth. More than this, today’s Solemnity shows us the truth of what the ultimate goal of our own salvation looks like, for it is in ascending to the Father that Jesus has made it possible for us to follow him there. We – soul and body – are to follow where our Lord has gone. In Jesus, humanity has been taken up into heaven, to the Father. Where the Head has gone, the members are to follow.
This is precisely what Baptism makes possible. Through Baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we are made the Father’s sons and daughters; we are made to be one with Christ. We are joined to him, so that our lives may be conformed to his. We are buried with him in the water of baptism, that we may rise to new life, in soul and then in body, as he rose from the dead. Baptism allows us to receive Christ in the Eucharist, by which we are nourished, that we may grow more deeply united to Christ. Of course, this means that we are to be conformed to his life, conformed to his love for the Father and for the world, conformed to his suffering and death, conformed to his resurrection, and conformed to his ascension. We are to be lifted into the presence of the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit, forever.
And perhaps the resurrection and ascension of the Body should be underlined here. For Jesus has risen indeed bodily from death. In this way, he is shown clearly to us to be distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit, though consubstantial, one in substance, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christ’s humanity is not melded into his divinity, or into his Person. There is no absorption of the Son into an amorphous divine blob. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons in one God – and the humanity assumed by the Son, the human Body of Christ, is brought into the heart of the very life of the triune God.
So, too, we are to be one in Him, yet we are to remain ourselves, distinct from Him and from one another, while remaining united in Him. Our unity in Him does not come at the expense of ourselves. Rather, our own unique gifts, received through the Holy Spirit, have their place in the Body of Christ – differentiated and ordered in an intricate way that only God can fully see – for the good of the whole Body.
We hear of this very differentiation of the gifts of the Body of Christ in our reading from Ephesians: “And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God.” Everyone has a place in the Body of Christ. Everyone has a role in Christ’s mission to the world, which is to raise the world up, through Christ, into the presence of God the Father, the source of everything and the goal of everything. Since each of us has a unique part to play in the Body, each of us is to discern the way the Lord has called us, according to our gifts in that Body. This is what we believe.
Notice how different this is from the way the secularist sees the world. For the secularist, the things of the world arise by chance. In such a view, because there is no common source, there is a fundamental disunity among all things. And because there is no common source, there can be no common end; there is no reason to posit a common goal for all things. Some will try assert that the community’s good as a whole can serve as such a goal. But what is the basis for such an assertion? What kind of foundation could be found for such an all-pervasive, unifying, universal goal? There is none. Thus, in such a secular view, the idealism of a common good crumbles quickly, because it has no foundation beyond an idea. Without believing in God as Creator and source, or as the author of the nature of things, or as the goal of all things – what can be the basis for any greater good?
So then, in the absence of a common goal, and in the absence of anything transcendent, what can remain as a viable, plausible goal but the “least common denominator,” the baser desires of will or appetite – the desires for power, privilege, prestige, popularity, pleasure. But the supplies of these goods (and even our capacities for them) are necessarily limited. (Despite what some in our culture may promise, not everyone can be powerful, since power implies some control over others. And not everyone can be “above average.”) Because each one strives to maximize his or her own possession of these very limited goods, there is, at the heart of such a vision of the world, a competitive wilderness where only a few can possibly succeed. And there is never any such thing as “enough”.
What a contrast with the truth of the Body of Christ! In Christ, our unity is given to us. On the basis of this unity in the Body of Christ, each one of us in his or her own unique way, can be an expression of God’s glory. What we seek, our goal, is not limited, but rather is limitless: God’s own life. To reach our goal, it is not necessary that anyone else miss it. We do not need to win at the expense of anyone else. One person’s victory does not imply someone else’s loss. Indeed, to reach our goal, we are to help one another on the way of salvation. For we are all called to holiness, we are all called to the risen and ascended life of Christ, a life that increases the more it is shared.
Now, I admit, I have suggested a rather peaceful vision of life in Christ. Yet there is sharp, cutting edge to the Gospel: “‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned’” (Mk 16:16). This puts the matter rather starkly, doesn’t it? Can our Lord Jesus perhaps be exaggerating? Does he mean what he says?
Yes – we believe that he means it. Our Lord offers us his salvation, and, indeed, offers life to the whole world. But we cannot escape the logic of this universal offer of salvation: if we do not accept it, well, we will not receive it. The more universal the offer, the more universal is the possibility of accepting that offer – but also, the more universal is the possibility of rejecting it.
And even when one does accept Baptism, when one accepts the heavenly homeland that our risen and ascended Lord has established for us, is there peace? In this life, on our pilgrim way, there cannot be a premature peace. The Cross is evidence enough for one who believes. We have a battle to fight – against the demonic powers, who seek to turn us against one another.
But also, there is a place for striving among us, even a special kind of competition among us, as St. Paul tells us to “compete well for the faith” (1 Tim 6:12). Yet we compete for the faith, not because supplies are limited, and never at the expense of our neighbor. Rather, we seek by grace to push one another forward, to inspire one another, precisely because the riches of God’s grace are unlimited. You and I and everyone around us can be further and further enriched in our Lord, for his goodness is beyond measure.
Yes, we are to “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1). For it is in the risen and ascended Lord that all of us can have life, and have it abundantly. Amen.