He Took Prisoners Captive

(Homily for Ascension - Year B)

Bottom line: Flee the devil and become captive to Christ - his prisoner. He wants us to have true freedom. For that reason St. Paul says, He ascended on high and took prisoners captive.

Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. To explain the meaning of the Ascension, St. Paul quotes Psalm 68: "He ascended on high and took prisoners captive." What does this mean?

Christians have understood that Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father in order to open new possibilities for us. One Christian writer, St. Maximus of Turin, says that devil had held humanity captive, but that Christ came to bring a different kind of captivity. The devil's captivity, he explains, means enslavement, while Jesus captivity means restoration of freedom.

Jesus wants us to have the deepest and broadest possible freedom. Next Sunday I will speak basic human freedoms. The coincidence of Pentecost Sunday and Memorial Day weekend gives a good opportunity to speak human freedoms, beginning with freedom of religion.

Our bishops have written an important document titled "Our First Most Cherished Liberty." They address the issue of religious freedom in the United States and they bring out how all the other freedoms we enjoy are connected with religious freedom. That will be next Sunday. This Sunday I want to address the deep freedom Jesus opens for us by his Ascension.

Freedom in Christ contains a paradox. A paradox is something that at first appears contradictory, but on closer examination, reveals an important truth. The paradox of Christian freedom is this: If we want to truly free, we must first choose to serve Christ. We have to become his servants, his captives, his prisoners. For that reason St. Paul tells us that when Jesus ascended on high, he took prisoners captive.

Bob Dylan wrote a song, "Gotta serve somebody." Don't worry, I won't sing it but here is the refrain: "Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord. But you're gonna have to serve somebody." The devil tries to convince that we are autonomous - as if we could exist completely on our own. If a person thinks about it even for a minute, the idea is ludicrous. We find ourselves thrown into the world and ejected from it, sometimes without a moments notice. And while we are in this world, we are vulnerable to a host of forces from within and from without. The person who says, "I did it my way," may soon discover that he is doing it the devil's way. Satan wants to stir up arrogance - or false autonomy - so that he can control us.

Jesus - by way of contrast - wants to remove our illusions. He says things like, "Remember, O man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return." (cf Gen 3:19) I did not create myself - and from all indications, you did not create yourself - but if we turn to our Creator we can realize extraordinary possibilities.

Here is how it happens: First we become servants and then we become sons. We become captives to Jesus so that he can free us from the captivity of this world. As St. Paul says, "He ascended on high and took prisoners captive." He does not take us against our will. Here we encounter the paradox of Christian freedom. As prisoners of Christ we realize genuine freedom.

Let me make a comparison. I've sometimes asked people if they know who was the first prisoner of war - POW - to become a pope. They guess everyone from St. Peter to Pope John Paul II. But the answer is: The first POW to become pope is our current Holy Father - Pope Benedict XVI. At the end of the German Reich, the Nazis forced young Joseph Ratzinger into uniform. His family was profoundly anti-Nazi and the first chance he got, he deserted. Subsequently, the American forces captured him and he became a prisoner of war. Overall, he was a pretty willing POW.

Now, the U.S. Army is hardly the Kingdom of God, but you get the idea. You and I have to do something like what the teenage Joseph Ratzinger did: Flee the devil and become captive to Christ - his prisoner. He wants you to have true freedom. For that reason St. Paul says, He ascended on high and took prisoners captive. Amen.


Spanish Version

From the Archives (Ascension Homilies):

2015 (Year B): Disciple Makers Week 7: Be Part of the Story
2014 (Year A): Journey to Hope Week 7
2013 (Year C): The Way He Opened
2012 (Year B): He Took Prisoners Captive
2011 (Year A): The Personal Center
2010 (Year C): Disappear vs. Leave
2009 (Year B): What Good-Bye Means
2008 (Year A): Ascension Quotes
2007 (Year C): Separation of Church and State
2006 (Year B): Whoever Believes and is Baptized
2005 (Year A): There the Action Lies
2004 (Year C): Forgiveness - In His Name
2003 (Year B): What Does "He Ascended" Mean?
2002 (Year A): Finding the Way Home (Ascension & Mother's Day)
2001 (Year C): Submission to Jesus
2000 (Year B): Beyond the Secular Paradigm
1999 (Year A): A Wake Up Call
1998 (Year C): Jesus' Rule Vs. Cafeteria Catholicism

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