Dealing with the Ascension Blues: A homily for Ascension Thursday Sunday

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Stone of the Ascension in the Chapel of the Ascension, Jerusalem

It’s a joy to be here with you today. I’m thankful to Fr. Mahan and Fr. Emmanuel for inviting me and to you all for having me. Don’t worry, I’m not like most guest preachers….here to ask for your cash.  Thanks for having me.  A week ago I graduated after six years of seminary formation at Saint Meinrad Seminary, and in just a few weeks I will become a priest myself.  St. John’s actually played an important role in the discernment that led me to realize God was calling me to be a priest in the first place. I took part in the monthly discernment evenings that were held here on Thusdays. I will forever be thankful for those.  Another connection I have with this place is that my mother is the secretary here. And then I was just here two weekends ago for confirmation, when over a hundred members of our local church were confirmed and received the promise Jesus makes in the first reading today: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”  It was a Pentecost for all those kids and it was neat to see that.  But we’ll talk more about Pentecost next weekend. Today we’re celebrating the Ascension.

So just a recap: Jesus rose from the dead at Easter, which was 40 days ago, and then 40 days later, which is today, he ascended, and ten days later he sent the spirit at Pentecost. If you’re a math person it will disturb you that we are not celebrating Ascension on Thursday, which would have been exactly 40 days after Easter and exactly 10 days before next weekend Pentecost celebration.  But most of the bishops of the US have decided to move Ascension Thursday to Sunday, so I suppose you could call this Ascension Thursday Sunday, in order to allow as many people as possible to celebrate it.

Which is a good thing, because I think that while theologians and pastors and poets and spiritual gurus have spent tons of ink on the nativity of Jesus (Christmas) and the resurrection (Easter), and even the Pentecost….it seems that the Feast of the Ascension is often ignored, neglected, dismissed. We dismiss it, reducing it to Jesus’ space travel, his journey as on a rocket through the ozone layer and across Pluto and into heaven.  No one seems interested in focusing on it a whole lot, or at least no one seems to want to take it too seriously.

And that’s interesting, because I believe most of us live less of our lives in the merriment and mirth of the manger, or the joy and jubilation of the empty tomb, or the utter power and majesty of the Pentecost, and far more of our lives, we live in the “state of ascension.”  What I mean by that is this.  When Jesus ascended, it seemed to the apostles that Jesus was leaving them orphaned. It was a sad moment, a moment of confusion.  They knew Jesus had promised the Spirit was coming and that he would come back, but nonetheless they were distressed, saddened, lost.  I call this state of the ascension that the apostles felt and that we also feel the “ascension blues.”

Just like the apostles, we all deal with the ascension blues….

We experience the same kind of ascension blues when it’s time for little Billy’s first sleepover, his first night out of the house, or 15 years later when the uhaul is packed and it’s time for him to go to college.

We face the ascension blues in the frustration that comes when our prayers just don’t seem to work, when God feels so far despite our novenas and rosaries and frequent communions, or when we so strongly desire some intimacy with God or some friend or family member and yet they feel as far away as the moon.

We sense the ascension blues deeply when God’s will confounds us, when it frightens and frustrates us, when it takes us in directions and to destinations that weren’t even on our life map…to Africa or the neighbor’s house or the confessional… or the seminary.

We feel the ascension blues in the marrow of our bones in the loneliness that comes when a beloved spouse or father or mother or friend or even a child is called home too early…it’s always too early….or when our best friend stands next to us, bags packed, waiting to catch his plane.

On a personal note, I sensed a great deal of the ascension blues when I left Saint Meinrad Seminary earlier this week, a place that has been my home for six years, full of familiar and beloved faces and stories and memories. I left it all in my rear view mirror.

The ascension blues, the feelings of woe and confusion and distress, they touch even the happiest-looking life.

What do we do with the ascension blues?

The first reading tells us the human tendency is to look up into the clouds, shrugging our shoulders in defeat.  God tells us through the two men in white robes that isn’t the best plan. “Men of Galilee,” he says, “why are you standing there looking at the sky?”

But the first reading gives us another option.  St. Luke, in an ever pragmatic kind of way, says this in our first reading: “I have dealt with all that Jesus did and taught.” Deal with it, he says. Deal with what God deals out to you, deal with the teachings of the church that you don’t like, deal with the words God speaks in the bible and deep in our hearts, deal with the goodbyes, the sorrows, the pain of life, deal with the blues that come our way.

And know that even when it is too much for us to deal with, as it very often is, God is here to help. He can deal with our blues way better than we can. He is here, in a different way than before the ascension, but he is here on this earth to help, in sacramental, corporeal ways, in real ways, in rubber meets the road kind of ways. He may have ascended from us but he did not leave us. He will never leave us, that is his promise. His footprints are next to us still.

This became very real to me in December, when I went to the Holy Land. There is a church there built on the site where the ascension took place, called the Church of the Ascension. In the church there is a rock, the rock scholars believe Jesus stood upon when he ascended into heaven. It’s fittingly called the Rock of the Ascension. On it is a footprint. Some skeptical scholars suspect that might not be Jesus’ footprint. I think it is, but even if it’s not, I’ve seen his footprints in enough places to know he’s here there and everywhere. I like that there is a footprint on the ascension stone. While we may not see the human body of the man Jesus, his footprints are all over. It isn’t hard to find them, either, and the second reading offers a prayer we might make our own that we be able to identify Jesus’ presence among us. The reading asks for a “Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of Jesus” and that “the eyes of your hearts be enlightened”.

Perhaps that’s the moral of the story.  When the ascension blues hit us the hardest, instead of looking up to the clouds in a spirit of defeat and distress, better….better to look at his footprints right next to us and announce them to the whole world.

Readings:  Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9, Ephesians 1:17-23, Mark 10:15-20
Preached at St. John the Apostle Catholic Church (5pm, 7:30am, 9:15am) and St. Jude Catholic Church (11am)