Ascension of the Lord – June 2, 2019
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Luke 24:46-53
The feast of the Ascension is one of those feasts that always confused me. It begs the question: Why couldn’t Jesus just stay? Why did he have to leave? And there are many parts to that answer. But at its core is the simple fact that Jesus came to fulfill a mission, and his mission did not end with his incarnation, not with his death, and not even with his Resurrection, no. Jesus’ mission only reaches its completion with his Ascension back to the right hand of the Father, and by sending the Spirit (which we will celebrate next Sunday with Pentecost). Jesus became man with a very specific mission, a very specific vocation, a vocation and mission that we do not get to define.
There is a very famous saying from St. Athanasius which summarizes Jesus’ mission: “God became man so that man might become God” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54, 3). But, this doesn’t mean that one day we will be omnipotent, all-powerful. That’s a very pagan idea. And we often live a very paganized idea of Christianity: we try to appease the gods in an attempt to control them, to get a better life for ourselves, to become gods, to gain power. We follow the rules, we try to be a “good person,” and hope that God will give us nice things and answer our prayers and let us do what we want and give us money and pleasure and power. But that’s not God, that’s not what it means to “become God.” If that’s what you think, that’s probably why Christianity doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“To become God” means to share in the life of God, to enter into the mystery of the Trinity, to enter into the eternal exchange of love that is the Trinity And this sounds super boring! I mean, let’s be honest. What does that even mean? So let’s think about it a different way. What was Christ doing?
I remember one summer when I was younger, the only thing I wanted to do was go to the swimming pool. And we usually only went on the weekend. But one day during the week, one of my older brothers went around the house telling us that we were going to the swimming pool! Turns out he was lying and just thought it was pretty funny to get our hopes up. The point: he made a promise that he could not keep; he stirred up within us a desire that he could not fulfill. We’ve all had people make those types of promises to us: whether it’s about going to the pool or about something much deeper, much more important. And the question always becomes: can you keep that promise?
Christ comes and awakens our desire! By his very presence, when people encountered him, life took on a whole new direction! Their desire was set on fire, they felt a promise! But the question became: could Jesus keep his promise? Could he fulfill the desire he stirred up? With the Ascension, with the sending of the Holy Spirit, the answer is “yes”!
Because what are our needs? What are our deepest desires? When we’re young, we think that all we need and all we desire is radical freedom: to be able to whatever we want, to be able to run away, to buy anything, to be whatever we want, to have fun, to just hang-out with our friends and party it up. This is the story of the Prodigal Son, we all know it. And often times, as we get older, it usually doesn’t get much different: we want financial security, a comfortable life, a house, a car, a family, a good career, to be able to provide for our family. And so if Jesus Christ is going to be important, those are the needs and desires he needs to fulfill! If those things aren’t happening, Jesus must have been lying to us.
But these are not our true needs, they are not our deepest desires! Our deepest desires are to live forever, to experience a life of constant newness and wonder and beauty, to be loved. Forever, man has wanted to live forever; from a very young age we fear death, we try to avoid thinking about it, and, as we get older, we try to avoid it altogether. In life, we constantly seek newness: we need the newest phone, new clothes, new everything! We are always looking for something new and exciting, something that fills us with wonder. And, at the end of the day, we want to be loved. Sure, we may think, “I don’t need anyone to love me. It’s fine, I’m fine!” We may think that we can go it alone, and that to be loved is just a nice bonus. But it’s not. You can be as cynical and jaded as you like, but being loved, truly loved—to have someone look at you with a gaze that conveys true, deep and authentic love for you—to be loved isn’t just a nice thing. It is what we most truly desire. And what’s more, we want to love someone in return. To be loved and to love: that is at the very core of our being.
Christ comes and promises all of this to us. He promises us eternal life, to be able to live forever. He promises us a life of constant newness and wonder and beauty. He promises us love. Christ promises us our deepest desires. But these desires, our life, it is only fulfilled in the life of the Trinity. Even if you had everything you wanted, it still wouldn’t be enough! We need an eternal newness, and eternal novelty, an eternal exchange of love! We need to enter into the life of the Trinity.
This was Jesus’s mission. Not to make the world a better place, not to eliminate suffering, not to do any of that! No. Jesus became man so that man might become God, so that we might enter into the life of the Trinity, so that the deepest needs and desires of our heart might be fulfilled. When Christ ascended into heaven, he didn’t just leave. When Christ ascended into heaven, he proved that he could keep the promise he made: humanity, our humanity, entered into the life of God himself.
Through fidelity to his vocation, God raised Christ up. Through fidelity to our vocation, lived with the power of the Spirit God gives to us, God raises us up, takes us into his own Divine Life. It takes utter fidelity to our vocation. And fidelity to our vocation is not easy, it will involve suffering, it will involve denying one’s self and taking up one’s cross. But this is the Christian Mystery, this is the Paschal Mystery: through obedience to our vocation, all of our deepest needs, our deepest desires are fulfilled. Thank God for that.