Our Faith in the Ascension of Our Lord
Reading I (Acts 1:1-11) Reading II (Ephesians 4:1-13)
Gospel (St. Mark 16:15-20)
Today, as we celebrate this glorious feast of the Ascension of Our Blessed Lord into Heaven, one of the problems that we face is proof. People like to have proof of everything. And considering that this is not the norm, and since we have not seen it, we tend to doubt. It is a human problem. When we stop to think about the fact that this only happened to a couple of people – Our Lord ascended of His own power into Heaven and Our Lady was assumed by the power of God into Heaven, that is it – we look at that and say, “How do we know? Are we really sure that this happened?” Those who want to doubt will look at the Gospels and say, “Well, they were just trying to make something up so people would believe. It’s a myth. It didn’t really happen this way.”
The thing that I have always found amazing is that, for most of us, if we would pull out a history book and read it, we would believe almost every word in it, and that written by somebody who was not even there and even by somebody who is writing perhaps a couple of thousand years after the fact. Still, we will believe that. The reason why we believe it is because this person is basing what he is telling us on sources that are close to the time. I have always found it interesting that when you talk to historians about the Gospels, what they will say is that Josephus uses Jesus’ name so we know he really existed, as though the Gospels, the writers of the New Testament, and two thousand years’ worth of saints is not evidence enough for these people. But because somebody who was secular used the name of Our Lord and talked about a certain Jesus who had lived around the time of Pilate, therefore Jesus really did exist.
The Gospels, above all, are the most historic books that we have. They are written by people who were eyewitnesses. They are written by people who certainly have a point that they want to make, but are not trying to make their point by making up stories or making somebody look good when they were not. All you have to do is read the Gospels and you see the human problems that the apostles had. You see the difficulties that the Church was facing early on. They are not trying to cover things up; they are not trying to hide things. If we read a secular history even the historians will say, “The problem is that history is written by the victor, and so we don’t really know if it happened quite the way that they said it did because they want to make their own battle exploits look a little better than maybe they really were.” The apostles did not do that. They did not try to make themselves look good. They did not try to present somebody as being heroic when in fact they were just like us, weak and flopping all over the place. What they did was to present the reality of things in the best way that they knew how. And as we heard in the first reading, Jesus had demonstrated Himself alive to His apostles in many ways after He rose from the dead.
Then at the end of the readings, Saint Luke speaks about the Ascension of Our Lord. Now we have no absolute scientific proof that this happened. We cannot. But that is also the reason why Saint Luke addresses his writing to a certain Theophilus – that is you. The word “Theophilus” means Lover of God. For one with faith, no proof is going to be necessary; for one without faith, no proof will ever be sufficient. It is not a question of having to prove scientifically that this happened; there are other things that we can look at. Saint Paul in the second reading, for instance, tells us that He ascended into Heaven and He has given gifts to men. All we need to do is look at our own lives. Well, maybe some of us better look at the lives of the saints instead; but at any rate, we need to simply look at the effect that the Ascension of Our Lord has had in the lives of millions of people throughout history to see the change in their lives, to see the holiness with which they lived. This is not something which one is going to be able to concoct in their own mind. If it is just a myth, it would not really matter to most people and they would recognize that it is a myth. And if it is just a myth, it would not change their lives; one would not be able to see the power of the Holy Spirit at work when we look at the lives of the saints. And if we are praying and trying to live the life that we are supposed to live, we need not look any further than our own lives and we will see the evidence of the Holy Spirit at work within us. When we see these sorts of things then we have to understand that this really is real. There are things that happen in our lives that we cannot explain by simple natural causes.
