Solemnity of the Ascension
Live-Streamed and Televised Mass (Coronavirus Crisis)
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
May 24, 2020
Feelings of Confinement
During this pandemic, we have all experienced confinement to one degree or another. Working at home may be convenient but we still want to get out of the house, perhaps to run errands or enjoy a meal or take in a movie. Instead, for some time to come, we will likely find ourselves mostly stuck at home. As a friend told me, she said, “It’s like the four walls are closing in on me.” My Mom, who is under quarantine, tells me that she feels “all cooped up”.
But feelings of confinement aren’t reserved only for the current pandemic. Even in so-called “normal” times, we can feel confined in other ways. We can feel hemmed in by a dead-end job that does not utilize our talents or by advancing years that limit our future possibilities and prospects.
A Deeper Kind of Confinement
There is yet another kind of confinement that we need to beware of, and it’s this: the confinement of the human spirit when it is cut off from God. In our postmodern world, more and more people have come to believe that they have no need for God or for any type of religious faith, and so they have built an imaginary wall between themselves and God. So we find ourselves living in a world that may be open to the most distant galaxy, but closed to the God who made us and who draws close to us.
But even in a society that increasingly functions as though God did not exist, there is something in the depth of human nature to be reckoned with … And that’s this little spark of divinity, this little slice of immortality that is within us … This glint of the divine chafes at the limitations of life and rebels at the thought of death. Deep down we know we are made for more, not only to have more but indeed to be more. But when we confine our lives only to this world, even if we prosper, sooner or later we will be confronted by the shortness of life and by feelings of futility. Human progress and prosperity – welcome as they are – do not release us either from our feelings of confinement or from the prospect of death. Of themselves, they can only help us create a nicer, larger prison. Imagine, then, how trapped people feel when they lack life’s necessities— adequate food and healthcare; decent housing; education; and employment. And so, to echo Paul Claudel, ‘our spirits rage against the cage’.
And how do we handle our ‘rage against the cage’? How do we handle that sense of futility that can tarnish our best efforts? Our dissatisfaction with life’s limits? Our fear of death and disintegration? In the 17th Century, Blaise Pascal observed that we often handle futility and fear, not by addressing their root causes, but rather by looking for distractions. In his day, if you were wealthy, you went riding, hunting, and attended lavish banquets. Even if you were poor, there were ways of distracting yourself back then. In our times, diversions and distractions have multiplied exponentially. Think, for example, of what is available to us on the I-phone we carry. Of course, not all diversions are bad; in moderation they are good. Yet, too much diversion leads to boredom, a boredom that tries to mask our mortality, our finitude, and our failures. What’s more, boredom often leads us to seek still other diversions, diversions that consume precious hours, time that should be used, not to avoid the truth about ourselves, but rather to seek that freedom we long for in the depths of our hearts: freedom from fear, freedom from failure and futility, freedom from death.
The Ascension: the Feast of Our Liberation
My friends, I submit that today’s celebration, the Solemnity of the Ascension, is the feast of our true liberation; in your kindness, please allow me to explain … We tend to think of the Ascension as a kind of aerodynamic feat in which the Risen Lord departed from his disciples and made his way to some distant place beyond the stars. Somewhere along the way, we may imagine, God’s only-begotten Son jettisoned that vexing humanity he assumed when he came to earth as our Savior. We may even fancy that the Lord was relieved to have done with planet earth, to have done with human nature and its foibles, and to get back to heaven, to that place where everything is good, glorious, and supremely joyful.
Like every caricature, there is a speck of truth in that description but not much. Actually, the authentic truth of the Ascension is much more wonderful than that, more wonderful for us “who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). For, in assuming our humanity, Jesus never departed from his heavenly Father but came among us to proclaim the news of his Father’s love, and more than that, to share with us the love he shared with his Father from all eternity. In a word, Christ came to redeem us of sin and lift us up to the heart of God the Father.
By dying for our sins, by rising from the dead, and now by ascending into heaven, the Lord has given you and me an escape route from the confinement of life. For, in ascending to heaven, Jesus did not depart from us, nor did he jettison the humanity he shares with us. Rather, he forged a path of freedom for us by bringing his crucified and risen humanity to the very heart of God, the God whose power and might and love are infinitely beautiful. In other words, God’s Son, who came to earth in search of a suffering humanity now ascends so as to raise up our humanity to heights we cannot yet fully envision.
In his 1st Letter, John says that what we will later be has not yet come to light (1 Jn. 3:2). Yet some things we do know about the life of those who see God face to face in heaven. They are free from the limitations of space and time; their relationships with others are not hemmed in by envy or grudges or lust; sin puts no limitations on their capacity to know and to love; they are free of the stark boundaries which death and the fear of death impose upon us. By keeping our eyes fixed on what is above where Christ is seated at God’s right hand, even now we are liberated us from the narrow confines of our lives, from the shortness of life, our fallibility, our sinfulness, our fear of death. We are not condemned to be finite creatures frustrated by infinite aspirations. By faith we begin sharing, in our current circumstances, the truth that sets us free and the love that will finally satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.
It should be an astonishing adventure for you and me, creatures of flesh and blood, to be plunged, in the midst of our earthly life, into the depths of the Trinity … to see by faith the Son of God bringing our humanity to the realms of heaven. What is more astonishing, however, is that we believers are not astonished … and that our lives are not more radically transformed. (Cf. Jean Danielou, Christ and Us, p. 51).
Beyond the Pandemics
These days many people ask how life will be different after the current pandemic. My guess is that, even after the coronavirus passes into history, the pandemic of unbelief and distracted living is likely to continue. Dear friends, it cannot be like that with us. Rather, this ongoing period of confinement, this moment when we experience the limits of human ingenuity … this must be the moment when we rediscover the limitless truth and love of Jesus, confident that where the Lord has gone, there do we hope to follow.
And so, gazing with the eyes of faith on our Risen and Exalted Lord, “may [we] know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for those who believe” [Eph. 1:18]. May God bless us and keep us always in his love.