In his book Wonderful Life Stephen Jay Gould tells the story of great scientists blinded by an outdated paradigm. The pre-eminent paleontologist C.D. Walcott made a sensational discovery in 1909 - the "Burgess Shale". It contained fossils of ancient creatures formerly unknown to science. But he failed to see their significance because he was stuck in the Darwinian system which said living creatures had to evolve very slowly ("gradual changes in species through natural selection"). His theory pictured life as a single trunk branching into an ever more abundant tree. Gould describes how, because of that image, Dr. Walcott "shoehorned" Cambrian creatures into familiar categories. It wasn't until the seventies that a man named Harry Whittington re-examined the evidence and adapted a fresh viewpoint. Whittington and his associates broke out of the old evolutionary model to consider a reality more complex - and more mysterious.
We can easily get trapped in patterns which blind us to evidence right in front of us. The biggest one we fall into is also the oldest - the very human tendency to view life strictly from the framework of this world. That paradigm is sometimes called secularism (from the Latin word saeculum meaning world or age).
Archbishop Hunthausen gave an illustration of the secularist paradigm regarding a movie called War Games. In it a teenage hacker breaks the Pentagon code and triggers a nuclear war. "What amazed me," said Archbishop Hunthuasen, "was that in the movie the world is going to end in a half an hour. But no one mentions God, the afterlife or repentance. The nearest someone came was a guy who said he was sorry he never learned how to swim!" That world view, which our culture (newspapers, television, schools, etc.) constantly reinforces, is called secularism.
The secular mentality affects not only youth, but the elderly as well. Perhaps especially old folks because we have spent so many years seeing life as a struggle for position, security, health, finances - all the things important to this world. Once I visited a man who was terminally ill. I asked him if he were ready for death. He said, "Oh, yes, I have made out my will." With death so near and a priest standing next to him he could not break from the belief that what really counted was the money he had made.
This may seem amusing, but it is a tragic blunder. The greatest challenge for us today is to move beyond the secular paradigm. Ascension Sunday calls us to do precisely that. By ascending before the eyes of the disciples, Jesus demonstrates that a realm exists different from what we call the world or nature. It is "above" this world not in a spatial sense but because of its superiority. While everything here below eventually winds down, that realm possesses a real power to renew. Jesus is above the world, but not separate from it. He continues at work and one day will bring all things good, true and beautiful into his kingdom.
St. Paul urges us to lift our eyes from present cares to see Jesus seated at the right of the Father. Being at the right hand means authority. When all is said and done, we each have a simple choice - to accept Jesus' rule or reject it. But that choice is not one among many, like deciding the neighborhood where one will live. Rather it demands our whole being. People have been lulled into the idea you can be saved just by being sincere and benevolent. Let me say directly: sincerity is cheap. Hitler was a most sincere man. And benevolence is usually one millimeter deep. Consider another monster of the twentieth century - many who visited Stalin in the 30's and 40's came away impressed by what a kind, fatherly figure he was.
We can fool others with our mask of kindness, but not Jesus. He sees the pride and self-seeking within us. We have all witnessed gentle, kindly people explode when someone challenges them. I've done it myself. So have you. Do not trust your benevolent self-image. What matters is whether you allow Jesus to plant his flag in your heart. That alone will save you. Do not be afraid. He accepts even the tiniest act of surrender. However, in the long run he wants to rule every aspect of your life.
Cardinal O'Connor liked to tell the story of a fiery preacher and his rural congregation. What they lacked in size, they made up for with enthusiasm, especially one guy in the front pew. When the preacher denounced adultery, fornication and pornography, the man shouted, "Amen." Then he described how gambling ruins lives and families. Again the man bellowed his approval. Finally the minister talked about the danger of drink, how alcohol is the gateway to other sins. The man grew silent. Then he jumped up and said, "Stop! Stop! Now you are meddling!"
Well, each one of us wants to limit Jesus' authority in our lives. We pick and chose the parts of his teaching we like and quietly ignore the rest. I hear Catholic couples say, "the Church should stay out of people's bedrooms." Well, I have not been in any couples' bedroom (except perhaps to do a home blessing) and I don't want to be. But Jesus does. He is vitally concerned about what happens there because we are talking about the greatest earthly expression of love and the means for bringing new souls into this world.
Once I learned this way of making an examination of conscience. At the end of the day ask, What things did Jesus and I do together? For example, when I called that person who needed to hear from me, it was Jesus acting with me and thru me. But then later, I brushed someone off. Face it. I was acting on my own. Our life is a constant struggle to allow Jesus to take more authority, to extend his rule further in our hearts.
Ascension Sunday challenges us to lift our eyes from this earth, to break the age old paradigm of secularism, and to see Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father.
Is Stephen Jay Gould the Gorbachev of Darwinism? (Short Review of Wonderful Life)
C.S. Lewis' explanation of the Ascension
What is Secular Humanism?
From the Archives (Ascension Homilies):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
C.S. Lewis' explanation of the Ascension
my bulletin column
Parish Picture Album
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