Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. Jesus ascended to be with His Father so that he might be with us in a new way not limited by time and space. He remains with us through the Church He instituted.
The Compendium of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “After forty days during which Jesus showed himself to the Apostles with ordinary human features which veiled his glory as the risen one, Christ ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of the Father. He is the Lord who now in his humanity reigns in the everlasting glory of the Son of God and constantly intercedes for us before the Father. He sends us his Spirit and he gives us the hope of one day reaching the place he has prepared for us.” How hopeful and how consoling. The Ascension is therefore a feast of hope.
This is a time of change and transition. Sleepy shrubs, lawns and fields have spawned lime green shoots. Students having completed studies at all levels are being graduated. The winter routines have ended and the uncertain future of crops and of lives begins anew.
Congratulations to all those who are being graduated from pre-school to university. We admire your efforts and your accomplishments. But we also know that a truly educated person has more than academic achievement. He or she has a moral compass, integrity and humility in the presence of God the Creator. After one graduation ceremony, a young man declared, “Here I am world, I have my A.B.” Then he seemed to hear a voice say, “Congratulations son, now I will teach you the rest of the alphabet.” The school of life begins.
I asked a young man what he was going to do now that he had finished high school. “Oh, nothing,” he said, “I’m just going to help my dad on the farm.” Helping dad and farming itself are noble callings. Heartfelt gratitude to all those who make our lives easier because they help and they produce.
St. Paul in the 2nd reading reminds us that different vocations are given to each person, that each calling is a gift from God, and that we are to live lives worthy of the call we have received. To do that we need Christ and his Church in our lives seven days a week, not just on Sunday.
In a way the Ascension is graduation for the Apostles. Jesus as he prepares to ascend and therefore leave them in the physical sense essentially tells the Apostles, you have learned the basics at my side, now you must “go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” He essentially said to the Apostles school is over, your apprenticeship is complete, now go, be witnesses to the end of the earth of all you have seen and heard.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen put it so beautifully: “He gathers His Apostles about him as he prepares to ascend to the heavenly throne; he raises his hands in benediction over them and the hands pulled down from heaven to earth to give them blessing bore the imprint of nails. Pierced hands best distribute blessings. If you ever want good counsel, go to someone who has suffered.”
Departures are hard as we all know because they bring change. How tough it is when a loved one dies. We never get over it, though with faith we can learn to cope with it. How difficult it must have been for the apostles to see Jesus leave. First they thought he was dead. Then they experienced the joy of encountering him resurrected. Now he leaves them again. Next week on Pentecost we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit which empowered them to cope and to move on with hope. But in the interim they like us grieved again and wondered. The angel asked them: “why are you looking up at the sky. This Jesus will return.” He will at the end of time, and he will be today on this altar.
This feast day is not simply an acknowledgement of Jesus’s departure from our world. It is a time to remember that he has promised to be with us always. It is an opportunity for us to re-affirm our commitment to reach out in love and service in whatever way we can, to live lives worthy of our baptismal call to love God and neighbor.
This week we will have six expressions of that commitment when on Thursday I have the privilege to ordain five permanent deacons and one transitional deacon. The permanent deacons are all married men who while recognizing that their first vocation is that of marriage are taking upon themselves the ministry of service, being present in a special way in the name of Christ and his Church to those in need. They and their wives have spent nearly four years in formation – theological, spiritual, pastoral and human – to prepare to do what Jesus charged the Apostles to do, to share the Gospel. The transitional deacon is preparing to be ordained a priest next year. Please pray for them and their families.
One final note. Jesus not only ascended but he took his place at the right hand of the Father. That is not a physical place in the human sense. It is a sharing in glory and exercising the mysterious spiritual power of mediator between God and man. This truth should reassure us as we face change or experience transition, including loss.
The story is told of a ship that was on the ocean when a sudden squall of wind came up, striking the ship with such force that it tipped over on its side. There was great tumbling and crashing of things. The passengers having been awakened from sleep were of course greatly frightened. The captain’s little daughter about eight years old was on board. When she awoke she asked, “What’s the matter?” They told her that the heavy wind had struck the ship and thrown it on its side. “Is father on deck,” she asked. “Yes, your father’s on deck.” “Then it will be alright,” she said and sat back on her bed and went to sleep again.
Our Lord having descended, taken on our humanity, suffered, died, risen, ascended and now having taken his place at the right hand of the Father, is ever on deck for each of us whatever change or transition may come our way. As the Blessed Mother always reassures us by pointing us to him, if we trust in God’s will and God’s way, it will be alright.