We need to stop and ask ourselves as seriously as we possibly can, “Do I really believe in all of the things that I profess when I pray the Creed?” That Creed is the synopsis of our Christian faith, but it is something which, especially when we pray it every single Sunday (and if we pray the Rosary everyday, we pray the Creed every single day), can easily run the risk of becoming just a bunch of rote phrases that we really do not pay much attention to. All we have to do is look at the first word and it says “Credo” – I believe. It cannot be just a bunch of rote phrases. This is the very essence of our belief as Christian people. So I really recommend to each one of us here that we take some time and ask ourselves as seriously as we possibly can, “Do I believe what I profess? Do I believe every word in this Creed?” because that is who we are. And it is only when we can truly say “yes” to accept everything that is there, to take it into our hearts and allow it to change our lives, only then will we truly be able to say, “I believe.”
When we are able to say that then we will be able to look into our own lives and see the evidence of the Resurrection, of the Ascension, of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, of the power of Jesus Christ working in us and through us as we heard in the Gospel reading today. So when we hear Saint Mark telling us that Jesus was taken up from their midst, when we hear Saint Luke telling us that He rose into Heaven amid the clouds and the angels appeared to the apostles, there will be no doubt in our minds. We do not need any kind of scientific proof and there never will be one because the Lord has confirmed this in many, many ways.
Once we can accept the reality of this then we need to ask ourselves the next question: “If He ascended and has given gifts, what are the gifts that He has given to me?” Each one of us needs to ask that because once we recognize what the Lord has done then it is up to us to respond. When we think about the Ascension of Our Lord, the opening prayer today said that the Ascension is our glory and our hope. It is our glory because Jesus Christ has taken our humanity into Heaven where it is seated at the right hand of the Father. And it is our hope because He has promised us that where He is we also will be. That is why we need to look at this for ourselves. It is not just some empty thing that we are doing, but in fact it is critical. All we need to do is think on the practical level and say, “Had the Lord not ascended into Heaven, we could all be celebrating the resurrection of the dead and that would be it.” We would be no better than the Jehovah’s Witnesses: We can all rise from the dead and stay on earth. No, thank you! Once around is more than enough for me of this life and of this world. If the Lord did not ascend into heaven, there would be no hope; Heaven would not be open to us.
But even beyond that – the fact of looking to the end of our lives and ultimately to our own resurrection and assumption into Heaven – we need to look at what is happening now. Because He has opened Heaven and because He has sent the Holy Spirit and filled us with various gifts, it is now incumbent upon each one of us to accept the gifts that He has given to us and to cooperate with the grace of the Holy Spirit so that we will be found worthy on the day that we leave this world for our souls to be able to enter into that mansion that Our Lord has prepared for us.
When we see it in that light, we begin to understand that we cannot just go through these liturgical celebrations in a rote fashion. We cannot just simply look at something like the Ascension of Our Lord and say, “Well, that’s nice. If it really happened it was a couple thousand years ago, what does it have to do with me?” It has everything to do with us…everything. We cannot keep these things at an arm’s distance; we must take them into the heart and we must live the mysteries that we celebrate. This is who we are as Christian people. Remember on Easter Sunday, the reading that we heard from Saint Paul tells us that we are already seated at God’s right hand. That is because Our Lord has taken our humanity; and because we are members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we are united with Him and therefore with Him we are already seated at the right hand of the Father. That is how important this feast is to us. Every single moment of our lives that we spend in the state of grace, this feast is central to who we are. We are not earthbound; we are already seated at God’s right hand in Jesus Christ. Therefore, Saint Paul tells us, we are to set our sights on the things above, not on the things of earth, because this is not where we belong. We are made for Heaven.
We live this life as sojourners, as foreigners passing through a land, but Saint Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Philippians that our citizenship is in Heaven. We need to live as citizens of Heaven, and we can live it already because it has begun. Our humanity has been translated into Heaven and each one of us as members of Jesus Christ is already there spiritually; all that we await is to go there physically. But before we can do that, we have to demonstrate ourselves as faithful and as worthy. That means to accept in our hearts what it is that we profess and to live it in our day-to-day lives. So in just a moment when we pray the Creed, even though the translation says “We believe”– and we do – the word that is there in Latin is in the singular: I believe. Really pay attention to these things and not only ask yourself, “Do I believe them?” but then ask yourself, “If I believe this, what do I have to do to live it?”
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.