Have you ever been struck by the way the angels in the New Testament always seem to open their conversations with the seemingly most absurd questions? The encounter with angels narrated in today’s first reading, for instance: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?…” And you can try to imagine the apostles stumbling over their thoughts and words, “Oh, of course, great question. I guess it’s just not every day that I see my best friend and rabbi, who has just recently risen from the dead, be taken up into a bright cloud…” I mean, really, even as a rhetorical question, it seems ridiculous and almost insulting. As if the angels are making light of the extraordinary event occurring before their eyes, like the question they posed to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” As if she somehow should have foreseen the resurrection. Or perhaps the angels simply aren’t afraid to challenge our intelligence, because they know we are in fact capable of a faith greater than we are accustomed to. We like to stay within the comfortable boundaries of familiar experience. God’s messengers are constantly challenging us to see reality from God’s perspective. So what then, is the perspective that challenges our familiar reality today?
In the preface for today’s Mass we will pray, “overcome with paschal joy, every land, every people exults in your praise…” When I read those words, I wonder, “How is it that every land and people exults in the praise of God, because that’s not really what I seem to read in the newspapers?” The answer, I am sure, requires that I judge persons and events with the eyes of faith. But I don’t really want to answer that question here. I want to focus on what it means to be overcome with paschal joy.
Joy is the emotion that arises when we get what we desire. Perhaps the most iconic expression of joy is the face of someone who recognizes a loved one as they arrive, especially if they have been separated for a long time or by difficult circumstances, as when servicemen and women return to their families. The joy of Easter, the paschal joy, arises in our hearts, because Jesus has overcome death. There is a particular way in which this joy is ours as we celebrate the Ascension. Jesus’ ascending to the Father’s right hand gives to us two certainties that answer some of our deepest yearnings.
The first is that he is with us always, but now in a new and astonishing way. The Gospel passage proclaimed today bears witness to this: “So then the Lord Jesus… was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them…” How is it that the Lord Jesus can be taken up to God’s right hand, and yet continue to work alongside the apostles in the preaching of the Gospel? Pope Benedict XVI discusses this brilliantly in the epilogue of the second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus can now be with the apostles, and with us, in a new and powerful way precisely because he is definitively and entirely in the presence and reality of God the Father. My point here is not to explain the paradox, but to embrace the joy. I have the Lord Jesus with me in a way that is deeper and more intimate because he is at God’s right hand. He is with me and with all those whom I love, because he is at God’s right hand. His presence with and in me is absolutely certain, but is grasped only in faith, and bears fruit only through charity. The chief sign of this presence is the Eucharist, by which my union with the Lord is consummated and renewed in his own body through the sacrament.
The second certainty that causes us joy today is what the preface states, “that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.” We have, in Christ, who has entered heaven itself on our behalf (cf Heb 9:24), the assurance of eternal salvation, the perfection of our existence and all our faculties and desires. There we will “enter into joy,” as St Augustine was wont to say. And the promise of certain, lasting and perfect joy, brings to us already a joy in hope. Just like we are happy thinking about a vacation we have planned to our favorite spot, so also today we ought to rejoice as we look forward the fullness of eternal life. Jesus has gone ahead of us, and is now in the fullness of God. He is present to God in the fullness of his humanity, which includes his body. The flesh of Christ has now become divine in a definitive and surpassing way.
This is why he is now able to be present, even in his body – though not in his historical existence – to every person everywhere and in each moment. Now we see in Jesus the fullness of what it means to be human, and the fullness of what it means to have a body. The body is meant to communicate love. The perfection of love is union. And so in the perfection of union that Jesus now enjoys with those who believe in him, his own body has come to the fullness of its capacities. He is doing now what makes him most human. He loves us now in a way that is most fully divine and most fully human. This again, we only grasp through faith, and so we must make our own the prayer of St Paul, “May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call…”
The disciples were commanded to go forth and proclaim the gospel to every creature. What is it we most desire to share with others, if not our joy? Joy is something that grows as it is shared. Pope Francis is continually reminding us of the joy of the Gospel. This is the joy we proclaim today, on this Solemnity of the Ascension. This is the joy we are bound to proclaim to every creature. The Lord Jesus is with us, and where he has gone, we also follow.
Fr. Daniel Hennessy is a priest with the Legionaries of Christ, currently serving in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He is the director for the Regnum Christi Men’s Section and his ministry is centered on spiritual direction, preaching retreats and launching and guiding small groups for the New Evangelization.