Ars Praedicandi: Ascension

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Hebrews 9:24-28, 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53

Last Tuesday, twenty-one people,
nineteen of them young children,
were killed in the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Ten days earlier, ten people, all of them Black,
were killed in a racist hate crime in Buffalo, New York.
And lest we forget, distracted by fresh horrors,
some 4000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed so far
in Russia’s unjust war in their country.

I find myself thinking that it would be awfully nice
to be able to rise like Jesus up above this earth,
to enter a place of eternal heavenly rest
above the sorrow and pain that human inflicts on human,
above the violence and madness that infects us,
above the self-interest and complacency that make us
go on as if these sorts of things are normal or tolerable.
It would be nice to escape this earth we have soaked
with the blood and tears of the innocent.

But the Ascension is not about escape.
It is not about Jesus being plucked from this vale of tears.
It is not about Jesus leaving behind the world’s sorrows,
and even less about him leaving behind we who are sorrowing.
We pray in our liturgy this day:
“he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state
but that we, his members, might be confident of following
where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.”
He ascended not to separate himself
from the blood and tears of the innocent,
but to bring that pain into the healing light of God.
He ascended not to leave us behind
but so that he might be our great high priest in heaven,
interceding for us before the Father through the Spirit.
He ascended so that our lowly state might touch eternity.

In the Eucharistic Prayer,
after the gifts have been consecrated—
gifts of bread and wine that we offer
as symbols of our loves and labors,
the bread of life and affliction,
the wine of joy and cup of sorrow,
now transformed into the body and blood of Christ—
the priest prays in our name:
“command that these gifts be borne
by the hands of your holy Angel
to your altar on high
in the sight of your divine majesty,
so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar
receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son,
may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.”
In our celebration of the Eucharist,
Christ becomes once more present among us,
and is once more lifted up by the angels,
and, as our great high priest, lays our human lives—
their joys and hopes, their anxieties and sorrows—
upon the heavenly altar,
so that we, who receive him at this earthly altar,
might taste eternity in him.

In the days that have followed since last Tuesday,
various media outlets have published pictures
of the twenty-one people who were murdered.
Each of them is heart-breaking and gut-wrenching,
but one has repeatedly caught my eye.
It is the picture of Jacklyn Cazares, age nine.
It is a picture from her first Holy Communion,
in her white dress, with a crown of white flowers in her hair.
She smiles with the joy of that day,
that day her life was laid by Christ on the altar on high,
that day she was filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.
Without in any way ceasing to be heart-breaking,
it is for me also an image of hope:
hope in Jesus Christ risen and ascended,
hope amid terror and strife,
hope for life and healing
in God’s eternal light.

Hope, however, is not simply consolation.
Hope is also challenge.
Hope challenges us to ask, even as we mourn,
what is God calling us to do?
Hope tells us that, even if we cannot fix the world,
even if we cannot absolutely guarantee
that such horrors will never happen again,
we also are not allowed to do nothing.

The U.S. bishops have noted several concrete measures
that could be tried to reduce the incidence of gun violence:
from mandatory background checks for gun purchases,
to improved mental health services,
to federal laws that criminalize gun trafficking,
to an honest assessment of the effect on people
of the images of violence that pervade our society.
We cannot know for sure
that any of these things will save lives,
but hope calls us at least to try.

But that is not the only role that hope has to play.
So many in our society live
with a pervasive sense of hopelessness,
a hopelessness that leads people
to lash out against the world.
This seems to have been the case
with the killer in Uvalde,
who was bullied at school
and faced conflict at home,
who saw no hope in the world
that his life could ever be different.
Here is where the challenge of hope,
the challenge of following Jesus,
becomes really difficult.
The governor of Texas called him
“the face of pure evil,”
but, looking with eyes of faith, love, and hope
we should see a broken child of God,
starving for hope.

To see in this way is, of course,
impossible for us to do
apart from God’s gift of grace.
But we who have been lifted up with Christ,
whose lives have been laid by him on the altar on high,
have been filled with every grace and heavenly blessing
and given the mind of Christ with which to see.
And he calls us now, not to escape,
but to be his body in the world,
a world soaked with the blood
and tears of the innocent,
a world hungry for hope,
hope that we make visible in our actions.
May God strengthen us
for this task to which he calls us,
may God raise up the dead
and comfort the sorrowing,
and may God have mercy on us all.

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