Ascension Sunday: What’s Christianity for Anyway? (Sunday Homily)

People attend the funeral mass for Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic at St. Michael's Catholic Cathedral

Readings for Ascension Sunday: Acts 1: 1-11; Ps. 47: 2-3, 6-9; Eph. 1: 17-23; Lk. 24: 48-53

This is Ascension Sunday. For us Catholics, it used to be “Ascension Thursday.” It was a “holy day of obligation.” That phrase meant that Catholics were obliged to attend Mass on Thursday just as they were on Sunday. To miss Mass on such a day was to commit a “mortal sin.” And that meant that if you died before “going to confession,” you would be condemned to hell for all eternity.

So until the years following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) Catholics would fill their churches on Ascension Thursday in the same numbers (and under the same threat) that made them come to Mass on Sundays. That’s hard to imagine today.

I suppose that difficulty is responsible for the transfer of the commemoration of Jesus’ “ascension into heaven” from Thursday to Sunday. I mean it wasn’t that the church changed its teaching about “holy days of obligation.” It didn’t. Catholics simply voted with their feet. They stopped believing that God would send them to hell for missing Mass on Ascension Thursday or the feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Assumption (August 15th), or All Saints Day (November 1st) or on any of the other “holy days.” Church once a week was about as much as the hierarchy could expect.

But even there, Catholics stopped believing that God would punish them for missing Mass on Sunday. So these days they more easily attend to other matters on Sunday too. They set up an early tee time or go for a hike in the woods. Afterwards they cut the lawn or go shopping at Wal-Mart. That kind of “servile work on Sundays” or shopping used to be forbidden “under pain of sin” as well. And once again, it isn’t church teaching that has changed. Catholics have just decided that the teachings don’t make sense anymore, and have stopped observing them.

And apparently they do so in good conscience. So you won’t find them running to confession after missing Mass or working and shopping on Sunday. In fact, that’s another way Catholics have voted with their feet. For all practical purposes, they’ve stopped believing in Confession – and largely in many of the mortal sins they were told would send them to hell – like practicing contraception or even getting a divorce.

I remember Saturday evenings when I was a kid (and later on when I was a priest). People would line up from 4:00-6:00, and then from 7:00 -9:00 to “go to Confession.” And the traffic would be steady; the lines were long. No more! In fact, I personally can’t remember the last time I went to confession. And no priests today sit in the confessional box on Saturday afternoons and evenings waiting for penitents to present themselves.

What I’m saying is that the last fifty years have witnessed a tremendous change in faith – at least among Catholics. Our old faith has gone the way of St. Christopher and St. Philomena and “limbo” all of which have been officially decertified since Vatican II.

In fact, since then the whole purpose of being a Catholic (Christianity) has become questioned at the grassroots level. More and more of our children abandon a faith that often seems fantastic, childish and out-of-touch. Was Jesus really about going to heaven and avoiding hell? Or is faith about trying to follow the “Way” of Jesus in this life with a view to making the world more habitable for and hospitable to actually living human beings?

That question is centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. There the attentive reader can discern a conflict brewing. On the one side there’s textual evidence of belief within the early church that following Jesus entails focus on justice in this world – on the kingdom. And on the other side there are the seeds of those ideas that it’s all about the promise of “heaven” with the threat of hell at least implicit. The problem is that the narrative in today’s liturgy of the word mixes each view with its alternative.

According to the story about following Jesus as a matter of this-worldly justice, the risen Master spent the 40 days following his resurrection instructing his disciples specifically about “the Kingdom.” For Jews that meant discourse about what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Jesus’ teaching must have been strong. I mean why else in Jesus’ final minutes with his friends, and after 40 days of instruction about the kingdom would they pose the question, “Is it now that you’ll restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s a political and revolutionary question about driving the Romans out of the country.

Moreover Jesus doesn’t disabuse his friends of their notion as though they didn’t get his point. Instead he replies in effect, “Don’t ask about precise times; just go back to Jerusalem and wait for my Spirit to come.” That Spirit will “clothe you in justice,” he tells them. Then he takes his leave.

Presently two men clothed in white (the color of martyrdom) tell the disciples to stop looking up to heaven as if Jesus were there. He’s not to be found “up there,” they seem to say. Jesus will soon be found “down here.” There’s going to be a Second Coming. Jesus will complete the project his crucifixion cut short – restoring Israel’s kingdom. So the disciples who are Jews who think they’ve found the Messiah in Jesus return in joy to Jerusalem and (as good Jews) spend most of their time in the Temple praising God, and waiting to be “clothed in Jesus’ Spirit” of liberation from Roman rule.

The other story (which historically has swallowed up the first) emphasizes God “up there,” and our going to him after death. It’s woven into the fabric of today’s readings too. Here Jesus doesn’t finally discourse about God’s kingdom, but about “the forgiveness of sin.” After doing so, he’s lifted up into the sky. There Paul tells his readers in Ephesus, he’s enthroned at the Father’s right hand surrounded by angelic “Thrones” and “Dominions.” This Jesus has founded a “church,” – a new religion; and he is the head of the church, which is his body.

