Sermon: The Heavenly Victory Celebration
Today we celebrate a great victory. “God mounts his throne amid shouts of joy; the LORD, amid trumpet blasts. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne.” Christ’s victory over sin and death that we celebrated with His Resurrection at Easter is finalized today as the Lord ascends into Heaven and His glorious triumph is celebrated by the heavenly choirs: by the angels who never cease to praise God before His throne, and by the holy ones from centuries past who were finally released from limbo 40 days before at the Lord’s Resurrection. The Father seats His Son “at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion … and he put all things beneath his feet.”
The Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension 2020 is one that we are not likely to forget. We have been reminded many times that there are so many to whom we owe our gratitude: the front-line health workers and emergency responders, the essential employees who risked their own safety to ensure us access to the necessities of life (and often to the conveniences and downright luxuries of modern living as well). Today we remember these everyday heroes in our prayers and commend them to the Lord for their safety and protection. But we come, even more importantly to celebrate a victory that is ultimately His.
When the traditional liturgical texts of the Church celebrate this victory of the Lord in His Ascension – the celebration of His triumph – they reflect on a surprising aspect of this mystery. When Christ rose from the dead, He rose in the flesh, in His human body. And so when He rises into Heaven, it is also in that same human body that He joins the Heavenly victory celebration. An ancient hymn rang out early this morning in the Office of Matins: “Yea, angels tremble when they see / How changed is our humanity; / That flesh hath purged what flesh had stained, / And God, the flesh of God, hath reigned.”
“The flesh of God hath reigned.” This emphasis on the humanity and bodiliness of Christ at His Ascension is surprising because ascending into Heaven seems like one of the least human things He ever did. It is strange indeed to speak of “the flesh of God.” And yet, in Christ, humanity is transformed and perfected – even better than Adam and Eve before the fall.
“God, the flesh of God, hath reigned.” In the past few months, being in the flesh has not seemed like a perfection of human nature. The human body has revealed its fragility and vulnerability. We have seemed safer with virtual interaction and electronic replacements for human contact.
And yet, Christ’s ascending to His heavenly victory celebration in the same flesh that you and I share reminds us that this is not how God meant for things to be! “The flesh of God hath reigned!” The body is not an imperfection of the human creature but a gift to be treasured and cared for. It is an outward expression of the inmost part of ourselves.
This truth brings two practical consequences. First, our bodies are gifts from the Lord. They are redeemed by his mercy and have the power to express the truth of who we are in God’s image and likeness. The human body has a destiny to reign with the flesh of God newly ascended into Heaven once we too experience the resurrection of the body at the end of time. Thus, the Lord calls us to care for our bodies and for the bodies of those around us as genuine gifts from the Lord. The principle of charity – of seeking the good of the other – leads us to continue taking certain precautions to preserve this great good of the human body.
At the same time, though, this truth of Christ’s real, heavenly flesh reminds us that earthly life is not a good in and of itself. Our lives here on earth are meant to prepare us for a fuller life of grace in the Heavenly pastures of the Good Shepherd. St. John Paul II, in his beautiful Theology of the Body, talked about the revelatory power of the body. That is, he saw the human body as capable of revealing God’s presence in creation.
If Christ the Lord shared and still shares in this human bodiliness, and if our bodies are a privileged means of revealing God’s presence in the world, then a virtual existence will never be sufficient for an authentically human life. The human person is not a virtual reality, and most importantly of all, God is not a virtual reality. “God, the flesh of God, hath reigned.”
Many of us have accustomed ourselves to less bodily forms of interacting these past few months. Many good things have come from that – innovations in how we can reach more people and touch more lives than we ever thought possible. But if the flesh of God is meant to reign in the eternal kingdom and our flesh is meant to join Him at our own resurrection, this means that bodily presence is essential for God’s presence in the world being revealed to us.
This is one of the beautiful parts of the Catholic faith – the touching, feeling, tasting – the earthiness of it all. The sacraments too are physical, bodily realities that can never be substituted by a virtual existence. That the Church is Christ’s body, as we hear St. Paul teach today, is not merely a metaphor. In some sense it is literal too.
So we are stuck in a tension here, a tension between the need to care for our bodies, which are a gift from the Lord endowed with dignity because of their ability to manifest His presence in the world, and the need for a physical, bodily presence that comes with risks in the current situation. We have tried to resolve that tension here in our parish with the various changes we have put in place to promote the practice of social distancing while still coming together for Holy Mass. Our bishop has also extended the dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass until at least August 15th. Many of us in our own lives will struggle with that tension and come to different conclusions and different ways of going forward for ourselves and for our families. That is okay. Mutual understanding, compassion, and respect must win the day – authentic charity.
Maybe there is still some fear, anxiety, or nervousness in our hearts. The Apostles too felt some fear at the Lord’s Ascension. The Gospels record that the Apostles still harbored doubts about the Resurrected Lord, even while they worshiped Him, and that following His Ascension they returned to the upper room rather than immediately taking up the command to make disciples of all nations. The fears and doubts of the Apostles will give way next week as we celebrate the Solemnity of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon them and transformed them to be courageous witnesses to the whole world.
During these nine days of preparation for Pentecost – the original novena – the Scriptures tell us that the Apostles gathered with Mary, the mother of Jesus. In these days too, we must allow the Blessed Mother to accompany us with Her prayers. She has been our guardian and protector during the pandemic as Our Lady, Health of the Sick. Now we implore Her to intercede so that we might receive renewed courage and zeal, so that this joyous commemoration of Her Son’s Ascension might lead us to appreciate the power of our own bodies to reveal God’s presence in the world, and to act as vessels of grace for our souls in the reception of the Sacraments, especially the Most Holy Eucharist once again.
At His Ascension, Christ entered His true home – at the side of the Father, “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come.” The Holy Mass is the closest we can come in this life to that great victory celebration, where the cries of the heavenly host praising the Lord’s triumphant victory still ring out today – “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts.” My brothers and sisters, it is good to be home.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist
Solemnity of the Ascension, A.D. MMXX