There the Action Lies

(Homily for Feast of Ascension, Year A)

First I want to wish the moms here a Happy Mother’s Day. Fr. Ramon and I are offering a novena of Masses for our own mothers, who have died, as well as for those of Holy Family parishioners, whether living or deceased.

This novena of prayer helps us to focus on our hope of future reunion. As Christians we have a vision of something beyond what we immediately experience. The vision can take work to hold onto. You would think that as a priest it would be easy to maintain the vision, but it is not. I will be honest with you. I often get bogged down in immediate concerns which seem more important than prayer, things like broken kneelers and burst water pipes, staff conflicts, collections, school enrollment, consultative bodies, Mass attendance and so on. When people ask me how things are going in the parish, I will usually point to one of those areas. They are important, but it would be a great irony if, as a priest, I gave the impression they are what most matters.

The Scriptures challenge us to ask what really counts. To appreciate biblical teaching we have to get inside a viewpoint which can at first appear difficult for modern people. The Bible presupposes that we belong to a “two story” world - not in a naive sense like the Russian cosmonaut who thought that his flight above the atmosphere disproved God's existence. The two levels are not strictly spatial, but they are nonetheless real. We live on the “ground level” and its demands and distractions can easily overwhelm us. That does not mean the upper level ceases to exist. We can close the shades, but we cannot blot out the sun.

To understand what I am talking about, it might help to step outside the Bible for a moment. A section from Shakespeare illustrates this split-level universe and how the level above is more significant than the one below. In the play Hamlet, King Claudius had murdered his brother so he could seize the crown – and marry his sister-in-law. At one point, he attempts to pray in order to gain forgiveness for what he has done. But he cannot pray. His words are weighed down by his attachment to earthly power and to the queen. The king notes that here below it is easy to deceive and to cheat justice – especially if one rules over others. Nevertheless, he realizes: “'tis not so above; there is no shuffling, there the action lies.” Claudius sadly concludes:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

In today's readings we see the same superiority of the world above. Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” It happened amid “trumpet blasts” and “shouts of joy.” Paul tells us where Jesus is: at the Father’s right hand, thus possessing ultimate authority. Holding “all power in heaven,” he obviously has power over this puny planet.

This viewpoint jars our modern sensibilities. We have grown accustomed to talking about “the real world.” By it we mean things like the price of gasoline, election results, medical diagnoses, job openings, investment portfolios, judicial rulings, crime prevention, wars, the environment, etc. Those things of course are important - and they should provide the grist for our prayer. The problem is that they can take on such a magnitude in our minds that, next to them, prayer and worship can seem like escapes from reality.*

Fearing the accusation of escapism, modern preachers will sometimes take refuge in the admonition, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” You can almost hear the sigh of relief pass through the congregation as the preacher urges them to get busy with the concerns of this world, to stop thinking about the world above or the world to come. Well, there is a grain of truth here. This life is serious – but only because it intersects with the world which ultimately counts. If it were not so, your life and mine (and that of the entire human species) would, in the final analysis, have no more worth than that of a crow or a slug. Pope Benedict expressed it this way in his inaugural homily:

“Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”

Like the apostles in today’s Gospel, it is easy to doubt the reality of Christ. But like them, we draw near and worship him. Precisely because of his Ascension into heaven, he is near to us. He says as much in the final words of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”


*The suggestion that religious practice is a kind of escapism has intimidated many Christians. Karl Marx used it with devastating effect when he asserted that religion is the opium of the people. Today you are more likely to hear the charge in the form of a mild sneer. Bill Gates made this now famous pronouncement: "Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning." I concede that religion is not efficient, but neither is watching a sunrise or listening to a symphony. More to the point, the charge can be reversed. Are not the true escapists those who "keep their nose to the grindstone," or, to speak more frankly, keep themselves so distracted they do not think about the possibility of a world above them? To pause and lift up ones head is an act of realism which can require considerable courage.

Spanish Version

From Archives (Ascension, Year A):

2014: Journey to Hope Week 7
2011: The Personal Center
2008: Ascension Quotes
2005: There the Action Lies
2002: Finding the Way Home (Ascension & Mother's Day)
1999: A Wake Up Call

From the Archives (Ascension Homilies):

2014: Journey to Hope Week 7
2013: The Way He Opened
2012: He Took Prisoners Captive
2011: The Personal Center
2010: Disappear vs. Leave
2009: What Good-Bye Means
2008: Ascension Quotes
2007: Separation of Church and State
2006: Whoever Believes and is Baptized
2005: There the Action Lies
2004: Forgiveness - In His Name
2003: What Does "He Ascended" Mean?
2002: Finding the Way Home (Ascension & Mother's Day)
2001: Submission to Jesus
2000: Beyond the Secular Paradigm
1999: A Wake Up Call
1998: Jesus' Rule Vs. Cafeteria Catholicism

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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