Readings for Sunday May 20, Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23 or 4:1-7, 11-13; Mark 16:15-20
The Ascension of the Lord Jesus into heaven is certainly a fitting conclusion to the earthly sojourn of the Son of God. After appearing numerous times to the disciples over the course of the 40 days since the Resurrection, the Lord Jesus bids farewell to the Apostles and is lifted up into heaven.
Two angels suddenly appear and seem to chide the Apostles for “looking up into the sky,” and tell them to instead go to Jerusalem and wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:10-11) Those are the facts, but what does the Ascension have to teach us?
In the Middle Ages, theologians told the following riddle: “Is there any part of Earth that is higher than the highest heaven?” Now one automatically starts thinking of the world’s highest mountains, such as Mount Everest, before realizing that the answer has to be: “No.”
But the correct answer to the riddle is “yes.” The part of Earth that is higher than the highest heaven is the risen body of Jesus Christ. Though glorified, Jesus’ body is yet a real human body, made like ours of the “dust” of the earth, and Jesus at the right hand of the Father is far above the highest heaven. This seemingly facetious riddle contains a powerful truth: that by assuming a true human nature and then ascending to the Father, the Lord Jesus has raised our poor human nature to unthinkable heights.
While man always had dignity by being made in God’s image (Gen 3), that divine image became terribly marred by sin. But in the Incarnation and Redemption, God restores our lost dignity and increases it many times over. God not only heals sin and evil, but he brings immeasurably greater goodness out of it.
Because the Ascension is connected to our restoration to the high dignity of God’s adopted children, the virtue traditionally paired with the Ascension is the virtue of hope. What can we not hope for from God who has raised our poor human nature to such heights? Thus this feast is relevant to our lives because it should fill us with hope.
Simply put, hope is the gift from God that allows us to believe that, despite everything, goodness will triumph over evil in the end. Ultimately, as Julian of Norwich said, “all shall be well.” Christian hope is summarized by one of St Paul’s rhetorical questions: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Hope is vital for our lives. As the Holy Father said in his 2007 encyclical On the Virtue of Hope: “man cannot live without hope. … the present, even if it is full of difficulty can be lived and accepted if it leads to a goal, and the goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.” Our earthly journey as disciples of Christ leads to eternal life, a goal that is worth any amount of effort.
As a seminarian I helped out at a homeless shelter in Washington D.C., which was run by the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s sisters. One of the residents there, an old man who had brain damage from chronic alcoholism and who was homeless before the sisters took him in, told me with pride how he spoke to Mother Teresa once when she visited the shelter. He told her his problems and she said to him simply: “Never give up hope. God loves you and will help you.” Those simple words sustained him ever since.
No matter what our problems or crosses are, there is always reason to hope if we have God in our life. To paraphrase St Paul, if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead abides in me, of what should I be afraid?
As Scripture somewhere says: “With my God I can scale any wall, I can climb the highest mountain.”
Theologian George Weigel fittingly titled his great biography of Blessed John Paul II “Witness to Hope.” John Paul’s first words to the church after being elected the successor of St Peter were: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!” His great faith and hope gave him cheerfulness and confidence to do God’s work even in the face of insuperable difficulties.
As we celebrate today Jesus Christ’s return to the right hand of the Father, let us remember that God wants us to be people of hope. As we contemplate Christ’s presence in heaven, let us ask him to make us his hope-filled witnesses to the ends of the world.
Father Grimm is administrator of Holy Spirit Parish in New Castle.