NB. Deacons preaching this Sunday. Here's an Ascension homily from 2006:
The Ascension of the Lord (C)
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation and St. Paul Hospital Chapel
No one will accuse Paul of being a fuzzy dreamer. He is not known for his abstract idealism. Later on in his letter to the Ephesians, he exhorts the new Christians of Ephesus: “I
plead with you, as a prisoner of the Lord, to live a life worthy of the
calling you have received, with perfect humility, meekness, and
patience, bearing with one another lovingly…” Pretty words. Beautiful sentiment. But highly impractical, if not dangerous, for the Church! Besides, who can achieve this level of perfection now? Who can walk such a narrow path so confidently? Clearly,
Paul is wishing out loud here, or at best he’s violating our image of
him and exercising a bit of his never before seen idealism. He’s just setting the bar for us, calibrating the ideal soul for us to look to for guidance as we struggle along. And it’s not really clear how we are to achieve this perfect humility, meekness, and patience. What does he have to say about method or technique or first principles? It’s one thing, dear Paul, to show us an end, a goal. It’s quite another to teach us the means to that goal! Show us how. . .
And Paul would say here: “Oy vey! Have you been paying attention the last couple of months? Have you been listening to the readings, the prayers of the Church? Have you noticed the sequence of events since we entered the desert with Christ forty days before he suffered and died for us?” And we might respond: “Well, Paul, we’ve been paying attention…kinda, sorta. We’ve had Lent and Good Friday and Easter…lots and lots of Easter…weeks and weeks of Easter! But you’re avoiding our question. What
do the readings and prayers of the Mass, the sequence of events since
the desert have to do with your crazy dream that we live lives of
perfect humility, meekness, etc., etc.?” At this
point, we might imagine poor Paul hanging his head, but being the
excellent teacher that he is, he asks instead: “Who have you been these
last few months? Who are you becoming? And who will you be at last?” Uh?! we say. That’s right: who have you been? Who are you becoming? And who will you be at last?
In a homily on Ascension Sunday, Augustine asked his congregation: “Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now…?” He goes on: “While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth we are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.” How? Why was the Son made flesh? Why did he become sin for us? Why did he suffer and die? To make good theatre? To
fulfill some mythical Jewish prophecy? Entertainment for a cruel god?
How can we down here be up there with Christ in love? Who have you been? Who are you becoming? And who will you be at last?
Let’s remember where we are in our history: the Holy Spirit announces to Mary that she will bear the Word into the world. She says, “Yes.” Elizabeth bears the Christ’s herald, John, and he is born to call our hearts to attention. Jesus is born. He is presented to the Father in the temple as the first fruit of Mary and Joseph. He is baptized by his herald and the Father declares him to be the Christ. He chooses his students. He teaches them his gospel. He preaches and heals; he feeds and frees; he shakes the foundation stones and breaks the temple gates. He draws hungry souls and repels the self-righteous. He casts out demons and forgives sinners. He goes to the mountain, the river, the sea, and the desert. And there he is given the chance to abandon us, to leave us to our humane mess. Without bending his back or lifting a finger, he picks up his cross, saying, “Yes” to his Father’s will for him and for us all. Lent. On a donkey he rides like a king into Jerusalem. Palm Sunday. There he is betrayed, tried, betrayed again, abandoned, whipped, ridiculed, spiked to a cross, mocked as he bleeds, and dies. He is buried. Holy Week and Triduum. And Mary Magdalene finds his grave empty three days later. He is risen from the dead. Easter morning. Knowing
his disciples are fretful, he finds a few of them on the road to Emmaus
and reveals himself again, spending forty days with them. Blessing them a final time, he is taken up; he ascends into heaven so that all of us may be lifted up with him. But for now, we wait until the promised Spirit descends! And the church is born. Born once of Mary. Born again from the Spirit. And yet again—now—from the womb of your YES. Christ’s body is born.
In case you’ve forgotten: who have you been since Ash Wednesday? Who are you becoming? And who will you be at last?
Perfect humility, meekness, and patience. In his letter to the Ephesians this morning, Paul bestows a blessing. We
receive from God the Father: wisdom and revelation; knowledge of Jesus
the Christ; eyes and hearts enlightened to see and know his hope, the
wealth of His glory; to share in the inheritance of the holy ones, the
exceeding greatness and generosity of His power for all who believe. And here is what the Spirit says that we need to hear in this blessing right now: Jesus
is ascended into heaven to take his place of honor with the Father; he
is given a place above “every principality, authority, power, dominion
and every name that is named” in all ages past, this age, and in every
age to come. And in rising to the Father, the Father has “put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the Church, which is his body…” Perfect humility, meekness, and patience then are not passive virtues that leave us vulnerable in the world. They are habits of being that rise out of the rule of Christ in our lives. Does true strength need to exercise its muscle? Does true power need to show itself in action? Does true authority balk at being patient? No. Perfect humility, meekness, and patience mark us as belonging to Christ. As
his slaves, we live his life and die his death and rise in his
resurrection and we ascend, we ascend as his Body—one promise, one
blessing, one Spirit—living, dying, rising, ascending in Christ, with
Christ, as Christ.
Ah! There it is. There it is. As Christ. That’s the “how” of Paul’s dreaming and Augustine’s wonder. Let’s see: who have you been? Christ. Who are you becoming? Christ. And who will you be at last? Christ. Christ is your past, your present, and your future. Christ is who you have been all along; are right now; and will be when all of this is done. When you rejoice, your joy is Christ. When you suffer, your pain is Christ. When you fall, your bruises are Christ. When you stand again, your height, your dignity is Christ. And
when you accept the Spirit of Love, your Word, your deed, every breath,
every motion, every stir of air and eddy of scent is Christ. His ascension into heaven draws us up. His
Body, all of us, his Body is drawn up and, on our way there, we are
pulled into his worship, his joy, and we drink from his blessing cup for
our healing and health.
Why are we looking at the sky? Christ has ascended to the Father and now, for now, we wait. We know that God loves us to change us. We know that we are transfigured in His love. The New You waits for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He is risen! And as Christ so will we all be raised.
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