5-28-2017 Ascension of the Lord
May 30, 2017
Easter / Ascension / A / 2017
Msgr. Patrick S. Brennan
We come to the great Feast of the Ascension—something we affirm each time we say the Creed ("He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father"). So what does that mean? And what does it mean for us?
This may sound a little esoteric, but the first thing we need to do is recover a Jewish sense of heaven and earth, of body and soul.
Whether we know it or not, most of us are influenced by ancient Greek philosophy. The Greeks draw a sharp distinction between the material and spiritual, between heaven and earth, between the body and the soul. Body bad. Soul good. In Greek philosophy, the soul is a prisoner in the body. When we die, the soul is finally released. The body is cast off. One theologian called it a "jail break"—the soul breaking out of the jail of the body.
But Jewish thought is altogether different. The Jews did not draw this sharp dichotomy between body and soul—both body and soul make us who we are, both are created in the image of God. In Jewish thought, the important image is transfiguration—not a soul fleeing the body, but a body glorified, made perfect, a mix of both heaven and earth.
This means that heaven and earth interact with each other, they call out to each other, they influence each other, they touch each other. As we say in the Lord’s Prayer: "They Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." The values of the Kingdom are lived now, here, as they are in heaven. As the Psalmist says, "the earth is filled with the glory of God."
And that brings us back to the Feast of the Ascension. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus is with the disciples for 40 days after the Resurrection "preaching about the Kingdom." He prepares them for the moment when he will return to the Father—when, body and soul, he will take his place at the right hand of God.
I like to describe the Ascension as the reverse of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is Jesus coming to earth, bringing his divinity to earth—heaven touching earth—and taking on our humanity.
The Ascension is just the opposite: Jesus takes his glorified humanity into heaven—earth touching heaven, completing the cycle, and beginning a new era of communion between God and humanity. The era of the Church—and the Holy Spirit.
We see this mix of heaven and earth in so many ways. As Catholics, we have something called the "Catholic imagination." That is, through material things, through great art and architecture, through the lives of the saints, through liturgy, through preaching, through the corporal works of mercy, through the love of husband and wife, through the love of friends—heaven touches earth, and we experience the realm of God. Beauty and good as our portal into transcendence.
Imagine a beautiful gothic cathedral, drawing our eyes upward. Imagine a beautiful icon that reveals God to us. Imagine a piece of music that transports us heavenward. Imagine a person living the corporal works of mercy who inspires us to do good. Imagine a liturgy where our voices blend with the angels ("may our voices blend with theirs . . .").
That is the Ascension mystery, heaven touching earth, until that day when there is a new heaven and a new earth, and God draws all of us to himself.