It must have been 1970 or 71. The seminarians gathered on a hill behind the main building to celebrate Ascension Day Mass. Bright and sunny with a nice breeze. The opening song which featured guitar and tambourine was “Up, up, and away” accompanied, of course, by a release of helium balloons. The closing song was “Here comes the Son” with a S-O-N carefully inserted instead of a S-U-N lyric. Hey, in the post-Vatican II era there was some – well – experimentation in the way Mass was celebrated … and the liturgical police weren’t a vigilant as they were later to become. While you might (or might not) admire the creativity, there was something amiss in approaching the Ascension in that manner. It emphasized the bizarre, the unusual, the curious nature of the event that missed the central truth being revealed. What it doesn’t take into account is the angelic admonition. “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” The “two men dressed in white,” presumably angels, wanted the disciples, and want us, to stop looking for something which is beyond us and to start looking at what is around us.
You can imagine if the angels had paused after asking the question – Why are you standing there looking at the sky? – they would have gotten some interesting answers. Maybe St. Peter would have said, I’m just looking to remember all that we experienced with Jesus: walking on water, multiplying the loaves, healing the sick, raising the dead, changing water into wine. This is just one more miraculous thing we’ll never see again. Boy, those were the good old days. Perhaps St. John would have said something like this: when Jesus burst on the scene he was a superstar – the crowds, the excitement, the praise. Remember when they waved those palm branches? They wanted to make him king, you know. St. Matthew might have responded in this way. Wow, what a great scene. Let’s put some puffy clouds in the sky, maybe a cherubim or two. This will really play well in Peoria. If they had responded in that way the angels would have just shaken their heads. That’s not the point of the Ascension at all. It’s not about miraculous power or a superhero or a wondrous spectacle. The Ascension is about human destiny, about the whole point of human existence.
Who was it that ascended, that was lifted up, that was taken into the clouds? It was someone who was born into a poor family, who learned how to work with his hands, who went through ordinary childhood activities like learning how to read and write. The one who ascended used to go to church, attend wedding, cry at funerals, liked dinner parties. The disciples saw ascending someone they knew who got hungry, who threw over the occasional money changers table, who chatted up anyone, even a Samaritan woman or a pesky mother who wouldn’t leave them alone. The whole point of the ascension, therefore, was that humanity has been raised into the heights. We human beings aren’t just grubbing our way through the mud of life. We’re not merely the products of a blind evolutionary process. Life is not “a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more” but a prelude to a deeper and richer life. At the Ascension humanity itself was taken into the very life of God. In our creed we confess that Jesus “sits at the right hand of the Father” as a symbolic expression of the glory to which human nature is heir. But the Ascension is not only about the humanity of Jesus. It is about our humanity as well. Today we learn the startling, almost contradictory truth taught by the ancient Fathers of the Church: God became a human being so that human beings can become God.
Human beings can become God? When you know what human beings are like that seems like a stretch. But think about it: maybe we can’t create the universe by just saying “Let there be light” but we can create a new world of hope and joy by bringing light to those who feel lost and alone. Maybe we can’t part the Red Sea but we can forgive those who have hurt us and accept forgiveness from those we have hurt. Maybe we can’t rain down manna from the sky but we can help to feed those who are hungry by being involved in the food pantry or bringing a casserole to a neighbor or contributing to organizations like Feed the Children. Maybe we can’t make the lame to walk and the blind to see but we can help someone to find the right path and offer them guidance about the right way to go. We might not have the almighty power of God but with our own power we can make this world look a little more as God intends. We become like God when we show the God-like qualities of compassion, forgiveness, mercy, generosity, goodness, peace, love.
Why are you standing there looking at the sky? If you want to see the presence of God just look around you. That is why St. Matthew, in the Ascension scene at the end of his Gospel has as the last admonition “Go.” Go into all the nations so that everyone will know that God loves them with a fierce, unyielding love, just the way they are. Go and baptize them so they will experience who they are and whose they are. At baptism God names us and claims us a children of God, made in the divine image, full of grace and glory. Go, the ascending Jesus says and teach them what I taught you – that whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, that you are doing to me. Go, says Jesus, because no matter where you go, no matter where you are, I am with you, I am with you always even in the midst of a pandemic. I am with you today, tomorrow and, yes, forever.