Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascension, Year C.
A father of four was accused of a crime he did not commit. At his trial, false evidence was brought against him and evidence which could have acquitted him was suppressed. He was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. All the misfortunes which later befell his wife and kids were blamed on him. Behind bars, the father was mostly forgotten. But whenever some new tragedy struck his family, the father was resurrected in people’s minds and all fingers pointed at him. Why weren’t you there? Why did you allow this to happen? No one thought to ask if they, not him, were actually the ones to blame. They were, after all, the ones who falsely accused and imprisoned him in the first place.
When faced with a tragedy—whether personal or communal—we often look for someone to blame. Those who directly caused the tragedy are the easy ones to blame. But there are also those who, in our opinion, are equally to blame because they allowed the tragedy to happen. Often, we think this second category includes God. When faced with a tragedy, we often ask, “Why weren’t you there, God? Why did you allow this to happen?”
When we reflect on Jesus’ ascension into heaven, what’s remarkable is that the disciples who witnessed this event did not think of Jesus as leaving them behind. In our first reading, we find the disciples looking intently at the sky as Jesus ascended before them. And in our gospel, the find the disciples worshiping Jesus and going forth rejoicing the moment He left their sight. They “returned to Jerusalem with great joy and they were continually in the temple praising God.” There is no sorrow or distress, no weeping or tears. There is no sense of a final goodbye or a permanent parting from a loved one.
From our perspective, however, we may be tempted to think of Jesus ascending into heaven as Him leaving us behind. It’s easy to think of God as being absent from our world or at least not interfering in its affairs. Many people think that way these days. Maybe Jesus walked this earth two-thousand years ago, maybe He was the Son of God. But even if He was, He left this earth and its troubles behind. Where is He now? Why does He allow bad things to happen? Why doesn’t He do something?
It’s easy to look at the world and complain about the state it’s in. It’s easy to decry the world as being Godless. But it’s much harder to admit the part we’ve played in there being less of God in the world. Of course, there are a number of ways in which this analogy falls short, but God is, in many ways, like the father in the story I told. We have put God on trial and have found Him guilty. His crime: telling us how to think and how we ought to behave. We have subsequently driven God out of our homes, our schools, our public discourse, and locked Him away in our churches. Occasionally, when something really bad happens, we remember God, but only to point our fingers at Him. Why weren’t you there, God? Why did you allow this to happen? We don’t often think to ask if we, not God, are actually the ones to blame. We are, after all, the ones who imprisoned God in the first place.
The good news is that the Ascension is not about Jesus leaving us behind. Jesus ascended into heaven, not to distance Himself from us, but to bring our humanity fully into the life of heaven. The marriage of heaven and earth, which began when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary, was brought to completion in Jesus’ ascension. Like two rings that are linked together, heaven and earth are now inseparably united. Jesus is like the engine at the head of a long train. Through baptism, we have been linked to Jesus. If Jesus is the engine, we are the cars on the train. And when He ascended into heaven, Jesus arrived at the light at the end of the tunnel. The goods news for us, then, is that even if our life here are earth seems like traveling through a long, dark tunnel; and even if it feels at times like we are the lowly caboose on an impossibly long train of cars; the good news is that we can trust that where Jesus has already gone, we will arrive one day as well, as long as we stay connected to Him. The good news is that even if we have given Jesus less space to occupy here on earth, by His Ascension, He has made space for us in heaven.
Until we arrive in heaven, though, the challenge is once more to give God the space that He is meant to occupy here on earth—space, first, in our own hearts; then space in our families, schools, community, nation, and world. The last two centuries have been a grand experiment to see what life would be like if we put God on trial and imprisoned Him on false testimony. In 1784, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant gave the famous definition of enlightenment as being freed from the “inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.” No one may tell me what is true—not my parents, not my ancestors, not my community, not the Church, and not even God. All these are a hindrance to my enlightenment. I alone am the sole arbiter of the truth, of my truth. The seeds of this way of thinking were planted several centuries ago, and they are just now coming to full blossom. And the fruit is violence and death. And how could it be otherwise? If no one, not even God, can tell me what to think or how I ought to behave, then everyone else is a potential threat to my freedom. And to secure myself against this threat, I may need to resort to deadly force. If there is not one God to whom all of us must ultimately submit, then unity can only be accomplished through violence, or at least the threat of violence. Unity can only be accomplished by one individual or group coercing the minds and wills of everyone else.
The world we see today has been in the making for centuries. It takes a long time for the ideas of obscure philosophers to become the commonly accepted opinions of everyday men and women. But it’s important that we recognize that the fruits of violence and death that we see today came from seeds that were planted long ago. And the only way to kill a weed, is to get at its roots. By His Ascension, Jesus made space for us in heaven. We, on the other hand, have been depriving Jesus of space on earth. If we wish to reverse course, if we wish to counteract the tragic descension we are on, then we need once more to submit to the guidance of God. For true enlightenment comes not from rejecting all external guidance, and following our own lights, but from submitting our minds and wills to the one who is the Light of the World. Amen.