Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. June 2, 2019
Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Lk 24:46-53
The Ascension: Time to take heaven seriously
Two Catholics made the headlines a few days apart in the last week. The first one is United States’ Democratic presidential candidate and Senator, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who rebuked the Church’s scriptural, magisterial, and traditional teaching on male-only ordained priesthood, and the evil of abortion and homosexual activities. In her words,
“I think [the Church] is wrong on those three issues. And I don’t think they’re supported by the Gospel or the Bible in any way. I just–I don’t see it, and I go to two Bible studies a week. I take my faith really seriously.”
But when pressed about her readiness to give witness to her faith in public, she responded, “It (her faith) is not an issue that I talk about really outside of a worship service or a faith-based community because it can be offensive to some people, can be troubling to some people.”
Ironically, she claims to take her faith very seriously while rebuking the unchanging teaching of the faith in public. She also claims to take her faith seriously but she is unwilling to publicly share with others the hope and truth of her faith because she does not want to offend them. What about other Catholics who are hurt by her words? It appears that the seriousness of her faith begins and ends only in the confines of her bible study and when the opportunity comes to publicly ridicule and reject the teachings of the faith.
The second Catholic that made the headlines recently is Providence bishop, Bishop Thomas Tobin. He admonished and warned Catholics about attending or supporting the “pride month” festivities that highlights and celebrates homosexual activities and unions in the month of June. He had tweeted:
“A reminder that Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children.”
Understandably his tweet drew the ire of many people who support, are involved in, or sympathetic to the homosexual lifestyle. He was condemned and mocked for his views and solid Christian teaching on homosexuality.
The good bishop did not back down but retweeted recently, “The Catholic Church has respect and love for members of the gay community, as do I. Individuals with same-sex attraction are beloved children of God and our brothers and sisters.” He rightly affirmed their dignity as God’s beloved children but did not take anything back about the evil and destructiveness of homosexual activities and unions.
As we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven, we need to ask ourselves which of these two examples of our Catholic brethren we should follow. Are we going to claim to be Catholics while picking and choosing the teachings that are suitable to our taste and least offensive to our secular world? Or are we going to speak the unchanging truth in love like Bishop Tobin, truths that affirms the value and dignity of every human person as well as the universal demand for ongoing repentance and conversion from sin?
In case we are not sure which of these examples we want to follow, let us reflect briefly on the meaning and implication of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven.
What is the Ascended Christ doing in heaven? The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “He lives to make intercession for those who draw near to God through Him.”(Heb 7:25) In other words, the glorified Christ is never idle or resting but He is praying and laboring for us to have access to all that He was won for us by His death and resurrection. It is because He has ascended into heaven that we have the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit with us today. In the words of Jesus, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor (Holy Spirit) will not come; but if I go, I will send Him to you.”(Jn 16:7)
Because Jesus ascends into heaven and constantly sends us His Spirit, we have access through the same Holy Spirit to all that we need for salvation. By possessing the Spirit of Jesus in us, we have what St. Paul enumerated to the Ephesians: “wisdom and revelation resulting in the knowledge of Him (God),” access to the “riches of glory in His inheritance,” “hope that belongs to His call,” and the “greatness of His power for those who believe.” Because of the Ascension, we lack nothing for salvation.
“Left to its own natural powers humanity does not have access to the ‘Father’s house,’ to God’s life and happiness. Only Christ can open to man such access that we, His members, might have confidence that we too shall go where He, our Head and our Source, has preceded us.”(CCC 661)
If Jesus Christ suffered and died for us during His earthly life, and the now glorified Christ is not idle but laboring for us to have access through His Spirit to all that we need for our salvation, then we too cannot be idle in any way if we are really taking heaven seriously. Having the Spirit of Christ in us today, we too must constantly labor for our salvation and for the salvation of others.
Prior to His glorious Ascension, Jesus described the exact nature of this labor that must be undertaken under the inspiration of His Spirit. The first labor is that of constant repentance from our sins and proclaiming that same repentance to others. Because “Christ suffered and rose from the dead,” this is a time for deep ongoing conversion on our part and “for the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His name.” The second labor is to give witness to the risen Christ, His words, and saving deeds, to others by our words and actions. In the words of Jesus, “You are witnesses of these things.”
We need the aid of the Holy Spirit for this constant repentance and witnessing to others. Hence Christ promised to send us the Spirit, “And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” It is the Spirit of Christ within us that moves us to repent of our sins constantly first, then moves us to invite others to do the same and to bear witness to Jesus Christ before others whether they accept us and our message or not. This is the only way can begin to take heaven seriously.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, Heaven is not for idle and lazy persons, people who have chosen to make a compromise or pact with sin in any form or who are indifferent to the eternal salvation of others. Our secular culture’s individualistic tendencies lead us to hide within us the truth and hope that we have received from the Holy Spirit while we watch others gleefully parading to eternal peril. Jesus Himself warned us, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”(Mt 7:13)
One of the most common negative responses to Bishop Tobin’s tweet were aimed at reminding him and others of the Church’s sexual abuse crises and how young boys have been molested by clergy and the wicked cover-up by the hierarchy. The credibility of the Church has been badly damaged by the scandals. It can indeed be very hard to witness to others and to call them to conversion when the Church itself is plagued by scandals.
Two things to keep in mind. First, we do not call others to repentance and give witness to them without constantly laboring for our own repentance first. The scandals in the Church show that we have ignored this point to our own detriment. Secondly, we give witness and call others to repentance, not because we are sinless ourselves, but because Jesus, our High Priest, loved us all sinners enough to “purchase the Church by His blood,”(Acts 20:28) and He is laboring for our salvation today and constantly sending us His Spirit.
Because Jesus, our Eternal High Priest, is laboring and praying for us even now in our world of evil and scandal-ridden Church, He remains the “center and principal actor of the liturgy that honors the Father in heaven.”(CCC 662) We can encounter Him in this Mass and partake of His Spirit in the Eucharist only because He does not cease praying and laboring for us all. This is how seriously Jesus takes our salvation. What about us? We shall be taking heaven seriously when we too labor for the sake of Christ and for the eternal salvation of others. This is the only way we can ever hope to enter into His heavenly kingdom.
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!