Sunday May 23, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier The Ascension
Reading I (Acts 1:1-11) Reading II (Ephesians 1:17-23)
Gospel (St. Luke 24:46-53)
Today, as we celebrate the solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord, it gives us a chance once again to consider our human dignity. Around Christmastime, we always ponder the dignity of the human person, that God would condescend to become one of us. But that was not enough for God. He is never ever going to be outdone in generosity. We know that the reason in part for which He took our human nature to Himself was so that He could suffer, so that He could be crucified, once again demonstrating to each one of us that human suffering has great dignity provided that it is used for the proper reason, that is, provided that it is offered to God for the good of other people. It is also in our humanity that He rose from the dead. In His divinity, He had no means by which He could suffer. In His divinity, He could not die. Therefore, without our humanity He could not rise from the dead, and so He would not be able to guarantee us of the resurrection from the dead. But even that is not enough.
As I have pointed out many times on this feast, if it were not for the Ascension of Our Lord, if all He did was to rise from the dead, we would be no different from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, those poor souls who think that for the rest of eternity they are going to live on earth. What a waste! Who would want to live here for the rest of eternity when you can live with God? But because they reject Who Jesus truly is and they reject God as a Trinity, they do not believe in the reality of what we are called to. In the Ascension of Our Lord, we see the fullness of the dignity which is ours, that in our humanity God Himself has now ascended back into heaven and has placed our humanity above all the angels, the principalities, the powers, and every other name that can be named, as Saint Paul said in his Letter to the Ephesians that we just heard. Above everything else created, the humanity of Jesus Christ has been exalted.
Now when you just stop to think about that, we think so often of how worthless we are. Somehow, we think that we are no good, that we are unlovable, that we are trash. Look at what God has done. We need also to be careful of thinking the other way, that is, that we are the most incredible thing that has ever walked the face of the earth and let our pride get in the way. We have to see humanity from God’s perspective. We are not told in Scripture that the angels were created in the image and likeness of God. In fact, Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Hebrews, even begins with that point by saying, “To which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are My son, this day I have begotten you’?” Jesus did not become an angel, nor did He descend into the depths of hell in order to convert the fallen angels; but rather He descended into the abode of the dead in order to bring out the human persons who would believe in Him.
Angels by nature are far higher than we are, but in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ our humanity has been elevated above all creation. In the Incarnation of Christ, our humanity is now infinitely higher than what it was even in the Garden before Adam and Eve sinned. So we cannot sit back and say, “Well, if it weren’t for sin, I would be worth something. When God first created humanity, it was very good but it’s not anymore.” Those are lies of Satan and they need to be rejected. Look at what God thought about humanity – your humanity. He took your humanity to Himself because it was very good. Fallen, yes. Sinful, yes. But the nature of humanity, the way God created it, is very good. And because the nature cannot change (if the nature changed, the very being would change; therefore, even when we fell in Adam and Eve, and even when we have committed our own sins – no matter how grievous they are, our nature cannot change) our nature remains as God made it: very good.
That is something we need to struggle with because most of us, tragically, do not believe that. We need to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament pondering and praying about the reality of who we are. Not who we are by ourselves, we know fully well that if all we do is look at ourselves according to our own being, that is, to what we have done in our bodies, it is pretty unfortunate. The only thing we can take credit for on our own is sin. And so it is not a matter of looking at yourself and what you have done, but rather it is a matter of looking at yourself in accordance with who God has made you to be. Not what you have done with what God has made, but rather simply look at what God has made and who He has made you to be. He has made you very good.
But that was not enough for God. He has united His divinity to our humanity and raised us up even above the angels. Now He has exalted our humanity above all creation, even in heaven where it is part of God Himself. Our humanity is not an integral part of the Trinity per se, but it is substantially united to God Himself and that is a union which will never end. So our humanity has been elevated to the very level of God.
