In the United States, most dioceses have transferred the celebration of the Ascension from Thursday to Sunday. Thus, American Catholics rarely hear the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. It’s worth attending to these texts as a way of contemplating the mystery of the Ascension.
What happens on the feast of the Ascension? It’s not that Jesus simply disappears into the heavenly realm. Jesus is not sitting on some cloud 20,000 feet in the air, hiding from us. The feast of the Ascension is the good news that our flesh and blood now sit at the right hand of the Father. The Word made flesh enters into God’s very life.
For those of us with bodies, this is exceptional news. Christian salvation takes place not merely through the salvation of disembodied souls. It is the full human being who is destined to share in God’s life.
In the Gospel of John, on the seventh Sunday of Lent, we hear this promise from Jesus: “... I consecrate (hagiazo) myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:19).
What does Jesus mean? The Greek hagiazo means to make holy, to set apart, or to sanctify. Jesus sanctifies himself, body and soul, through the sacrifice of love offered upon the cross. He loves unto the end, shattering the myth that violence and power win. Jesus reveals upon the cross and in his resurrection from the dead the truth of human existence: Power is powerless before divine love. The Christian must learn to abide in this truth, to dwell in divine love.
Such “abiding” is not merely abstraction. It’s not just thinking about God in the silence of our hearts. It’s a bodily abiding. It’s a bodily dwelling. It’s the love of the Church spilling over into creation.
The Ascension means that Jesus Christ is not visibly present before us in the same way that our spouse, our son or daughter is present. Jesus manifests himself through visible signs. Through the Scriptures, through the poor man or woman we encounter upon the street, through the eucharistic life of the Church.
But this Ascension Sunday, let us not too quickly bypass the words from 1 John: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another” (4:11). Such words are troubling because we discover that love of neighbor is where we “see” God. Love of neighbor, like Christ’s own love, is necessarily a love of the whole human being.
Too often, we members of Christ forget this. We treat ethics as a series of abstract principles that we can debate. We subscribe to political philosophies that allow us to get out of loving concrete bodies.
But we Christians can’t do this. For the Lord who has ascended into heaven did so with his body. This is the real problem with those who want the Church to have nothing to do with the care of the immigrant or the migrant.
For Catholics, this isn’t just a debate about immigration policy. It’s a matter of doing something about the hungry, thirsty, lonely and suffering bodies that come to us. It’s a matter of abiding in love. Not abstract love. But embodied love. The Word after all was made flesh. And still can be found in the flesh of our neighbor.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.