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Keep your eyes on Heaven

May 17, 2015

A reflection on the Solemnity of the Ascension, cycle B. The readings are Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:17-23 and Mark 16:15-20.

I was speaking at a high school recently and I did my usual spiel about having one destination (Heaven) and then I say that actually there are two destinations but the second one is not such a great option. I want the kids to know that they have to aim for Heaven. Afterwards, the chaplain, who’s a good friend of mine, said to me, “I know why you tell the kids that they have to aim for Heaven, but for some of these kids that’s so far away. These are kids who are dealing with addiction and abuse issues, with gender issues and the breakup of the family. They need to know how to live right here on earth. And I thought, “That’s exactly why I tell them about Heaven.” Heaven is the anchor that helps us navigate through life.
Catholic singer, Sarah Hart has a great song that says, “any road will do if you have no destination.” Heaven is our destination. Knowing that helps us pick the right road: We keep our eyes on Heaven and our feet planted right here on earth.

And then I thought that this is in part what the Ascension story is about.

The Ascension story is found in two of the Gospels: Mark and Luke, and it’s also found in the Book of Acts (also written by Luke). In Luke, all the beautiful resurrection stories happen in one day. Jesus is raised from the dead on Sunday and that same day he appears to the disciples on the way to Emmaus; that evening he appears to the disciples in the upper room and that same night he takes them to Bethany where he ascends to heaven.

Matthew does not have the Ascension story, but he has the Great Commission (Mt 28:16-20) “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you and remember that I am with you until the end of the age.” Jesus does not ascend to Heaven but we associate the Great Commission with the Ascension because of what’s in the other Gospels.

In Mark (today’s Gospel reading for year B), the Ascension story was not even part of the original Gospel. The early manuscripts all end at the beginning of chapter 16 with the women finding the empty tomb; the angel tells them that Jesus is not there and then they run away and not say anything to anyone because they were afraid (Mk. 16:1-8). End of story. I guess Mark’s disciples didn’t think that was such a good ending to the Gospel so they added (much later) some of the resurrection stories and the Ascension story.

But it’s a bit weird – all that stuff about picking up serpents and drinking deadly things. We should not try this at home. There are churches in the states where they practice snake handling. And many people have died because they’ve been bitten by these snakes. So don’t try that at home, ‘cause that’s not the point.

The point is that we will have power when the Holy Spirit comes. It’s just that we don’t believe it. But if you’ve been baptised; in fact, if you’ve received any Sacrament; if you’ve ever received Communion, you’ve received the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is received with every Sacrament, especially the Eucharist and it’s also received every time you ask for the Spirit. So most of us have the Holy Spirit. We just don’t believe we have the power. That’s the power that St. Paul speaks about in today’s second reading (Eph 1:19-20).

In the book of Acts is where we get the Ascension story that we’re most familiar with. Here’s what I think is happening: The disciples are just recovering from the PTSD of the crucifixion and they are recovering from the shock of the resurrection and it’s taken Jesus 40 days to show them that he’s really alive, and to prepare them.

Then the day arrives. This is the day when everyone thinks that Jesus is going to restore the Kingdom to Israel; he’s finally going to take care of those pesky Romans. But Jesus has another plan. Instead he sends them to be his witnesses and in the meantime to wait for the Holy Spirit. And then he leaves.
And they are left staring blankly into the sky; not because they are in awe that they just witnessed an awesome miracle; not because they are sad that Jesus is gone and they will never see him again. They are left there dumbfounded in disbelief wondering, “What just happened? What ‘s does all that mean?” And then these two angels walking by see them staring up at the clouds: “men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? What are you looking at? Stop looking at the sky; look the Heaven and go and do the work that Jesus sent you to do.”

Keep your eyes on Heaven – that’s the promise, the hope that St. Paul also speaks about in today’s second reading (Eph 17:18) – but your feet planted on earth – that’s mission. That’s how we’re going to get to Heaven, together. That’s where we’re meant to go. While we believe that Jesus really did ascend in body to Heaven, the Ascension is not a literal going up to the sky; Heaven is not up in the sky. Jesus’ ascension is his uniting with the Father. That’s where we’re all supposed to go: to be one with God. St. Athanasius, Eastern Church Father, said that “God becomes man so that man might become god.” Sounds a bit heretical or even new age, but it’s true. That’s what we believe: that the temporal will become eternal; the material will become spiritualised; the divine will become human – and everything, all Creation will be in Heaven. Everything that’s physical will not be deleted in Heaven; everything physical will be completed in Heaven. Everything that is mortal will become eternal and divine. That’s what happens at the Sacraments, especially in the Eucharist. It is a meeting of Heaven and earth. In the Sacraments we get a glimmer of that unity that will be in Heaven. And at Mass it is represented when just before the Eucharistic prayer, the presider or the deacon if there is one, mixes a few drops of water into the wine and prays that “by the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” That is our destiny: to become one with God.

But we sometimes have the two extremes. On one end we have all the people who are too focused on Heaven. They are trying so hard to be holy and all the while ignoring everything here on earth. That’s not good. The other extreme are the people who are working so hard at doing good here on earth, but they’ve lost connection to the destination. That’s not good either. We have to find the balance. We keep our eyes on Heaven, but our feet planted right here on earth.

Men and women, readers of this blog, do not waste time staring up at the sky. Instead, keep your eyes on Heaven – and your feet planted here on earth, so you can do your mission: go out there and make disciples, feed the hungry, visit the sick, comfort the afflicted, bring joy to the sorrowing, share the Good News with the one who is hungry for truth. And do it with joy and kindness. If we do, we’ll find that Heaven is not that far away. In fact, we’re probably almost halfway there.

From → English, Reflections

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