This is the story that emerged when Paul tried to make Jesus relevant to gentiles – to non-Jews who were part of the Roman Empire, and who couldn’t relate to a messiah bent on replacing Rome with a world order characterized by God’s justice for a captive people. So it gradually turned Jesus into a “salvation messiah” familiar to Romans. This messiah offered happiness beyond the grave rather than liberation from empire. It centralized a Jesus whose morality reflected the ethic of empire: “obey or be punished.” That’s the ethic we Catholics grew up with, that sent some of us to weekly “confession,” and that former and would-be believers find increasingly incredible, and increasingly irrelevant to our 21st century world.

Would all of that incredibility and irrelevance change if the world’s 2.1 billion Christians (about 1/3 of the world’s total population) adopted the this-worldly Jesus as its own instead of the Jesus “up there?” That is, would it change if Christians stopped looking up to heaven and focused instead on the historical Jesus so concerned with God’s New World Order of justice for the poor and rejection of empire?

Imagine if believers uncompromisingly opposed empire and its excesses – if what set them apart was their refusal to fight in empires wars or serve its interests. How different – and more peaceful – our world would be!

A sensitive discerning reading of today’s liturgy of the word, a sensitive and critical understanding of Jesus’ “ascension” presents us with that challenge. How should we respond?

(Discussion follows.)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

3 thoughts on “Ascension Sunday: What’s Christianity for Anyway? (Sunday Homily)”

  1. Thanks Mike. I love your blog’s emphasis on God’s Kingdom here and now rather than on “pie in the sky, by and by, when we die.” However, I am less inclined to see the discourses about God’s kingdom and the forgiveness of sin as competing alternatives in tension. I prefer to hold them together, as descriptions of the same reality: God’s kingdom is one of “no-revenge” and “no revenge” implies forgiveness.

    It’s true that Jesus and the Bible make a big deal about forgiveness. But maybe this is not for the reasons we think. Maybe it’s because HUMANITY makes a big deal about sin and revenge – and so we see God’s righteousness as meaning that He is God of the Big Stick! Thankfully, we no longer see good earthly parents as those wielding a big stick! No, we see good earthly parents as those who understand their children’s misbehaviour as ignorance and immature self-control – not as “sin” and “evil.” Good earthly parents deal with their children’s misbehaviour through education and discipline, not through criminal justice processes and revenge. If our earthly parents are not into sin and revenge, how much more is our Heavenly Father not!

    And this is what makes God’s Kingdom exceptional. All communities and nations outside the Kingdom of God use criminal justice processes, revenge and “pre-emptive” violence to regulate their affairs. God’s Kingdom on earth (as it is in heaven) is not like that – in God’s Kingdom human beings forgive human beings seventy times seven.

    Divine forgiveness is not at issue – God loves mercy, and doesn’t want or need our sacrifices. But if we believe in God with the big stick and imagine that He is harbouring resentment and hostility towards us because of our sin – and if that then motivates us to confess and repent…. – good, so be it! God approves of us telling the truth and aiming for righteousness! But in terms of forgiveness, the real achievement – and what the Kingdom of God relies on – is when those who know God’s unalloyed love forgive those who persecute them. Hence, in the Lord’s prayer Jesus included the phrase “forgive us our sins”, in my view, because that tends to be our (small minded) concern (stemming from a small-mind view of God with a big stick), and Jesus uses that to link our concern with God’s big concern for us, which He expressed in the phrase “as we forgive those who sin against us.” The plural “we” and “us” surely frames sin as the persecutions we commit as families, communities and countries against those not “us”.

    This view of sin as persection and forgiveness as the oppositive of persecution also helps us to understand the following scripture:

    Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23)

    Those who don’t believe in God’s kingdom, who don’t understand the radical nature of God’s forgiveness (e.g. Jesus’ praying for His persecutors as He was dying) can perhaps (rarely and exquisitely) begin to taste it when Christian’s turn the other cheek, etc. If Christians don’t go in the Spirit of Peace sent by Jesus as the Father sent Him and, being persecuted, forgive their persecutors, then those unbelieving persecutors won’t (can’t) experience radical forgiveness of sins (of the type which proceeds out of a whole world view of non-violence, Providence and resurrection). What besides such an experience of forgiveness has the power to release persecutors into the freedom of the Kingdom of God? i.e. If Christians do not release those-who-persecute, those-who-persecute are not released – and so they will go on persecuting those who get in their way.

    (Note that the literal meaning of “forgiveness” in N.T. Greek if I’m not mistaken, is “release” and, to reiterate, “those-who-persecute” are, in my view, all people whose primary allegiance is to their particular community or nation – in other words most people on earth, except for absolute pacifists like Jesus; they may not persecute other communities and nations individually but they certainly do so corporately.)


    1. Dear John, Thank you for your beautiful reflection on the nature of forgiveness and God’s Kingdom. It’s a wonderful blog entry in itself and a beautiful preparation for the upcoming celebration of Pentecost. My own comments, I suppose, were prompted by the perception that Yeshua’s this-worldly message has been pre-empted by the internalization and spiritualization of interpretations of his words and deeds. You nicely balance the internal and external. Thanks again.


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