The Ascension of the Lord
Responsorial Ps. “God goes up with shouts of joy;
the Lord goes up with trumpet blast.”
One of those little shorthand caricatures of history with which I was brought up was a description of the Arian heresy as a negligent sort of refusal on the part of the rank and file to believe in the divinity of Christ. As this thumbnail description goes, Arianism swept through the world of its time mostly by distraction and because misguided temporal rulers found the followers of Arius to be better political allies and an Arian “church” easier to manage than the genuine Catholic variety. This caricature is in keeping with a saying passed on, which I would not know where to begin to footnote, that runs: “The Church woke up one day and found itself Arian.” I’ve heard the same applied to the Lutheranism of the Scandinavian countries, namely that it was imposed by opportunistic political leaders and accepted without a fight. The people of the far north of Europe just woke up one morning different or “out of communion with Rome”. The rest followed from there.
I am neither going to unpack nor challenge the caricature. It seems too simplistic to be true. In a lot of ways, however, this thumbnail description fits your average contemporary “Machiavelli’s” predilection to seek as political allies progressive or nominal Catholics as opposed to traditional or practicing/serious Catholics, who from an informed conscience confess their sins regularly, who tithe, who fulfill the two great commands of love of God and love of neighbor, and who assist at Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.
Granted, such a shorthand description is a punch in the stomach also for people who straddle the fence, ever on the look-out for bouncy liturgy and lively music, not fasting before Mass and frequently wandering into church with gum in their mouths so as not to risk being sniffed by whomever and found guilty of bad breath. I would imagine that Sr. What’s-her-name of that Catholic Hospital Association in the U.S., who endorsed ObamaCare (shorthand expression) for a fist full of dollars and betrayed the Catholic moral witness so cautiously presented by the U.S. hierarchy, would be miffed at me as well if I called her a modern day Arian. Indulge my oversimplification just as you do it continually for anything anyone else may say who seems to have the “prince’s favor” and the upper hand in society today!
“God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blast.”
On the great feast of the Ascension of the Lord I think it is crucial to realize that when in the Response to the Psalm we sing “God goes up…” we are referring to Jesus. One of the constant worries of a dear, old priest friend of mine is that today in the Catholic Church they just may be many in number who miss that connection. He fears that those who discount the divinity of Christ may not be few or marginal in terms of the role they play in the “official” church. The refrain from today’s Mass “God goes up…” for them stands alone and does not connect back as it should to what we just read in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles about Ascension Day. It is a terrible thought but one I cannot really take away from him or lay to rest. There is too much out there to convince me too that lots of folks, priests included, do not get it (to use the colloquial phrase). They cannot distinguish between the glow of health, a face flushed after jogging, and the Glory shining forth on the Face of the Risen Christ, God made visible.“God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blast.”
Year C treats us to Hebrews 9:24-28. 10:19-23 as an optional second reading for the Ascension. What happened when Jesus was taken from the sight of the disciples by a cloud is explained there in terms of temple worship.
“It is not as though Christ had entered a man-made sanctuary which was only modeled on the real one; but it was heaven itself, so that he could appear in the actual presence of God on our behalf.”
On this Feast today, if you will, we celebrate the fact that the offering is complete. We wait only for our high priest to return, “… and when he appears a second time, it will not be to deal with sin but to reward with salvation those who are waiting for him.”
Today is really all about the “once and for all” of Jesus, how, as the passage from St. Luke’s Gospel describes the scene on the outskirts of Bethany, “… as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven. They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.” Salvation is accomplished; we need but wait for the return of the high priest.
I’ve started reading again the “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales. One of the counsels which he gives early in that book is to move quickly beyond renouncing sin to renouncing any affection we might have for sin as well. History explains in part Francis’ great success in bringing people back to Catholic faith by describing what a friendly and good man he was. They say similar of St. Norbert and his success as an evangelizer. Neither of these men could be classed dour or sour, in fact, Norbert is described as fun-loving. Nonetheless, I doubt if they would have gotten a kick out of the old country western refrain: “Temptation, get away from me… but not too far!” Patient confessors rightly encourage us to start again after each fall, but I wonder if they might not help us more by further asking us to face squarely the possibility that we might indeed have a genuine affection in our heart for that sin which pains us so each time we fall. Nowadays, you’ll hear tell of various types of addictions which are probably more aptly described in the words of St. Francis de Sales as an affection, a disordered affection, a real inclination toward evil as much as a denying what is true, good and beautiful, really. St. Francis de Sales, pray for us!
With our high priest interceding for us on the other side of the veil, the Ascension’s message has to be one of unbounded optimism in our struggle to conquer sin. “God goes up…” Our profession of faith in Jesus, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, is the cornerstone. We can draw hope from St. Paul’s encouraging words to his son in the faith, Timothy:
“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you. Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control.” (1 Tm 1:5b-7)
We need to rekindle or stir into a flame that which is so appropriately symbolized by our Baptismal candle and sad to say for many children just as carefully wrapped and packed away in a chest of drawers as the pretty candle itself was after the return home from church. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God: the words roll off our tongues but their profound meaning has to be renewed within a goodly number of Catholics. The faith must be rekindled. If you know your catechism, a resolution will help and so will a good confession. Not only must the sins be washed away but the cords which bind our hearts must also be broken. Let no one blush at the old recommendation to make use of confession for devotional purposes. I doubt if the word “devotional” there can be traced back to the school of St. Francis de Sales, but if it can’t it surely could find a worthy and worthwhile explanation in its providing an efficacious means for breaking the bonds which tie us or draw us to anything or anyone other than our great high priest who has passed through the veil and stands ministering before the throne of God on our behalf.
Let me repeat my refrain:
Come Thou, Holy Spirit, Come!
And from Thy Celestial Home
Shed a Ray of Light Divine…
Bend the Stubborn Heart and Will
Melt the Frozen, Warm the Chill
Guide the Steps that Go Astray…