17 May 2015
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
The obituary in the newspaper read something like this: “He was born into a humble family and lived a simple life. He was spoken of highly by those who knew him, and his lifestyle attracted many friends as well as enemies in the community. He enjoyed spending time with his family, and he was a model of hospitality; welcoming anyone and everyone who wanted to stop and stay with him. He was convicted in his values, and placed a high priority on prayer.
“Even at the young age of 33, he did more in his life on earth than anyone else. But above all, he loved God his Father, and longed to be with him. And so, his passing into the cloud of the mysterious life of God is a cause of joy for those who know and love him. He finished the race, he kept the faith, he fulfilled his purpose—he has returned to the Father.
“A Mass in remembrance of this man, this Son of God, will be celebrated always and everywhere by his faithful people until he comes again.”
Imagine reading that obituary in the newspaper! And yet, of course, it’s not imaginary; it’s true. Every Sunday we stand up and profess that: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” The Ascension of the Lord is very real—even if we have to use our imagination to picture what we’re talking about.
But we don’t usually associate joyfulness with an obituary. We don’t always see someone’s passing from this world to the life of heaven as a reason to celebrate. After all, being separated from others is usually bittersweet or sad. But in the case of the Ascension of the Lord, it really is a reason for us to celebrate. Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection are incomplete without the Ascension. Jesus didn’t come here simply to overcome death and rise from the dead—not that that was “simple.” Jesus came among us to return to the Father.
For that matter, neither are we here on earth simply to live and die. We’re here so that we, too, can return to the Father. We each come from God, and we’re made to go back to God. In a way, each of us is meant to enter into that same mysterious cloud we hear of in the Acts of the Apostles (and throughout Scripture). We’re not here to spend our lives frantically looking for things that satisfy us. We’re here to live and love; we’re here to grow and mature—always with an eye to where we’re going . . . not to the grave, but beyond that and into the heart of God himself.
That’s why the Ascension is such a day to celebrate. We celebrate what’s happened to Jesus. We celebrate the fact that his life was finally and definitively completed. And he reached completion at the very place he started his journey—in the bosom of God the Father. And it all seems so simple, so clear, and beautiful. And it is beautiful and clear; this ascension and reunion with the Father. But the effect of the Ascension is not so simple.
The effect of the Ascension is unbelievably rich. It’s like a dessert that’s so sweet you just can’t eat it all in one sitting. It’s like a good book where every sentence, every phrase is full of meaning and depth, and you just want to sit and enjoy every moment of it. It’s like a perfectly beautiful day where you want to soak it all in, but you can’t possibly soak it all in. The effects of the Ascension are many, and they are very rich.
And the first and most obvious effect of the Ascension is that Jesus gains everything. That’s why we celebrate today. Jesus is reunited with the Father and the cycle of divine love is complete. Jesus never lost the Father, of course, but he’s brought into the cloud of God’s love and sits now at the Father’s right hand. Jesus ascends to the bosom of the Father, and becomes the definitive Lord of all.
Jesus is not only reunited with the Father; he also gains the whole of creation. Every tree, every insect in the ground, every super nova in the universe, every planet and particle of dust or spirit belongs to him. What a blessing it is for the entire cosmos to have as its Lord and Ruler, the God of love, the God of life—the Lord Jesus Christ, who cares for it and loves it as a parent for its child, as an older Brother for his younger siblings.
And besides the Father and all of creation, Jesus gains us. We are his inheritance; we are his prize. To be honest, if I were Jesus, I’m not sure I’d be happy about getting a box of broken toys as a gift. But that’s us: broken, sinful, sometimes petty. Of course, Jesus also sees our goodness; he sees the love we do have for others, the excitement and desire we have for life and happiness. Yes, we’re broken. But he loves us just the same.
The most basic effect of the Ascension is that Jesus gains everything, including us. He won the imperishable prize of everything that’s good in the universe. He is the Lord, the Lord of love and life, the Lord of heaven and earth. That’s another basic effect of the Ascension: Jesus stands revealed as the definitive Lord: the Lord of lords, King of kings, Prophet of prophets, and Priest of priests.
That phrase we hear, that “he is seated at the right hand of the Father,” is not in reference to dimension or space. It doesn’t mean: “Here is the Father, and here is the Son sitting to his right.” Instead, it’s an ancient phrase and image which means: “to share in divine authority.” In his Ascension, Jesus shares in the divine authority of the Father, and is truly and definitively recognized as “the Lord” of all.
But because of that, for some people, the Ascension is a problem. We don’t have Lords. We don’t know what to do with them. And, besides, the word “Lord” brings all these connotations of domination, inequality of power, the idea of rank and hierarchy. And most of us don’t like to have others over us.
Sometimes we have bosses at work who “lord it over us.” In abusive relationships, one person is over another. Teenagers don’t like to have parents over them, telling them what to do. Some people don’t like to have the Church over them, trying to tell them how to live their lives. We don’t like to have people over us, because our experience of it has usually been a negative one. Instead, we like to be independent and free from all that.
So, maybe it can be a negative thing to see Jesus as “the Lord;” because of all the baggage that comes with the idea of “lordship.” But he is a Lord like nothing we can imagine—good or bad.
Jesus constantly chose the way of humility, the way of lowliness and simply. He always warned his disciples not to lord themselves over others. He wasn’t interested in being over anybody; he was interested in being with others. The authority of God is nothing other than the perfect love of God; a love that’s pure and completely selfless; a love that’s free and never forced; a love that wonders with curiosity, ‘Who are you?,’ and that says, ‘I give myself to you.’
The authority of God the Father is the authority of unimaginably perfect love. That’s at the heart of the Lordship of Jesus. He is Lord (alongside the Father) because he loves perfectly. He is the Lord, he is the Ruler, he is the standard of love against which we compare ourselves. You know, like a ruler in your desk drawer that tells you how long an inch is, or a centimeter, or whatever. The ruler isn’t right or wrong. The ruler defines what an inch is, what a centimeter is.
Jesus is Lord and Ruler of all because he defines what real love is. With his Ascension, he is seated at the right hand of the Father; he shares in the authority of divine and true love. And let’s face it: people in our lives who radiate real love, who practice what they preach . . . , we give them authority. We say, “That’s a person I want to be like.” We don’t give them authority over us (and they wouldn’t take it anyway). Instead, we give them the authority to be an example for us. That’s what a mentor is. That’s what a hero is. That’s what a real Lord is.
In his Ascension, Jesus gains the Father, he gains all creation—including us, and he stands revealed as the definitive Lord. And what better to show that he’s the Lord than for him to remain close to us and to share with us all that it is. As we’ve heard so often in the past few weeks in Scripture, Jesus says: You are my friends, and what I have I share with you.
And the most precious “thing” he possesses is the Holy Spirit, that perfect love and peace which binds the Father and the Son together. We hear at every Mass: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.” That’s the Lord of lord, the King of kings speaking to us. “Everything I have is yours.” That’s an effect of the Ascension which we’ll spend our whole lives trying to open up and discover.
And by entering into that cloud of the mystery of God’s life ourselves, hopefully we’ll discover at the heart of it, God himself, Love itself. Every morning our prayer can be something like: “Lord, open my mind, my spirit, and my body to receive everything you wish to give me today. Lord, be for me today the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
And then, someday, when we pass from this life to the next, people might say of us: “The life of Christ was in him. She loved others and walked with others like the Lord does. He loved his life on earth and thanked God for it. But, above all, she sought God himself. Today, he entered into the mysterious cloud of the divine life of God. And there was God, the Lord himself, who had always been with him.” And it will be a day of homecoming, a day to give thanks, a day to celebrate.