As was the case yesterday, today I get to reflect a borrowed light and share with you a homily that is too big to remain parochial. This is an Ascension homily preached by a priest whom I have known for years, and from whose witness I have benefited intellectually and spiritually. He wrote me a few weeks ago after he read my “Cultural Mystics” post and said something like, “This is my Ascension homily! I will be preaching on the lay vocation soon.” I think maybe I wept, or at least fell backwards from my office chair onto the floor. I asked him for a copy of it and he graciously gave me permission to post it here. It gives me more joy than I can express to see this theological flame flaring up in the pulpit, and with a homiletic flair and eloquence that would put a smile on the face of old “golden mouth” St. John Chrysostom.
Enjoy and heed his words!
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Check the Hallmark store and you’ll notice that there are a couple of greeting cards for key moments in Christ’s life. There are cards commemorating Jesus’s birth (Christmas) and there are cards commemorating his resurrection (Easter). But the cards stop there in terms of key events in the life of Christ. Few of us in the United States give out Ascension greeting cards or Pentecost greeting cards. They simply aren’t on the shelves. I looked on the web site of the Printery House, the Christian greeting card and gift ministry run by the monks of Conception Abbey where I used to be a monk for many years. I did find holy cards and icons for the Ascension and Pentecost, although there are no greeting cards for Ascension and Pentecost. These two feasts would seem to be of little importance to many of us.
So beyond being a bit of biblical trivia that we might affirm as true, what does Christ’s ascension have to do with my waking up, pouring my morning coffee, checking email, and heading out to work for the day? How does Christ’s ascension matter to my life and my vocational commitments?
In the first place, the Ascension is critically important to how we understand the relationship of heaven and earth, and the reality of Christ’s sovereignty over all of creation. The problem comes from a very prevalent, but wrong, conception of heaven. Once you start to think of heaven, not as a place miles up in the sky, but as the intersection of the reality of God with us – an intersection that is to us unpredictable and uncontrollable – then you realize that for Jesus to “go into heaven” is not for him to go up as a spaceman miles into space somewhere, and not for him to be distant or absent now. It is for him to be present to us as our Lord and God “in whom we live and move and have our being,” as St. Paul said to the Greeks in the Aeropagus.
Because we haven’t taken seriously what Jesus said in the gospel today, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” we haven’t thought of heaven as the reality of God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” We’ve thought of it like, He’s gone away, leaving us to run things. No. He ascended not in the sense of being beamed up into the sky, but of ascending his throne as Lord of heaven and earth. The Ascension is Christ’s “enthronement.” What began as the cruel mockery, Christ’s crucifixion as King of the Jews, ends with the most surprising vindication. He was indeed King and did receive a throne. Failing to remember and celebrate the Ascension means our Easter season is incomplete.
As our resurrected and ascended king, Jesus gives us a command today. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Very quickly, the last sentence, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Jesus is with us always because no matter how sinful or saintly we may be, no matter how much we may realize and understand this or have no concept of it. First, last and always it is in Jesus that “we live and move and have our being.” Living and moving and having our being in Jesus is not something dependent on us. It is God’s gift, so there is nothing we can do; there is no place we can go to get away from him. As the psalmist says, “O where can I go from your spirit, or where can I flee from your face? If I climb the heavens, you are there. If I lie in the grave, you are there. If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell at the sea’s furthest end, even there your hand would lead me, your right hand would hold me fast. If I say: “Let the darkness hide me and the light around me be night,” even darkness is not dark for you and the night is as clear as the day.”
And the command he give us is “Go, therefore”, in other words, because all power in heaven and earth has been given to me, I command you to “Go…and make disciples of all nations.” So how do we do that? Of course through Baptism, but there is something much more that needs to accompany that and I want to speak about that in terms of how you live that out in your life.
The Second Vatican Council repeatedly outlined and clarified the role of the laity. But we don’t talk about it much or understand it anywhere near what we should. I suspect that the average lay person vaguely perceives Vatican II as a Council which opened the doors of the Church to the spirit of modern world, especially in the areas of liturgy and ecumenism. While there is some truth to this, the Council did much more. But first it is eye-opening to read the warnings of the Council Fathers and St. John Paul II regarding an essential element at stake in this matter of the role of the laity; namely, your salvation.
Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, makes a clear and serious connection between the laity’s life as Catholics in the world and your eternal destination, the fate of your soul:
This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. . . . The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation (GS 43).
Two common problems are pointed out in this quote from the Council: the shirking of responsibilities by those who would focus on their heavenly home at the expense of earthly duties, and, that which is much more prevalent, those who, due to a legalistic compartmentalizing understanding of their faith, divorce the practice of the faith from their everyday life. That tends to be prominent in our culture – faith is something you do on Sundays and something you keep out of the marketplace. This is directly in contradiction to the teaching of the Church.
St. John Paul II alluded to this same message in his Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, written immediately after the 1987 Synod of Bishops. He said:
At the same time, the Synod has pointed out that the post-conciliar path of the lay faithful has not been without its difficulties and dangers. In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world. (CL 2)
In talking about the temptation of being strongly interested in Church services and tasks, St. John Paul II was speaking about the narrowing of vision in considering ministries as those things that are connected immediately to the Church rather than understanding that the essential ministry of the laity is to become “actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world…”
Jesus told us that we are in the world but not of it; that we are citizens of two cities – that of earth, but our true homeland is heaven. Because we are members of both cities we cannot withdraw from the earthly one to focus only on the heavenly one, nor can we withdraw from the heavenly one to focus only on the earthly one. We must be connected to both worlds; in the world but not of it, as Jesus says.
We hear often about a vocation crisis and although there is a real crisis in regard to the number of priests, there is an equally real crisis in the area of lay vocations. A teaching and emphasis of Vatican II is the call – the vocation – to holiness as the essential basis for the Christian life.
This vocation to holiness points the laity towards their proper role: working in the temporal order for the kingdom of God. In other words, your daily life in the world is the particular environment and means for the fulfillment of the lay vocation.
It is your duty to engage in a sort of sacred subversion by which, grounded in holiness and filled with the Holy Spirit, you change the world from the inside, permeating it with truth and light. That is where you find your salvation – the fulfillment of your role in the world to be yeast in the dough, to be sacred guerillas changing the world by filling it with the word of God just as yeast fills dough with the spirit of carbon dioxide. Listen again to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
But by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. They live in the world, that is, they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life which, as it were, constitute their very existence. There they are called by God that, being led by the spirit to the Gospel, they may contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially by the witness of their life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they must manifest Christ to others. It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are so closely associated that these may be affected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer. (LG 31)
That’s what Jesus means by being yeast in the dough of the world. Again, this involvement of the laity in the world is not an option, but a command given by God, who desires all people to come to salvation. It is also the way in which the laity fully realize their true place and role in the Church. By bringing the Church to the world, the laity brings the world into contact with the Church, the Body of Christ, as the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church says:
The apostolate of the laity is a sharing in the salvific mission of the Church. Through Baptism and Confirmation all are appointed to this apostolate by the Lord himself. Moreover, by the sacraments, and especially by the Eucharist, that love of God and man which is the soul of the apostolate is communicated and nourished. The laity, however, are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth. Thus, every lay person, through those gifts given to him or her, is at once the witness and the living instrument of the mission of the Church itself “according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal.” (LG 33)
Each of the baptized has this as a primary vocation, a primary calling by Jesus. By a full response to the call of your primary vocation that you work out your eternal salvation through God’s grace. It is at Christ’s ascension that you received that call and it was handed on to you at your baptism.
So, waking up, pouring your morning coffee, checking email, and heading out to work for the day, make sure you prepare yourself for the work you are to accomplish each day by remembering this simple truth: Christ ascended into heaven and is enthroned as Lord of all creation. He is sovereign over your home and your workplace, over the order forms and the shopping lists, the vacation schedules and the work schedules, even the cranky co-worker. His presence through the intimacy of the Holy Spirit is yours, always and abundantly – in board meetings, in difficult or mundane conversations, in dark dungeons, and in tension filled court rooms. Christ ascended into heaven, and it matters for your life and your work today, because the manner in which you live out the mandate he gives you today will determine your eternal salvation.