Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord – June 2, 2019, Year C
Jesus, risen from the dead, is teaching his disciples and revealing to them the deep designs of God. His words open the passage of the Gospel we have just heard: “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day …” (Luke 24:46). This is death and resurrection held tightly together and seen as the deepest sense of the Scriptures. But there is more in the words of Jesus that follow. The fruit of his death and resurrection is specified as a content to be preached: “… and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:47-48). There follows something unique to Luke, both here in his Gospel and in the scene in Acts from our first reading that parallels this. It is Jesus’ command that they stay in Jerusalem until they “are clothed with power from on high.” Jesus calls this “the promise of my Father” that he will send (Luke 24:49).
After this we see a change of place. Jesus and the disciples leave the room where they have been gathered. In just a few succinct phrases Luke manages to sketch an amazing scene. As if in procession, Jesus is said to have “led them out as far as Bethany.” Then he “raised his hands and blessed them and was taken up to heaven.” An amazing lot of things seem to happen very quickly, or at least to be said very quickly. Not long before in the gospel, Jesus, risen, is speaking at some length with his overjoyed disciples and even taking something to eat in their presence. Now suddenly they are led outside to the edge of the city; Jesus blesses them; and is taken up to heaven. Strikingly, there is no sadness or disappointment here. We have the short phrase of Luke describing their immediate reaction – “they did him homage” – and their continued reaction – “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God” (Luke 24:52-53).
As we hear this gospel today, these last verses, right now, converge with our present moment of prayer. That same great joy is given to us. It is not a joy that we are meant somehow to conjure up within ourselves. It is given us as the ascended Lord’s gift. This is what Word and Sacrament deliver. The disciples being continually in the temple praising God is continued now in this liturgy and in our daily and hourly praise in this monastery. And like the disciples, we are here to do homage to our risen and ascended Lord.
We should wonder at this fact: that Jesus is taken from our sight and yet there is great rejoicing. He prepares us for this with his teaching. He says, “A little while now and the world will see me no more; but you see me because I live and you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:19-20). So, “taken from our sight” means Jesus being in his Father and Jesus being in us. This is amazing. This is wondrous. This is today’s feast.
The Ascension gives a perspective of what maybe could be called the ontological measurement of the death of Jesus. Here’s what I mean. Something of infinite proportions happens as Jesus dies. It is all divine action, even as human nature, in the human nature of Jesus, is the instrument of this divine action. It is sheer and total divine action. Not just one thing like the making of a flower or a mountain. It is totally God being God in the death of Jesus. And so it is Father, Son, and Spirit all acting; and the action is the pouring out of the divine life into the whole of creation to bring it into communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This death of Jesus is a horrifying, excruciating death because this divine outpouring happens where sin reigns. But it is likewise simultaneously glorious because it is Father, Son, and Spirit being love in this realm and in this way. Ascension leads us to a level of the mystery where we do not find a clear distinction between death and resurrection, just as in the Scriptures the words pasch andpaschal mean both the death and resurrection. So, resurrection is not a sort of “oh whew, death – that was awful, thank God that’s over.” Instead “resurrection” is the sense of this wondrous outpouring of the divine life that the death of Jesus is never ending. That giving is always happening, that life-giving death is always present. It coincides with the Son’s always being being-begotten, and in it, then, the Father is present as begetter, and “the Spirit scrutinizes” (1 Cor 2:10) all this and gives us understanding and communion in it all. That is resurrection. And, of course, it is another realm. And it is Ascension because we see him no longer. And it is all spirit as “God is spirit” (John 4:24). And so, one doesn’t see or touch Jesus as just being up and running again. One has a huge yet tentative sense of his new presence, the newness of his giving himself to me – to us all! – by means of his death, which never, never stops pouring out divine life into the whole creation. So, his death merges into this continuous presence which we can also call resurrection and can also call ascension. This is the sense of what we Catholics have loved to say for centuries about the sacrifice of Calvary being present on our altar during the celebration of Holy Mass.
The sense of this is always strong in the celebration of the Mass, particularly in that space in the Eucharistic Prayer between the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the consecration. As the words of institution begin, and with our general sense of knowing all that is about to be accomplished right here on the altar before us, we can sense that this remembering of the words and actions of Jesus at the Supper are never over. These words and actions are already a part of his death, for by means of his words and gestures he is expressing his willingness to go to death for our sake (“… my body given up for you … “my blood for you and for many”). The death that never stops being the outpouring of divine life began in the supper, and so the memory of the supper places us again inside the event of that giving. That event is never over, and it’s never being over is resurrection. And that event is not one event among many, but it is infinite divine total action of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in relation to their creation. It is their communion among themselves being given in communion with the whole creation. It is everything. Or what is not this is hell, is nothing, is death and sin.
So today Jesus is taken from our sight – which means that he is in the Father and he is in us. And we are continually in the temple giving praise and thanks to God.