Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (B) – May 16, 2021
St. Mary – Derby, KS
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Mark 16:15-20
The Split We Accept
One of the things that I have talked a lot about is this split that we have between the “Faith” and “my real life”—this split we just kind of accept. There is the “Faith” and all of this stuff we’re supposed to believe and do as Christians, as Catholics. And then there is “my real life,” and all the stuff that goes on in the “real world.” And this split stems from this solemnity we celebrate today: a misunderstanding of the Ascension. Jesus was taken up, he ascends to the highest of heavens, he floats off. And now that he’s “gone,” up up and away, we blame this split on him: he left, apparently. And now being a Christian, a Catholic just means that you believe certain things and you supposedly live a certain way, vote a certain way, follow certain rules.
Concretely, this leads many of us to seeing “Faith” as a wager: it is better to bet that there is a God and heaven and hell and be wrong, than to bet that there isn’t and find out there is. And so we easily think that the connection between the “Faith” and “my real life” is that we are supposed to believe certain things and live a certain way in our “real life.” And so we do that: we believe certain things that we’re “supposed to believe,” and follow certain ethical principles—and then hope for an eternal reward, to cash in on our wager.
And a lot of us take this very seriously; we take this bet, these beliefs and ethics very seriously! We defend them! When others ridicule or question them, we stand up for them! “This is my belief!” But here in the United States, what we’re really saying is, “I believe this. I have a right to believe this. And I have a right for my beliefs to be tolerated politically and respected by others.” That’s what people hear, anyway: “I have invested a lot of emotional energy into this belief, and in a way, I’ve staked the credibility of my life on it. So if you mock it, you can expect a fight.” We see this played out all the time. Does that make sense? Christian, Jew, Muslim, two-headed lizard god, Call of Duty, Derby football, whatever: “I believe in this. This belief, this thing, this whatever gives meaning to my life. And if you attack it you can expect a fight.”
What Our Kids and Grandkids Are Looking For (…and so are you)
This is also why when our siblings, when our kids or grandkids, when our friends abandon it, the “Faith”—that’s why we get so upset. Yeah: I’m worried about their soul, their eternal salvation; I raised them different; they need to believe the right thing, behave the right way. But usually it comes back to, “I have invested a lot of my emotional energy into this belief, and in a way, I’ve staked the credibility of my life on it. I have made a huge bet on this. Therefore, they should too!” And then we put it in “religious” terms: their “soul” is at stake; I don’t want them to go to hell; I want them to be right with God. Does this sound familiar?
“Shouldn’t they know better? Why don’t they behave like they’re supposed to? I wish they would just go to Mass.” What are they doing when they abandon it? Why do they do that? What are they looking for?
And look, I can’t give you all of the answers, but one thing they’re looking for is something real. They want something really real, something that isn’t superficial and fleeting, something that is authentic, something that grips them and changes them, changes their life. They want something that reaches their heart, their whole life. And you want to know something? We’re all looking for that.
That is the cry of the human heart—every heart. We want something real, something authentic! We want work that matters, that isn’t pointless. We want relationships that are deep and real, not just people who scroll by on Facebook and give us a like now and then. We want to dream big, and not just have wishful thinking. We want something real!
What we experience so often, though, is a lack of something real. And our kids and grandkids, our siblings and friends—what they see and experience in the “Faith” so often is something that isn’t “real.” They are very perceptive to the disconnect, the split—a disconnect and a split we may turn a blind eye toward—and they don’t buy it. They recognize the sincerity of your belief, of my belief, sure! They respect that belief. But then—what’s the line? “You do you. If that’s what you believe, if that’s how you want to live your life, you do you.” They make their own wager, their own bet. They go after what is real. They decided to live their best life, to be a good person. And they go looking for what is real. Money, job, their live-in boyfriend, football, you name it.
