Some of us here are certainly old enough to remember the wonderful former custom of ceremonially extinguishing the Easter Candle – the symbol of the Risen Christ’s presence among us – after the reading of today’s Gospel. Even more dramatically, in certain places in earlier centuries, either the candle itself or a statue of the Risen Christ would be hoisted up to the church’s ceiling until it disappeared though an opening of the roof, often to be replaced by a shower of roses as a sign of Christ’s parting promise to give the Holy Spirit to the Church. The point of such rituals, of course, was not to highlight Christ’s absence. As the Church prays in the Preface of today’s Mass: he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.
Historically speaking, the Ascension commemorates the end of the Risen Lord’s periodic appearances to his disciples in the period after his resurrection. The Risen Jesus no longer walks earth the way he did before he died and rose. Rather, as Luke says in today’s 1st reading, he appeared a number of times to his disciples during a period of 40 days, speaking about the kingdom of God.
So if he doesn’t walk the earth as he did before, where exactly is he? Theologically speaking, the Ascension celebrates what we say every Sunday in the Creed, that he is seated at the right had of the Father. As the Church prays today in the Eucharistic Prayer, he placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself. On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, pilgrims can see a footprint-like depression in a rock, which purports to be the spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven. The footprint may be a bit fanciful, but it does make the point that it was Jesus’ real human body (and thus the real human nature that we share with him) that is now with God. As Saint Augustine famously said: “although he descended without a body, he ascended with a body and with us, who are destined to ascend … on account of our oneness with him” [Sermon 263].
So the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. Meanwhile - in this interval between Ascension and the end – though he is absent, he has nonetheless promised to remain present: behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age [Matthew 28:20]. Of course – in this interval between Ascension and the end, a time of economic, social, and political problems, both domestic and foreign, and of crises in the Church, not to mention all our own personal problems and worries – we too may be tempted to doubt, just like the apostles in the Gospel. So, for us, celebrating the Ascension really becomes about Jesus’ parting promise, behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age, and his important instruction to his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father.
As you know, I have been in Washington, DC, this past week serving as a delegate to our Paulist General Assembly. (In fact, I’ll be flying back there this afternoon for the second week of our Assembly.) As we as a religious community in the Church evaluate our present and try to prepare for our future, we are very conscious of our founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, who wrote, late in his life, of his “faith in the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit, and complete confidence in its action in all things.” He claimed to have lived his entire life under the Holy Spirit’s “influence and promptings.” He acknowledged that the Holy Spirit’s action is not necessarily always “clearly seen or known,” but he was confident that his “every step” had been directed by the Holy Spirit. “The whole aim of the science of Christian perfection,” Hecker wrote, is to instruct us “how to remove the hindrances in the way of the action of the Holy Spirit.”
Yesterday morning at the Cathedral we celebrated the ordination fo four new priests for the Diocese of Knoxville. Then, last evening, we celebrated the sacrament of Confirmation for about dozen young people. These are very special moment sin people's lives, moments when the presence and action of the Holy Spirit are very specifically invoked and highlighted. But our ascended Lord's parting gift of the Holy Spirit to continue his life and work in our world is not confined to just such special times and occasions. As individual disciples and as a parish community, we too are being invited – in this interval time between Ascension and the end – to recognize and respond to the Holy Spirit’s action in each of our lives and in our life together as God’s People in the world.
Homily for the Solemnity of the Ascension, Immaculate Conception Church Knoxville, TN, June 1, 2014