Today is the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord. Having risen from the grave, Christ must now rise to the right hand of his father. St. Augustine says, “Let our hearts ascend with him,” meaning that just as Jesus brought us with him out of the grave and into the sacramental life, so too does he bring us with him to heaven in the Ascension.
Christ is our Head. We are the Body. We are connected still, and where he is we are also. The Ascension is a fellowship and what happens at the altar during the Mass, quite literally, is an ascension. It’s tempting to think that when the bread is consecrated, Our Lord comes down from heaven into the host. That picture is actually backwards. What happens is the Host becomes a gateway to heaven and when we encounter the Real Presence of Jesus, it is because we are drawn up into heaven to his presence.
If you’re a church nerd like me, it’s kind of interesting to think about the metaphysics of transubstantiation, but what does it really mean for our lives to say that we are lifted up to the Lord?
Well, first it means that God is far different than his detractors suppose.
He is not, as some might allege, angry at his creation. He is not out to get us, not looking to reject the unrighteous or declare us inferior. God, for some reason that I cannot fathom, notices us and desires the best for us. It’s kind of a mystery, if you think about it, why God loves us so – but he does – he takes on human flesh, he makes the body sacred, he has a mother and a father, he has friends. God cries, and worries his mother, and feels lonely in the abandonment of Gethsemane. I don’t know, maybe as a kid he had a dirt-bike like I had and built a ramp for it and bloodied his nose. The point is, God is right here in the midst of it with us. Everything you care about, he cares about: your children, your family, your hobbies, your job, what keeps you awake at night, everything.
This is the second reason the Ascension is really important. When Jesus ascends to Heaven, he takes us and everything we care about and enthrones us with him.
People all the time want to talk to me about how they’ve rejected God. It’s weird, they see a priest and just cannot wait to inform him that they’ve evaluated and dismissed everything he holds dear. I think they just want to talk and don’t know how to start, but they may as well hand me a note that says in all capital letters, “YOUR LIFE IS A LIE.” The problem is, when these people begin to describe to me the God that they don’t believe in, I’m not actually familiar with that God. Reject God if you want, but you should actually know what you’re rejecting, not just some distant, demanding patriarch, but the spark of divinity that makes every single thing in this world so amazing.
Here’s a secret that non-Church-goers and adherents of a secular, Godless society don’t want you to know. The kind of life they seek and desire in the end turns out to be really, really boring. We saw that just this past week with the big fashion show in New York where all the celebrities wore Church-themed outfits. A lot of Christians were offended when they saw the pictures, and I can certainly see why. It made me angry too, mostly, though, because the clothes were so boring. Without the spark, without the Christian imagination and the sacramental outlook on life that maybe, just around the corner is a love so dangerous and white-hot that it will burn you if you get too close and we only see it by the shadow of its flame. Without that, all those deeply intriguing symbols of faith, the Cross, the Papal miter, images of the blessed Virgin and saints, all of it was emptied of excitement and became bland. If you’re a designer and all you can think to do with the regalia of the Pope to make it exciting and dangerous is to show more body parts, your imagination is dead. Take a simple counter example, the papal robes of John Paul II. They’re fanciful and odd, and not at all a costume. They are the sign of the spiritual power of St. Peter. John Paul wore those clothes when he stared down bloodthirsty communists, when he offered mass for a million people, when he knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, when he blessed the people of Rome as he was dying. The Catholic imagination is far more daring than anything else out there. Take, for instance, the angel costume on one starlet. It was risque and had big wings and seemed dramatic, but compare it with Ezekiel’s description of a real angel, wheels upon wheels of fire, covered head to toe in eyes, hovering in place but seemingly always on the move, so powerful that human words fail to describe it. Nice try Hollywood, but your imagination isn’t nearly as adventurous as that of the Church.
This is the third reason the Ascension is important. Through it God redeems our imagination.
Because God has returned to Heaven and prepares a place for us, we are able to live in hope and to dream. CS Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I can see it, but because, by it, I can see everything else.” In other words, when we internalize the heart of religion and begin to see the way that God sees, suddenly the world shifts into focus, and what we see is endlessly fascinating. This is why G.K. Chesterton says that the imagination makes facts into wonders. Secularism, on the other hand, imposes a mechanized view of the world. Everything is functional, everything is practical, everything is physical, and nothing is a mystery. This is not wisdom, it is the impoverishment of the imagination.
Sometimes this functional attitude creeps into the Church. For instance, I might arrive here thinking that the purpose of the Mass is to see what I can get out of it. The function of the mass is to give me self-help type advice, or to give me a certain feeling. In fact, our worship isn’t about what Jesus offers us, although he does indeed offer us infinite riches. Our worship is about encountering the splendor of God, seeing him in all his glory and giving him the adoration that he deserves. For this, we need the imagination. All of the sensible things that Catholicism is so good at, strange but beautiful garments on the priests, singing, visual arts, incense, architecture, this is all instructive. Plato is helpful on this point when he writes about how Socrates learns from a little old lady the value of imaginative, sensible beauty and how through it we ascend to the realm of eternal reality.
Kids are good at this, by the way. Observe how they watch during Mass, the types of questions they’re asking, the way I can invite them to trace the letters in the Gospel book and they’re wide-eyed and eager to do so. These things excite their imagination and are formative in their ability to encounter God.
We adults must also continue to form our imaginations. St. Edith Stein says that we ought to think of ourselves like plants. With a plant, there is organic growth which does not, “come about wholly from within: there are also exterior influences which work together to determine its formation . . . just so, in the soul’s formation, exterior factors as well as interior ones, play a role.”
So now do we see why God takes a human body and ascends to heaven? Here are our three points again: 1) God is with us entirely, 2) we ascend with him, and 3) he is the fulfillment of our imagination. He loves us so much, and he made all of this for us. We aren’t meant to be bored here on earth, we’re meant to be endlessly amazed, and through this world that he is redeeming right along with us we are lifted up as Heaven unfolds before our eyes.