Salvation: The Waking Up of Our Hearts to Reality
We want to ask the wrong questions: Why don’t they believe? Why don’t they follow the rules? Why don’t they get it? But again, those are precisely the wrong questions. That leaves everything at the level of ideas and rules. We need what’s real.
The better questions to ask—and you have to start by asking yourself—are: What happened to you? Why do you live your life like that? Why do you want others to have what you have?
Do you see what I’m saying? We reduce the faith to “believe these things and not those” and “behave a certain way, do things a certain way, vote a certain way.” And these are important! But they only make sense if they flow from something, if something happened, something happened that changed everything and now we live our life completely differently, we see reality and believe in things in a completely different way.
Again, I use marriage as my example all the time, but marriage is exactly the same way. Do you love you wife more because you know she got her wisdom teeth out when she was fifteen? Does knowing that he sprained his ankle while riding a skateboard make you love your husband more? No. Just knowing certain thing and believing certain things doesn’t make you love them more, but it enriches a love that is already there. Does waking up in the middle of the night to get the screaming baby make you love your wife more? Does cleaning up pee off of the toilet make you love him more? No. Just acting a certain way and doing certain things doesn’t make you love them more, but you do it to show your love for them, as a way of serving and loving one another.
Something happened first! You saw her across the room, your eyes met, she looked at you in a way that no one had ever looked at you before. She was it. Something happened; everything changed; and all of a sudden you wanted to know everything about her, you wanted to do everything you could to show your love for her—and you still do, even though it has been difficult at times. And you tell your kids and your grandkids that if you had to do it all over again, you would choose her and marry her a thousand times again.
Do you see what I’m saying? Something happened to you. It changed what you were interested in, how you looked at the world, how you lived your life. You felt more alive, more like yourself, more real. When you met her you became more you, more real. And you wish that everyone could experience such a fulfilling and incredible relationship. Something happened; it changed how you lived your life; and you want others to have that as well.
“They went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them”
The great mystery of the Ascension is not Jesus flying up up and away to heaven. We think of “heaven” as this place far away, up in the clouds. When “heaven” is the way to talk about the realest place there is, where everything is as real as it gets: real relationships, real happiness, real love, the really real. Jesus ascended—but probably better for our ears is to think Jesus dove into the depths of what is real, he took our human nature and plunged it into the depths of God. What we are searching for when we’re searching for something real, something authentic, something profound—we’re searching for Christ, we’re searching for what the Ascension guarantees us.
When someone has this, you recognize it. You want it. You see these people and ask: “What happened to them? Why do they live their life like that? I want a piece of what they’re eating!” This is what people ask when they met the saints. There are stories of people meeting Pope John Paul II, and they would meet him at breakfast while he was stuffing his face with Corn Flakes—just sitting there eating. But immediately they would recognize a weight behind his presence, a gravitas, something really real. Mother Therese, same thing. This four foot nothing Albanian nun would walk into a room of Bishops and Cardinals and royal dignitaries and presidents—and she would dwarf them all. Why? What happened to her?
What we read time and again in the Gospels, what we hear over and over about the Apostles, about Mary Magdalen, the Samaritan Woman, Zachaeus, the Man Born Blind—time and again what we hear is that as they stayed with him, something happened. They were changed. They became more real, more themselves, more authentic than they could have imagined. And the way they lived their life changed. Why? Because Jesus had a big list of rules to follow “or else”? No, they lived a certain way because they wanted to preserve this reality, they wanted to live the truth of reality, they wanted this to continue (again, think of marriage: you have to live it a certain way or that reality falls apart). Something happened, it changed how they looked at life, how they looked at the world, how they lived—and then they went out to share what had happened.
We read at the end of Mark’s Gospel today: “They went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them.” These people went out, and simply shared what had happened. And the Lord did the work, the Lord opened people’s hearts and minds.
Begin by asking—in prayer, in adoration, sit in silence—and just ask: What happened to me? Why do I live my life this way? And why do I want others to have what I have, to experience what I have experienced?