SOLEMNITY OF THE ASCENSION
June 02, 2019 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Acts 1:1-11 | Psalm 47:2-3;6-9
Ephesians 1:17-23 | Luke 24:46-53
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
When I was a child, the Space Program of the United States Government, known as NASA, an acronym for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was quite fascinating to me. I can recall that the first time I watched television in school was the lift-off of Astronaut Alan Shepherd into a suborbital journey that blasted him to the outer edges space and then immediately back down to earth several hundred miles down range from the launch site. I have continued to follow the space program in the news media. It still fascinates me.
At the same time that I watched spaceflight in my childhood, I was, of course, an enthusiastic churchgoer, much preferring my place at the altar or in the choirstall to all of the usual activities for children and young people. Every year, I participated in the Mass for the Feast of the Ascension, where, like today, the Paschal Candle was extinguished at the end of the Gospel to dramatize the final departure of Jesus from our world forty days after Easter. Both today’s First Reading and Gospel have Jesus rising from the earth into the clouds in the sky. So the next logical question is, “did Jesus go somewhere into outer space?” Did Jesus go somewhere into that world of far-away planets and stars we see in pictures broadcast for satellites? Where exactly did Jesus go?
The Church has long struggled to make its peace with science. Today, virtually every child grows up learning that the earth orbits the sun. That’s called a “heliocentric solar system.” But centuries ago, the idea of a heliocentric solar system was so controversial that the Roman Catholic Church classified it as a heresy, and warned the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei to abandon it. When first summoned by the Roman Inquisition in sixteen-sixteen, Galileo was warned not to espouse heliocentrism. Also in sixteen-sixteen, the Roman Catholic church banned Nicholas Copernicus’ book “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres,” published in fifteen-forty-three, which contained the theory that the Earth revolved around the sun. Galileo published his “Dialogue on the Two World Systems” in sixteen-thirty-two. In sixteen-thirty-seven, Pope Urban the Seventh ordered an investigation resulting in a charge and conviction of heresy. Galileo was confined to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Not until nineteen-ninety-two did the Roman Catholic Church apologize for how it treated Galileo when Pope John Paul the Second formally acknowledged that the Vatican had gravely erred when it persecuted Galileo.
The relationship between religion and science is the subject of continued debate in philosophy and theology, asking questions like, “to what extent are religion and science compatible?” and “are religious beliefs sometimes conducive to science, or do they inevitably pose obstacles to scientific inquiry?”
The story of the Ascension in scripture, and as celebrated by the Church, when juxtaposed with the satellite pictures we see of outer space, present a clear contrast that sharply focuses our attention on whether we should read scripture literally. Unfortunately, throughout Church history, there have been those who insist on reading the Bible in a more literal sense than it was intended. They fail to appreciate instances in which Scripture uses what is called “phenomenological” language—that is, the language of appearances. Just as we today speak of the sun rising and setting to cause day and night, rather than the earth turning, so did the ancients. From an earthbound perspective, the sun does appear to rise and set, and the earth does appear to be immobile. When we describe these things according to their appearances, we are using phenomenological language.
Religion and science fulfill different purposes. Religion investigates the spiritual world, while science explores the natural world. Thousands of scientists carry out their research while maintaining personal spiritual beliefs. One can view the natural world through an evidence-based, scientific lens and the supernatural world through a spiritual lens.
Accepting a scientific worldview doesn’t mean you can’t be religious. Where you have to be careful is relying on religious doctrine that contradicts scientific facts. Unfortunately, many religious bodies continue to base their doctrines on facts later repudiated by contemporary science. This is particularly in the sexuality area, where conventional Christian doctrine has caused a great deal of misery and suffering. For example, God created some people with a non-straight sexual orientation. That is a scientific fact. Yet some religious people continue to proclaim a doctrine that condemns LGBT persons as sinful and disordered, causing much pain, misery, and distress for LGBT people, their families, and their friends. Even more egregious, these ignorant, intolerant people want to pass and enforce laws that license them to discriminate against and reject others based on sexual orientation.
What these discriminators fail to understand is that all scientific facts, that is, the entirety of what we know and will discover about the physical world, arose from God’s act in creating it. God created the entire universe. God gave all of it its characteristics down to the nth detail. When we discover scientific facts, we are discovering what God made.
The Bible, however, was never intended to be a science text.
Treating the Bible as establishing scientific facts arises out of biblical literalism. No matter how hard I try to dissuade them from their nonsense, our literalist sisters and brothers on Facebook persist in their stupidity, idiocy, and ignorance.
