From Acts chapter One
He (Jesus) enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit….you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.”
From Matthew chapter Twenty Eight
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Then Jesus ascended to the sky and was taken from their sight in awe.)
On this Catholic feast of The Ascension of Christ, I think of it as the Day of Jesus’ fulfillment of His life and ministry on earth as one of us. It had to be a pretty moving experience for Him, and not just that He was moving upward in Ascension (!) and to the Throne in Heaven as our Mediator and Victor—but it would have been quite the human moment for Him, too, as He parted from this amazing period of God-man life on earth. It must happen, says Jesus, and He explains that He will live in our souls next in the Gift of the Holy Spirit to us, to make us one body of believers, with Him as Lord and Center. He explains that His Ascension is also, then, His commission to us to be “Church,” a believing people living in His Name and power. You heard it in our Acts and Gospel Scriptures today, did you not?
A few years ago, I dubbed this Mystery of Ascension as Graduation Earth.
Jesus goes to the Father, and He says that, in the mystery of faith, it is our future too. We will have graduation earth—but there is a Great Commission and the Christ-life to live before it. But there is much to look forward to—for as Jesus ascends, in much prophetic hope, we do co-ascend. It is in our destiny to follow—that is, if we live by faith. Acts 1 and the Ascension story is followed by 27 other chapters of Acts—so do we have our faith actions to carry out.
This is the time of year for graduations. In a few days our local public and private high schools will be holding them for the class of 2023. Local schools like St. Vincent Pallotti High has theirs on this Wednesday at the Basilica in DC, then in June it will be Paint Branch, Blake and Springbrook who will be holding graduation at UMBC on a trio of dates. For our high school graduates of yesterday, can you recall yours, and any good memories that linger?
Perhaps you remember the parting moment, as you left the school—as graduations used to take place right on the high school campus, like in the gym or auditorium or outdoor football field.
[For you young folks at my 9 am Family Mass—perhaps you can only relate to graduations at when you graduation pre-K, or for the teens, when you finished elementary school… I laugh, because one of my fondest memories was for my brother Kevin when our family all went to his Tom Thumb Nursery School graduation. It was a happy day in our family history for sure!]
I remember back to when I walked up on stage at Cole Field House of the University of Maryland to receive my high school diploma, with family watching, then years later I would graduate college from the same UM campus. For seminary I would finish my schooling for good in May 1988 and then drive away from the campus of Mt. St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg for a parting time. It was tearful to drive off from the Mount. I had had a great five years of seminary life and now I knew it was to be left behind. There was no graduation there, for ordination was the ceremony back in one’s diocese to finish seminary life. That was on my mind with the drive back to Bowie—35 years ago—not knowing much of what was ahead, except that it involved service to parish life in this Archdiocese of Washington. Days ahead for me from that drive was that awe-filled May 21st ordination Mass at St. Matthew’s, and then finding out finally of what first parish and pastor the arch-bishop would assign me to—which is told only after the ordination. There was the big reception I had organized for post-ordination, and then the first Mass to do on Sunday, which was Pentecost, and then its after-party. Much was ahead of me, but like the Ascension moment, I was just trying to process how I was to just leaving all the training time of education, and looking at a vocation to launch into next.
I suppose it was so for the disciples and apostles at the Ascension Mount, Ok—we had all this time with Him, I suppose in training, now what is next for us?
The answer in the Gospel today is that the Lord wants us to take what we learn of Him and live and share it out to the world. Life can be lived with Christ Jesus—and it holds even promises of eternal life to those who will pair their being with Him. That is what was next after His Ascension….
A Jesuit priest fellow was telling of his being a commencement speaker at a big US Jesuit university, and it led him to relate his own university graduation to the cap and gown and diploma crowd. He recalled to them of his own last college student day at Fordham, as he looked out one more time from a commuter train leaving away from the New York city campus. He remembered it to be an emotional and dramatic moment for his life. He had made it through. Physically, on graduation day, he was pretty spent, having sat in the sun for that outdoor celebration, and having not slept much the night before—but in his mind in the long sit as others received diplomas or made speeches, was this: What comes next for me? Uncertainty and the lack of clear vision ahead put him in a bit of a fog, related he, though it was a clear, sunny afternoon.
It was near the Feast of Ascension, and like me, some years ago, the Jesuit had made a tie-in of Ascension to Graduation to them. He said to the seniors: There’s a sense of joy and excitement in this moment, of graduation—and maybe as well it was for the disciples at the Ascension time with Our Lord. But there’s also a sense of loss, at one’s parting time, and more than a little anxiety, about moving on to a new place, to new people, and starting a new job or program or life mission ahead. So to at the Ascension moment for the first Church: All the feelings that accompany the starting of a new life are rushing through Christ’ followers minds, and like school graduating folks, all the while in the final hours they are marched from one event to another, enduring speeches and handshakes and tearful embraces all along the way. The commencement ceremony itself has the alphabetical people lined up into rows, to one by one be finished as students, shaking an administrator’s hand at the podium. After the long ceremony, all file out again, on the brink of dispersion, a breath away from being scattered for the final time. Some hugs, some parties, then onward. Maybe it can be likened to the Church in this Ascension mystery, as Jesus flies away after His person-to-person time with them over so good a time. He will tell them that the Mission now is to go forth with the Good News to all directions of the earth.
The near proximity of graduation to last Sunday, on which we celebrated Jesus’ Ascension, helped the Jesuit figure a bit of this Christian mystery of Ascension. What to make of this mystery? Having never seen someone physically rise into heaven, the celebration of Jesus doing so often remains (if you’ll forgive his pun) a bit beyond the grasp. A graduation image was easier to make. Often, he says, that he finds that we Christians compensate the Ascension by crafting sensational representations of a triumphant Jesus (or else serene scenes of calm Jesus) rising into wooly clouds softened by pastel colors. Those are nice images, but he, like me, thinks that the graduation model helps us better to get close to wrapping one’s mind around the Ascension Moment. Jesus’ going up (and the disciples gathered around there) feels a lot more like a graduation. A group of people, graduates or disciples, take your pick, are propelled toward an inevitable conclusion, swept along on the wave of farewell speeches and parting events. And then it all comes to the most abrupt of ends. The parting can be joyful, it can ring of triumph, but it also comes with real sadness and a deep uncertainty.
The Jesuit remembers his parting moment on a train looking at his Fordham school for the last official time as student and member. He pressed his forehead to a train window; and stared off at the scenes then whizzing by as the train moved and raced on elsewhere. He says that it was maybe like the disciples seeing Jesus for the last ministry time, and then off He goes, and with them just staring up at the sky.
Like the Jesuit, I spoke at a graduation in 2002, right close to Ascension Day, and I came up with this comparison of this mystery as like a graduation. Ascension Day is like Graduation Earth.
In this Ascension Mass, then, we think, as well, of Christ’ experience of it, as the Day of His fulfillment of His life and ministry on earth as one of us. This moving experience for Him was meant to be a moving one for us, for it led to our being put in a new phase of history, into the New Covenant of Jesus the Lord, with Him as pledged as Victor ahead for us, and Him being Savior and Lord within us now, and with His leaving us a way to keep moving forward to a glorious day that we could go home to Him: Graduation earth. Each week I average a funeral or two to offer, and last Friday for Kass Ahlers at Riderwood Chapel, I spoke to her family of this vision. In her parting, life is changed not ended, (as the funeral Mass prayer goes) and she, in a sense, graduates within the Church of this world to be with the saints and angels of Heaven with God in the hereafter eternal realm.