May 20, 2012 - Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9
Ephesians 1:17-23 or 4:1-13 or 4:1-7, 11-13
Mark 16:15-20

At Easter we celebrated the Resurrection. Today we celebrate the solemn feast of the Ascension, on which Jesus, forty days after the Resurrection, went up into heaven. Just as, on Easter, the Resurrection was the cause of great joy for us, so too, today, the Ascension of our Lord into the highest heaven is a reason to celebrate. This is the day when our humble humanity was carried up, in Christ, above every angel, beyond the most powerful creatures in the universe, to God the Father.

Today, in spite of what could reasonably have been expected, in spite of the withdrawal from sight of him who is the cause of our joy, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, love does not become lukewarm. We celebrate today because Jesus, the head of the Church, is with the Father, and we celebrate today because the Church, the body of Christ, survives, not without Jesus, but without being able to see him.

This event in the life of the Church proves how well Jesus had prepared his disciples, how great a light he put into their minds. After the source of light was gone, they continued to see by faith what they could no longer see with their eyes; they began to desire what they could no longer see.

Indeed, the current invisibility of our Savior allowed a great step of maturity in our faith, which no longer had to depend on what was visible. Our faith is stronger and more excellent, because sight, which comes and goes, has been replaced by a teaching, which remains. The illuminating rays of this supernatural teaching fills our hearts as no earthly light could. Before the Ascension, the disciples worshipped Jesus but doubted. Afterward, they worshipped Jesus and wondered.

This new faith, forced upon the disciples by the Lord’s Ascension, would have died away quickly if left to human strength. This faith is more than anyone can sustain by their own efforts. Yet, as we know, nothing was able to frighten it away, neither chains, nor prisons, nor exile, nor hunger, neither fire nor wild beasts, not even the most horrible tortures ever invented. Throughout the whole world, not only men but also women, little boys and girls as well, died for this faith. This faith sustained them through all, and, moreover, it has driven out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead.

How did this faith survive and become so strong? It was not by human strength. Consider how, forty-three days earlier, the Apostles, who had had their faith confirmed by countless miracles and teaching, were too afraid to stand with Jesus while he suffered and were not able to accept the Resurrection without doubt. Yet after the Ascension of the Lord what had before filled them with fear, now filled them with joy. Their faith that was conceived in the teachings and miracles, which was first tested in the pains of the Cross, and grew to maturity in the Resurrection and Ascension, is sustained entirely by the Holy Spirit.

The Ascension taught the disciples to think of Jesus as God alongside the Father, since the body of Jesus no longer stood in the way of their faith. Surely it was difficult for the disciples to worship someone whom they lived with, shared meals with, and talked with so easily. They knew he was God; Jesus had taught them that he was equal to the Father, but only after he left them, were they able to realize that he had always been in heaven even while he walked on earth.

Now they knew that Son of Man was truly the most excellent and holy Son of God, that he is worthy of all honor and glory with the Father. After the Ascension, even for those who had known Jesus in the flesh, he began to be understood as God. Most wonderfully, in a way that cannot be described in words, Jesus was now closer to them as God than he had ever been in his humanity.

Today the body was taken away from them, but Jesus came closer. He remains and always will remain fully human; his glorified body maintains its human nature, but we, his disciples, do not know him by physically touching or holding or seeing. We touch the Only Begotten One with our spiritual understanding. God has given us a Spirit of wisdom and revelation, resulting in knowledge of him. So it is that we know the Father through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. We know God through God by the power of God.

Someday, Jesus will come again. We must not let fools cause us to doubt the coming of the Lord. People often predict the coming of Jesus, and they have always been wrong. This does not reflect badly on his coming, but on the predictive power of those people. If the coming of Jesus is predicted a thousand times before he comes and he fails to come each of those times, that is no reason to doubt that he will come. He told his disciples, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.” We do not know WHEN he is coming, but we do know THAT he is coming. It is only our responsibility to be ready for the end of this age.

In the meantime, we have his promise: “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” He did not say, “I will be with you” but “I am with you”. Even as he was leaving us, he was with us. Even now, he is with us. Where is he? Our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. He is present when someone pours water and says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He is present when a priest says, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He is present when the bishop anoints a Christian with the Sacred Oil of Chrism and says, “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” He is present when two people give their bodies to each other in the lifetime commitment of marriage. He is present when a bishop lays his hands on a man and prays the prayer of consecration, making him a deacon or a priest or a bishop. He is present when a sick person is anointed by a priest who says, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

In these six sacraments, our Lord Jesus Christ, is still present among us. These have been his presence among us from the time he ascended into heaven until he comes again in glory. In each of these visible sacramental actions is the invisible action of Jesus. The seventh sacrament, of course, is different. There too the action of Jesus dying for us on the Cross is present when the priest says “This is my body” and “This is the chalice of my blood”, but it is only in this sacrament that the entire presence of Jesus, body, blood, soul, and divinity, remains with us, so that we can say as we enter this Church, “We are in the presence of Jesus Christ”, and we can say, when we receive Most Holy Communion that we have received Jesus Christ.