When I was in seminary, our homiletics professor had lots of advice and pointers for the Sunday homily – I am about to ignore one of the pieces of advice. The professor was pretty adamant about not explaining theology. And I mostly agree with his point – it can make a homily really dry and fill it with language that needs its own explanation. The professor’s final point was that you are likely to give an inaccurate or heretical version of the theology in any case.
The professor in Systematic Theology would also agree. He made the point that almost every early heresy in the Church came from people trying to explain the Incarnation, trying to explain how it is the Jesus is vere Deus, vere homo – truly God, truly human. The words in the Gospel of John seem so simple: the Word became flesh. And indeed, the heresies of the first four centuries of the Church are filled with controversies, serious in fighting, involvement of the Roman Emperors, and sometimes armies were formed and battles fought. Explaining theology can be very dangerous stuff.
So here goes….Today’s topic is the Ascension. As a church, we have been celebrating it since the very beginning, and it has been considered one the great feast days of the church. But why do we celebrate it? Maybe that is explained by one of the oldest names for the feast day: Episozomene – salvation from on high – denoting that by ascending into his glory Christ completed the work of our redemption. ….So far so good, doesn’t seem dangerous yet.
Next question for you – and it is an easy one: who ascended into heaven? Of course the answer is Jesus; Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the one who is the Word made flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. You can see how this line of exploration might become tricky and a wee bit dangerous.
Next question – and listen carefully to this one – what ascended into heaven. We already have the “who question” answered, but what ascended into heaven? That, my friends, can be a very dangerous answer. Allow me some poetic license and should I wander across the bounds of safe theological explanation, grant me pardon and do not take up stones against the heretic.
Sometimes we are happy with the simplest of explanation. We know that Jesus told the disciples that after his death and Resurrection he would return to the Father – and so now Jesus is doing just that. We know the Jesus told the disciples that it was even good that he go, because after Jesus left the Holy Spirit would come to remind, teach, and guide them in all things. And so, it on the Ascension, Jesus returns to the Father and, indeed, next Sunday we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. All this in itself is worthy of celebration, don’t you think. It is as the word episozomene implies – Christ completing the work of redemption. Sometimes the more-than-simple explanations offer some true food for thought!
The simple answer still does not answer the question what ascended into heaven. The answer is part of the most dangerous of theological explanations – the Incarnation – that Jesus is truly God, truly human. Unlike those who tried to explain the how of the Incarnation, I am content to take the safe path, and accept that it is mystery, saving mystery. And to celebrate that “what” ascended into heaven was truly God, truly human. Did you catch that? In other words, humanity is already in heaven. Humanity is already participating in the internal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Humanity is already participating in eternal life through Jesus, the one who is like us in all things except sin. The Ascension is a celebration of the great promise made to us. Listen to the words from 2 Peter: “His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature…” (2 Peter 1:3-4) Wow! “to share in the divine nature” – what does that mean? I don’t fully know, I hope to find out one day, but I know this: it all begins with knowing Jesus, the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I will leave it to your prayer and imagination to plumb the amazing promise that awaits: to share in the divine nature.
Jesus, vere Deus, vere home, is the first fulfillment of the promise. Anyone else? Perhaps fittingly, here on Mother’s Day, we hold in faith that the Blessed Virgin Mary has been taken into heaven and now shares in that great promise. Anyone else? Let me leave the list there as I know each one of us holds dear and personally a list of people we have known in life that we believe share in that promise. I would tell you this: the invitation list to share in the great promise is universal. Your name is on the invite list. The promise awaits.
And so, on this Solemnity of the Ascension, let us celebrate the fullness of the holy day, when the fullness of promise of eternal life is held out for us to see, to contemplate, and to make a difference in our lives. Let us close with a prayer from our second reading: “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give [us] a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of [our] hearts be enlightened, that [we] may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe…” (Eph 1:17-19)