Today we celebrate our Lord’s departure from earth. Forty days after the Resurrection, with his disciples and Apostles gathered around him, Jesus ascended back into Heaven. Back to his Father’s side. Back to where he had come from at the moment of the incarnation. And today we celebrate that return to heaven. But instead of making us sad we are filled with hope. In one of our prayers from Mass we hear, “Christ has passed beyond our sight, not to abandon us but to be our hope. Because where he has gone we hope to follow. If Jesus had not ascended into heaven, body and soul, humanity and divinity, we would not be able to hope for heaven ourselves, to be immersed in that Heavenly bliss.
Not long ago Pope Francis, when describing the Ascension, compared Jesus to a roped guy leading an expedition up a mountain. This roped guy has a strong rope tied around his waist, dragging yards of rope behind, with everyone following grabbing onto it. And when that roped guy gets to the top he turns around to pull everyone else up to the top. Jesus is like that lead roped guy climbing a mountain. When he gets to the top he turns around to pull us up. This heavenly rope of grace pulls us toward paradise.
At every Mass we get a hint of that heavenly rope pulling us up. There is one Mass in particular that stands out to me. It was the Mass where Fr. Jose was ordained with three other men to the Transitional Diaconate. It really made an impression. It was a beautiful Mass, there were flowers, the music was awesome, there was the choir the organ and the trumpets, the Cathedral was packed with people all dressed up, and the sanctuary was crammed with priests. I was in the back row smooshed between two other larger very healthy priests. Now for each reading someone from the assembly came up to the ambo to read the scripture passage. For the first reading the woman was very slow in making her way to the ambo, heads were beginning to turn. I’m sure they were thinking, “What’s going on?” I think the first lector was slow in realizing that it was her time to read. But when she got there she did a marvelous job. Next we sang the psalm, the choir did a wonderful job and everyone in the assembly sang along.
Now for the second reading the lector was very prompt in getting to the ambo, she learned from the first reader. But before she began to read, she blurted something out, now this isn’t something you’re not supposed to do, but she blurted something out, before doing the reading, she said, “This is Heaven!” Then she turned around to smile at the Bishop. Of course he smiled back at her. Then she began to read.
Those three words stuck with me throughout the Mass. The words, “This is Heaven” rattled around in my mind for the next hour and a half. Now it’s true, every time Mass is celebrated Heaven and earth are joined. One of our Deacons once said, “When we come to Mass it’s like dipping our big toe into Heaven.” Now right after Holy Communion I went back to my seat to make a thanksgiving and that’s when those words, “This is Heaven” really hit me. I felt the love of the Lord, I felt that rope tugging at me from above.
Every time we pray, every time we receive the sacraments, and every time we come to Mass we are making acts of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Sometimes our Lord makes these acts so very sweet that we can “feel” them within the depth of our soul. We feel his Divine presence. Now we don’t pray with the intention of receiving these consolations, we pray because that is our duty to God. But every once in a while to bolster our faith, hope, and charity we receive these little tugs from that heavenly rope. These tugs strengthen our theological virtues. It’s so very sweet.
If Christ had not ascended into heaven, we would not be able to pray to him at any time and in any place, we would not be able to have him close by in the Eucharist, because if he had not ascended he would still be limited by time and space. May 17th was the Feast day of St. Paschal Baylon and he took advantage of fact, of praying to our Lord at any time and any place he found himself.
St Paschal Baylon was a Spanish peasant, and he was a shepherd for the first 24 years of his life. He could barely read, but he loved Christ, and he had a special understanding of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. He had to stay with his sheep all day, from morning to night, everyday which made it impossible for him to go to Mass every day. So he did the next best thing. At the hour Mass was being celebrated, he would kneel on the hillsides, gazing at the church in the valley, and pray, uniting himself to Christ who was renewing his sacrifice and presence through the priest’s ministry. Eventually, St Paschal found his vocation to become a religious brother. He joined the local Franciscan community and encouraged everyone by his virtue, joy, and good humor. During free moments between duties, he could almost always be found in the chapel, speaking with Christ in the Eucharist. To casual onlookers he was kneeling on a hard stone floor here on earth, but in truth he was enjoying the presence of our King who sits forever on his throne in heaven. He died when he was only fifty-two, at the very moment that the bell rang to signify the consecration at Mass.
On this Ascension Day we especially remember the virtue of hope. And as Christians we can hope more than anyone else, because Christ has ascended into heaven in his human nature. Jesus is now ruling the universe in his human nature. His Ascension is a bridge, a rope, between heaven and earth. We are not abandoned. We are guaranteed a room in the Father’s house because Jesus has gone to get one ready for each of us. Those who die in Christ’s friendship will not melt back into some impersonal void. We will not be annihilated we will not lose our humanity; we will experience it to the full and then some.
As Pope Francis said, “Jesus is like a roped guy climbing a mountain. When he gets to the top he turns around to pull us up.” Sometimes we feel that rope tugging us up, sometimes we don’t but in the virtues of faith, hope and charity let yourself be pulled to Heaven, repeatedly put yourself in a place to be tugged up to Heaven. Repeatedly put yourself in a place of prayer, and sacrament, and Mass, put yourself in a place to be tugged up to Heaven. It’s so sweet!
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley