Today is Ascension Sunday*. The Nicene Creed expresses the mystery in these words, "He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father." St. Augustine pondered those words and drew a somewhat startling conclusion. If Jesus is our Head and we are members of his Body, then where the Head is, the Body must also be. In a real sense, concludes Augustine, we are already in heaven with Jesus!
It is hard for us to keep that perspective. We live in a culture that is constantly telling us the only thing that matters is the visible world and our present life. That we are surrounded by such a limited perspective was brought home at a dinner conversation with Archbishop Hunthausen. He had just gotten back from a trip to Rome and mentioned to us that they had an in-flite movie. "What was it?" we asked. He told us it was War Games, a movie about a teenager who with his computer breaks into the Pentagon codes and triggers a nuclear war. We asked him how he liked it. "What amazed me," he said, "was that in the movie the world is going to end in a half hour. But no one mentions God, the afterlife or repentance. The nearest someone came was a guy who was sorry he never learned how to swim!"
I hope when I get close to my death the thing I will be sorry for is my sins, not my failure to get to Cancun! May you also be thinking about Jesus, not whether you made a million dollars. But I have to admit that a lot of people approach death with such a superficial mentality. They feel OK about their life because they have done this or that--and maybe regret not having done something else. I usually keep quiet because it seems they are simply passing off a bit of what has been fed them all their lives. It is not that they necessarily don't believe that God exists, but they consider him unimportant. What really counts are things like good health, making the right impression and staying busy (read distracted). We are like passengers on the Titanic: concerned about comfort, status, grabbing what pleasure we can, so easily persuaded we are unsinkable.
Ascension Sunday is a kind of wake up call. St. Paul says we should lift our eyes from the worries and anxieties of this life to see Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father. Being at the right hand means authority. We have a choice: to accept his rule or reject it. People today, including many Catholics, have been lulled into the belief that we will be saved by being sincere and benevolent. When you come down to it, those feelings are cheap. Hitler was sincere. Those who visited Stalin in the 30's and 40's came away impressed by what a kindly, fatherly figure he was. Meanwhile he was wreaking horrible revenge on his former associates and friends, even close relatives, not to mention the millions of citizens who got in the way of his great plans.
Jesus is not fooled by our mask of decency. Our benevolence does not impress him. He sees how much pride and self-seeking are involved. How easy it is for gentle, generous people to explode when someone disagrees or crosses them. I've done it myself. So have you. We have felt the cruelty of others, but our own often evades us. Do not trust your benevolent self-image. What matters is whether you allow Jesus to plant his flag in your heart. That alone will save you. Do not be afraid. He accepts even the tiniest act of surrender. However, in the long run he wants his rule to extend to every aspect of our lives. Once we accept Jesus, we cannot pick and choose which of his commandments we will follow.
It's like the story of the priest who was giving a mission in a country parish. What the congregation lacked in size, they made up for in enthusiasm, especially one guy in the front pew. He let the priest know what he thought about each part. The priest began with the list of sexual sins: adultery, fornication, pornography. Each one, the guy said, "right on, Father. Let em have it." Then priest went on to gambling, how it can get a grip on people, ruining lives and families. One again the man was loud in his approval. Finally the priest started talking about the dangers of drinking. How alcohol is the gateway to so many other sins. The man all of a sudden got silent. Then he jumped up and shouted, "Stop! Stop! Now you are meddling!"
We can all feel that way at times. We live in such a consumer society we can treat our faith as one more item on the shopping list. This is called Cafeteria Catholicism, the desire to control whatever is placed on my plate. "Yes, I accept Jesus' teaching--and he should be darn grateful to me for doing so. But I also want a little bit of this..." Maybe we say things like, "I worked hard for my money. I can spend it however I want." Or "I can do what I want with my own body." Or "The Church should keep out of people's bedrooms."
I'd like to say a word about that last slogan. When I hear people say the Church should stay out of their bedroom, I kind of scratch my head. I don't recall ever having been there. But I want to say this, "Jesus does belong there." You invited him on the day you got married. What happens there is his concern. He wants to rule over every aspect of our lives. (cf. article on Birth Control)
Once when I made a retreat, I learned this way of making an examination of conscience. At the end of the day ask, What things did Jesus and I do together? What things did I do on my own? When I called that person who needed to hear from me, Jesus was acting right with me--or thru me. But then later, I just brushed someone off. Face it, I was acting on my own. Our life is that kind of struggle to allow Jesus to take more and more authority, to extend his rule further in our hearts.
There is one supreme way we do that. What we are doing right now. Our participation in Sunday Mass. Pope John Paul wrote an Apostolic Letter (Dies Domini) about the important of Sunday worship. We can always think of some reason not to come to Sunday Mass. "I don't like some of those people." Or "I get bored." Or finally "I need to get my rest." Isn't it amazing that the person who will get up at 6 to earn money, cannot get up at 8 or 9 to pay the debt he owes to God? It is the great act of service to Jesus the King. To join him in the self-offering, the sacrifice to the Father. We lift up our eyes to him who already rules, seated at the right of the Father.
*By approval of the Vatican, the Ascension of the Lord is celebrated on Sunday in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California, Alaska, Utah, Nevada and Hawaii (as is the case in many countries)
Is Stephen Jay Gould the Gorbachev of Darwinism? (Short Review of Wonderful Life)
C.S. Lewis' explanation of the Ascension
What is Secular Humanism?
From the Archives (Ascension Homilies):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
C.S. Lewis' explanation of the Ascension
my bulletin column
Parish Picture Album
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