Their stupidity blocks them to the glory of God’s transcendence.
Their idiocy hides them from the compassion inherent in God’s immanence.
Their ignorance blinds them to the fact that religious doctrine, is, by nature, spiritual, not scientific.
Unlike science, religion deals with questions of eternal truths that transcend both time and specific scientific theories. So what eternal truth do we find in the Ascension of Jesus that we celebrate today?
The Ascension is the final act of Jesus for His earthly mission. The Ascension was Jesus leaving earth on His own terms, not on those of the Sadducees, the priestly caste of the Jerusalem Temple who thought life ended with physical death. They, along with Roman executioners of Jesus, thought that the life of Jesus ended when He died on the cross. But the terms on which Jesus departed from this world were decidedly different from those who wanted Him dead.
Jesus, begotten of God the Father, and having risen from the grave, now returns to the Father under His own power at a time of His choosing.
The power of the name of Jesus transcends the physical world.
The power of the name of Jesus arises from His divine nature.
The power of the name of Jesus has no limits!
The power of the name of Jesus derives from God the Father.
Throughout John’s Gospel, we read of the close connection between Jesus and God the Father. If you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. When you honor Jesus, you honor the Father. Jesus does His Father’s will and speaks the word given to Him by the Father. Jesus, as the Great Shepherd, knows his sheep, the same as the relationship between Jesus and the Father. And in the Father’s house are many mansions, where Jesus goes to prepare a place for us.
In the Ascension, Jesus leaves this world to be with His Father.
In the Ascension, we celebrate the oneness between Jesus and God the Father.
Now, I realize that to some of you, that all sounds very patriarchal. There’s no mention of anything feminine. However, God is beyond gender. God is all genders simultaneously. Gender is simply not part of the discussion, because, in God, human concepts of gender are irrelevant. You may recall the words of Jesus to the Sadducees concerning marriage in the resurrection. They told Jesus about a woman who was widowed seven times. “At the resurrection,” they asked, “whose wife will she be?” Jesus answered, “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
Gender does not matter when we explore on a really deep level the meaning of the Ascension.
In celebrating the Ascension, we realize that the Ascension celebrates the eventual reunion of all of us with God and the exaltation of the dignity of humanity. The Ascension recognizes the divine nature of our humanness.
The Ascension symbolizes our communion with God.
The Ascension raises humanity to a glory of which the immensity and intensity we have not seen and cannot see in our present existence.
Just as the Ascension portrays the ultimate destiny of Jesus, it also presents and explains the ultimate destiny of humanity. We as human persons were created with a divine spark for the purpose of partaking in the divine nature of God.
We were, from the beginning, created as good. Ascension is the divine glorification of humanity. We were all created to be glorified in God’s eyes so that God can love us completely and unconditionally. Just as Jesus became one with God the Father in the Ascension, so we shall also become one with God the Father. Being with God glorifies human nature. That glorification is God’s statement that we are both primarily, and ultimately, good and perfect, not inherently depraved and enslaved to sin as our Calvinist sisters and brothers contend.
The sin of Adam was nothing more than an unfortunate detour that exposed our mortal weakness. It is a wound which God sent Jesus to heal and restore us to the spiritual health of the same closeness we had with God at our creation.
Ultimately, we are called to be like God and to be with God. That doesn’t mean we are called to be God, but to live in accordance with God’s characteristics, that is, full of compassion and mercy, long-suffering, and of great goodness.
Jesus enabled us to share in those characteristics of the divine nature of God by what he taught us.
Think of the Sermon on the Mount.
Think of the story of the Good Samaritan.
Think of the dialogue of Jesus with the rich young ruler.
Think of the story of the widow’s mite.
I could go on and on, as in story after story, parable after parable, and dialogue after dialogue, all of which has Jesus revealing what God is.
When Jesus ascended to the Father, Jesus draws us all to God. Having ascended, Jesus now sits on the divine throne of God and in the hearts of those who love Jesus. We realize this when we do as Jesus told us to do:
Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul.
Love our neighbors as ourselves.
And love one others with the same intensity Jesus loves us.
That is not, however, what I see When I look out at the world around me. In that world, I see various visions of human existence, not all of them good.
One such vision is driven by fear. It has people and nations competing against each other for dominance driven by fear that if one is dominated rather than dominates, one will perish. This view brings out the worst in everyone, and is an idea Christians should oppose.