When we think about the pattern that Our Lord has established for us, and once we recognize our dignity, then we have to ask ourselves, “What are we to do with this dignity that is ours?” Remember, Our Lord told us that when He is lifted up from the earth He will draw all men to Himself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out rather insightfully that there are three times that He was lifted up from the earth. The first time was at His crucifixion, when we nailed Him to a cross and lifted Him up and suspended him between heaven and earth. The second time He was lifted up from the earth was when He came forth from the bowels of the earth at the moment of His Resurrection. The third time He was lifted up from the earth is in the celebration of today’s feast of the Ascension. It is in these three occasions where we see the pattern laid out for ourselves. We know, as Our Lord makes very clear to us, what is required of us if we love Him. He was lifted up on the Cross to draw us to Himself on the Cross. But suffering for its own sake is worthless; it must go beyond that. And so when He rose from the dead, He drew us to Himself in the Resurrection so that we would have hope as we suffer through this vale of tears, to be able to look just beyond the Cross to the glory of the Resurrection. But now He has been lifted up from the earth and He is seated at God’s right hand. And in our humanity we are already seated there with Him, so that again lifted up from the earth He will draw each one of us to Himself.
That is the pattern for us: We have to suffer with Him in order to be glorified with Him, as Scripture says; glorified with Him in His Resurrection but also in His Ascension, so that not only are we seated spiritually with Him at the right hand of God our heavenly Father, but rather we will be seated physically with Him. We also see in this feast the glorious exchange that takes place. When Jesus became man, He Who is pure spirit from all eternity took human flesh to Himself and He lived in time according to the flesh and has now taken our flesh and our nature into heaven. We, who are born in time, have never been just simply spirit; from the first moment of our conception, we are both body and soul. But when we die, assuming that we go into heaven (provided that we die in the state of grace), we will have the experience of being just a soul awaiting the day of resurrection when the body will be reunited with the soul. On that day, we will experience our own assumption into heaven when the body and the soul will be reunited. So we see Jesus, Who is pure spirit, taking on a body; and, in reverse order, we see ourselves, who are body and soul for a time, becoming only a spirit until the body is reunited with the soul. The pattern that Our Lord has laid out for us is very clear, and the dignity that is clearly demonstrated by this pattern is one that must be understood and accepted by each and every person.
When we look at our world today, people just simply want to immerse themselves in the material, in the profane and the banal. We look at Our Lord’s Ascension and we realize that all that stuff is worthless. It is stuck to this world, but we are not. We are not called to live for this world. We are called to live in this world, but to live for heaven. We are not to immerse ourselves into the selfishness and sinfulness and all the things of the flesh that this world offers, but rather we are to live as we truly are: already seated at God’s right hand as we await the fulfillment of that when we will be able to go there individually – not only spiritually, but one day physically as well – to share in the very glory of God. That is your dignity. Do not trade in your dignity for the filth that this world is offering. Do not reject the dignity which God has given to you, making you in His own image and likeness, becoming human just like us, and raising our humanity to the level of divinity and seating it at the right hand of God high above all the angels. Do not trade that in for the profligate way of life that this world offers. Do not immerse yourselves in the mire that the pigs would give themselves over to you so they can spend eternity with Satan, but rather rise above what the devil is offering us and set your focus on God.
Recognize who you are. The devil is going to be right there to show you all your sins when you sit down to pray, and he is the one who is going to say to you, “Look at how worthless you are! Look at how rotten you are! Look at how no-good you are!” Look at Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and listen to what He says to you: “Look at who you really are. Look at how good you are.” Look at what He has done with your humanity, and look at what He wants to do with you individually for all eternity. Reject the ways of the world, reject the ways of Satan, reject the ways of the flesh and live according to the reality of the dignity of who you are: a person made in the image and likeness of God, redeemed in Jesus Christ, lifted up and seated already at the right hand of God. Live in this world but do not live for this world. Set your sights on heaven where Christ is already seated at God’s right hand, and where you, in Christ, in your humanity, are already seated there with Him.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.