At Mass Wednesday, Father E., who can’t get his hair cut without every daily-Mass-goer weighing in on the wisdom of his grooming habits, did a preemptive strike on What Happened to Ascension Thursday?! complainers. The thrust of his homily: The bishops in their wisdom moved the observance of the feast to Sunday so that as many people as possible might hear this most important message.
How important is this message? It’s so pivotal to our faith that when Melanie Bettinelli invited a pile of writers to contribute to her CREDO: Professing the Creed for the Year of Faith series, I did a happy dance when I got assigned to write on the Ascension. You would too, right?
Naturally you’ll want to compare your essay with mine, so here’s the reprint.
Also, did I mention you should subscribe to The Wine-Dark Sea? Well yes, you should. Even if you’re like me and it took you a little while to figure out the title.
We think of atheists as the people who actively deny the existence of God, but there’s a much more pernicious and widespread atheism among religious people today: Faithy-ism. We talk about God, and do God-themed activities, but we don’t really mean it. It’s all just a metaphor. Our spirituality consists of our deeply felt emotions and our mental catalog of Good Things That Happen, wrapped up all pretty in a cellophane bag of inspirational poetry.
It’s a vapid illusion, but an understandable one. When someone dies, what do we see? Nothing. To all appearances, the human soul is snuffed out. We’re left with a decaying corpse and a collection of memories. It’s hardly surprising if we conclude that “eternal life” must consist of little more than remembering the beloved family stories, combined with a reverent observation of how the well the oaks grow when their roots hit graveyard compost.
Want to find the world’s most diehard atheists? Pop into a parish and listen to the unscripted bits. If the songs and sermons are mostly about the works of good Christians, and not so much about the worship of God, you’ve found your spot.
The Ascension is the punch in the shoulder to this religious atheism.
And his companions asked him, Lord, dost thou mean to restore the dominion to Israel here and now? 7 But he told them, It is not for you to know the times and seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 Enough for you, that the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you will receive strength from him; you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem and throughout Judaea, in Samaria, yes, and to the ends of the earth. 9 When he had said this, they saw him lifted up, and a cloud caught him away from their sight. 10 And as they strained their eyes towards heaven, to watch his journey, all at once two men in white garments were standing at their side. 11 Men of Galilee, they said, why do you stand here looking heavenwards? He who has been taken from you into heaven, this same Jesus, will come back in the same fashion, just as you have watched him going into heaven.
(Acts 1: 6-11)
Here’s our Lord, fully man and fully God, body and soul united in one resurrected, eternally-enduring piece. He appears among the disciples for forty days, cooking, eating, admonishing – all the things a person ought to do. You can touch Him. You can split a fish sandwich with Him.
And when He ascends into Heaven, He doesn’t just wisp away like the cheshire cat. He doesn’t slip out the door and into the sunset. There He goes, up into the sky towards eternity, and there’s no nitrogen-rich corpse left behind. The body goes with.
That is our eternal destiny. Why do we recoil against death? Because we were made for something so much better. So much cleaner. So much more comprehensible.
And the clincher to the Ascension – and to the Assumption, and to the taking up of Elijah in the angelic chariot – is that we’ve got a handful of people who are waiting for us somewhere. We’re not sure where. But they’re out there. The place beyond all places is a place. Even as we sit here at our computers goofing off reading blogs, Our Lord, the Blessed Mother, and some debatable number of other humans are hanging out, body-n-soul, in a Heavenly place. They’re in a place where they can be touched, with a hand like your hand. They can breathe on you with breath like your breath.
Jesus isn’t just a warm feeling before we slip into eternal nothing. Heaven is no abstraction. It’s real. And we can go there.