These fear-mongers with a domination agenda see life as black or white, ideas as good or bad, and human endeavors as winning and losing. What that’s called is dualism, the primitive idea that there are only two opposite ideas or solutions to every situation, and that only one must win. That’s called the win-lose view of life.
What does that look like? You have all heard from politicians, who say:
They say the United States must dominate the world.
They say the United States must win and others lose.
They say other countries are important only to the extent that they serve the interests of the United States.
They say the United States must win and others must lose for the United States to survive.
Such a view does not proclaim the dignity of all humanity, but rather the idea that some people are entitled to more dignity than others. That is the polar opposite of a God who loves all humanity equally. Christians cannot accept a world where, according to the latest statistics, the United States is less than five percent of the world’s population but holds forty one percent of the world’s wealth.
A more enlightened view of humanity has people not so hung up on who is in charge, but whether the environment in which they live meets everyone’s needs.
In that kind of environment, people cooperate with one another to make life better for everyone.
In that kind of environment, people realize that life is an experience all humanity shares.
In that kind of environment, people recognize that no one life, or group of lives, is more valuable than another.
In that kind of environment, people see the world’s property as resource as belonging to all of us.
In that kind of environment, people accept that human survival is a shared responsibility.
This enlightened view of the world says that no person, enterprise or nation has a right to pollute the air, water, and soil to maintain an industrial system that enriches the polluters and an economic system that benefits the few at the expense of the many.
The win-lose, survival of the fittest mentality of the unenlightened viewpoint has produced a world where all too many are hungry, sick, naked and homeless so that the very few get richer and richer. This imbalance of wealth and resources is the fruit of a godless world.
Those people live in a world where people do not go to church.
Those people live in a world where Sunday morning is just another workday, or a day to sleep in and go to brunch.
Those people live in a world of godless weddings and funerals.
Altogether, those people live in a world where God is totally absent, where people worship themselves instead of God, like the landlord in Los Angeles who is evicting a woman who is one hundred two years of age, so his daughter can move into the property. While he may have a legal right to do it does not matter. His stone-cold heart communicates an absence of God in his life. That kind of person is not one who will celebrate the glory of the Kingdom of God in the Ascension, but only celebrates what he wants for himself.
The kind of behavior we see in that landlord is not what God wants from us. Rather, it illustrates why humankind should strive to be more like God and less like what we see in the world today. When we are brought close to God and become like God, we become loving people, the antidote to the rather inferior form of human existence where people compete against each other for survival instead of help each other survive.
Celebrating the Ascension is celebrating the exact opposite of what has become an everyday life where God is absent, where we glorify the mundane instead of looking upward to Jesus at God’s right hand enthroned in a glory that should inspire all of to be better than what we are, where we are inspired to see our purpose in life as improving the lives of others rather than just focusing on our own existence.
The absence of God’s glory from human existence has produced a world where everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator to facilitate materialism and instant gratification. The Ascension inspires us to look upward to aspire to what could be, not downward in satisfaction of “what is.”
The Ascension invites us to scientific exploration, to worlds unknown, to improve human existence. In living that way, with an upward gaze to the ascended Jesus, we enhance human life and human dignity.
Just like the human Jesus did, we, throughout our lives, experience transitions, from the womb to life outside it, from singlehood to marriage, and from the working world to retirement. The Ascension was such a transition, where Jesus finished His work on earth and left the Apostles to carry on what He started in building the Kingdom of God by doing what we will sing in the next hymn this morning. Jesus came to break oppression, to set the captive free, with succor speedy to those who suffer wrong, to help the poor and needy, to help the poor and needy, to take away transgressions, and to rule in equity.
Jesus, though gone from earth, lives in our collective memories as we carry on His work. Inspired by the ascended Jesus enthroned in glory, our task as the Church going forward is to keep doing what Jesus started, and science is very much a part of making that happen. The Church is a loser when it continues to orders its affairs according to doctrines that contradict scientific facts.
Science does not hinder or threaten the Church. The Church must embrace science, not see science as a threat to its power. The core value of Catholicism is the dignity of the human person. Science serves the Church. Science improves human existence and thereby enhances human dignity.
Think of agricultural science increasing crop yields per acre to feed hungry human persons.
Think of medical science increasing human life expectancy.
Think of telephones, television and the Internet facilitating human communication.
Think of environmental science cleaning our air, water, and soil.
The examples are endless to show that to carry out its mission, science can, and must, become the handmaiden of the Church to build up the Kingdom of God by making us good stewards of creation and improving human existence. AMEN.