Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascension, Year B.
I don’t know about you, but for the past week or so, there’s been one team and one man on my mind. This team has sometimes had 12 men on the field, sometimes 11. The man who leads them has been with them for several years. He’s been their teacher and their friend. They’ve seen this man do amazing things, and they’ve witnessed the role that Mary has had in some of the more miraculous things he’s done. Thousands flock to see this man on Sunday, some in person, some on TV. He has a world-wide following. But this man is on the verge of leaving his team. Some think this will be a good thing for the team. Some can’t imagine the team without him. The man I’m speaking of, of course, is Jesus Christ. Who else could you possibly think I was referring to?
Today, in our first reading, a team of 11 players watch their teacher, leader, and friend leave them behind and ascend into heaven. And while it as at least conceivable that Aaron Rodgers leaving the Packers could be a good thing, it’s hard to imagine how Jesus leaving His apostles could possibly be a good thing. Wouldn’t it be better if Jesus had remained on earth forever? Wouldn’t it be better if Jesus were still with us today in the same way that He was with His apostles two-thousand years ago? Why is Jesus’ ascension a good thing? Why is it something to celebrate?
While this might sound counterintuitive, Jesus’ ascension into heaven is a good thing because it makes our faith a risky business. In fact, it makes possible a kind of risk without which it’s impossible to have genuine faith. For genuine faith, like genuine love, always involves taking a risk. When someone says, “I love you,” to accept and return that love always involves taking a risk. And the reason for this is that love, like other things we believe in, is not something which can be directly seen, measured, and proven beyond all doubt. While metal detectors do exist, love detectors do not. Love cannot be put under a microscope or isolated in a test tube. We can look for signs of love: expressions of affection, a willingness to sacrifice, a record of fidelity and commitment, but these still do not prove beyond all doubt that someone loves us. The one who says to us, “I love you,” can show us a thousand signs of that love, but to accept and return that love, to say, “I love you too,” still involves a risk. But this risk is a good thing. In fact, it is precisely what allows for a deep and intimate relationship to develop between two people. Because there is no absolute guarantee in love, because it involves taking a risk, love challenges us to open ourselves up, to make ourselves vulnerable. Depths of our being, which would otherwise remain closed off and unexposed, are shared with the one we love—all because of the risk which love demands.
If Jesus had not ascended into heaven, but remained on earth, our faith would not require this same kind of risk. It would be no risky business to believe in Jesus, or at least the risk would be greatly diminished. We, like St. Thomas the Apostle, might prefer a safer faith, a faith that takes no risks and accepts nothing beyond what can be directly seen, measured, and proven beyond all doubt. We too might want to touch Jesus’ hands and feet and place our hand in His side. But then Jesus would not say to us, as He said to St. Thomas, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). Because Jesus has ascended into heaven, our faith is a risky business, but in the best way possible. This risk, if we are willing to take it, allows for a deep and intimate relationship to form between us and Jesus. Because there is no absolute guarantee in our faith, because it involves taking a risk, it challenges us to open ourselves up to Jesus, to be vulnerable before Him. Depths of our being, which would otherwise remain closed off and unexposed, and shared with Jesus—all because of the risk which post-ascension faith demands.
The faith which has been poured into our souls at baptism, strengthened through confirmation, and nourished through worthy reception of Holy Communion, is a faith that involves taking a risk. If we are not willing to take a risk on Jesus and for Jesus, our faith will remain stagnant. We will be safe, but we will be bored. A faith that is unwilling to take any risk is a boring faith. A faith that is unwilling to take a risk is hardly worth living for, and certainly not worth dying for. “Life with Christ is a wonderful adventure,” St. John Paul II once said. But it is precisely an adventure if, and to the extent which, we are willing to take a risk on Jesus and for Jesus.
Jesus has made it possible for us to take this risk by ascending into heaven. He has made it possible for us to have genuine faith in Him. That is why His ascension is a good thing. That it is why it is something to celebrate. And He has not left us alone to take this risk without His help. Ten days after His ascension, on the feast of Pentecost, Jesus and the Father sent the Holy Spirit to strengthen the apostles so that they could take the risk that is required for genuine faith. Without this strengthening grace, the apostles would have stayed safe and sound in the upper room and never ventured out into the world, risking their very lives, to be witnesses to Jesus “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This same strengthening grace has been made available to us through the sacrament of confirmation. If we are confirmed, and find our faith stagnant, we should call upon the Holy Spirit to renew this strengthening grace within us, to stir up in us a willingness to take a risk.
Friends, if we find our faith boring, it’s probably because we haven’t taken a risk on Jesus and for Jesus; we’ve opted for a safter, but ultimately unsatisfying, faith. Our faith is boring only to the extent to which we are unwilling to take a risk. The feast we are celebrating today has made taking this risk possible. Take this risk, open yourself up to Jesus in a new way this week. Take the risk of praying 15 minutes a day this week. Take the risk of praying before your meal at a restaurant. Take the risk of spending time in Eucharistic Adoration. Take the risk of keeping the commandments. Take the risk of going to confession. Take the risk of telling a friend, family member, or coworker about your faith in Jesus. Take the risk of making a vocational commitment. Take the risk of fasting or giving alms to the poor. Take the risk of visiting someone who is sick or lonely. For those who are live streaming, take the risk of coming to Mass in person. Take some sort of risk this week, and rediscover—or perhaps discover for the first time—that life with Christ is indeed a wonderful adventure. Amen.