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"Who is the Head of the Church?" Sermon for the Ascension of the Lord, 2024

            With the Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension today, we arrive at the end of Paschaltide, this season of celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection. After forty days have passed, in many ways, we arrive back at the beginning. We began the season of Easter amazed at the bodilyness of it all, that Christ rose from the dead in His body, and that this body is alive. “Look up, and behold His living body!”

            We then saw, over the next few weeks, how this mystery of His living, resurrected body informs our understanding and appreciation of our own bodies, and how they serve as places of encounters with the Risen Lord. “This is my body,” He told us, indicating not just that the bread and wine have been transformed into His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, but that He is giving the entirety of Himself to us: “This is my Body! I give it to you. I give you all the sufferings I experienced in this body, all the agony of my Passion and death in this same body, and all the glory of my Resurrection in this body. I give myself to you. This is my body!” Furthermore, we saw that the totality of this gift of His body to us informs how we are called to make a gift of our bodies, either in marriage, or in celibate chastity.

            On Good Shepherd Sunday, He told us that He has power to lay down his life and to take it up again, showing that His sacrifice is a sign of strength rather than weakness, just as our willingness to lay down our lives in humble obedience to Him is an act of true strength. Then, we saw how the unchosen obligations in our lives, especially fidelity to the way that the Lord has created us in the body, are the life-giving opportunity to receive the human body as a gift from the Lord.

            Now, we have arrived at the fullness of the celebration. “God mounts his throne amid shouts of joy; the LORD, amid trumpet blasts. Sing praise to God, sing praise; sing praise to our king, sing praise.” The Ascension is the original feast of Christ’s Kingship. Long before Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925, Christians have been celebrating this day (or, well, really last Thursday) as when He took up His kingship.

            A king must have a kingdom, so what is the kingdom over which Christ is king? St. Paul tells us today that the Father, “put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” Christ’s Kingdom is the Church.

            Now this is strange: Christ takes up His kingship of a kingdom that is here on earth precisely as He ascends to Heaven? How can the Church be the living body of the Lord, when His living, resurrected, glorious body has departed into Heaven? One of the prayers of the Mass responds: “Mediator between God and man, judge of the world and Lord of hosts, 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.” If the Ascension seems like Christ departing, if we, like the Apostles, are standing and wondering, then it could be because we do not understand the Church, and we do not understand fully what it is to be a Christian.

            The Wikipedia article on Pope Francis (unless someone has changed it since yesterday morning at 8 a.m.) begins, “Pope Francis is the Pope and head of the Catholic Church.” This is Wikipedia ecclesiology, and it is awful. I am one hundred percent confident that Pope Francis himself would share my horror at the sweeping misunderstanding of the Church that this statement implies. The head of the Church is not Pope Francis. “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.” The head of the Church is Jesus Christ.

            Instead of Wikipedia ecclesiology (or, theology of the Church), Catholic ecclesiology sees the Church not as a non-governmental charitable organization, but as the Communion of the Saints, present in the Church militant on earth, the Church suffering in purgatory, and the Church triumphant in Heaven – the very same Church. Christ has chosen St. Peter and his successors not as mere replacements until He gets back – “You call the shots while I’m on vacation,” or something like that. Rather, they are the instruments through which Christ governs the Church, which is why we call the Holy Father the Vicar of Christ. Even each diocesan bishop is a vicar of Christ for his diocese, an instrument through whom, thanks to the extraordinary grace received through the fullness of the Sacrament of Orders in the episcopal rank, Christ governs this particular Church.

            Do these men, due to their own human frailties, sometimes get in the way of what Christ actually wants to do in His Church? Yes, undoubtedly. But this is the way, in His provident wisdom, that God has chosen for His Son to continue exercising His headship over His body.

            To be a Christian, then, is to be a member of this Body. It is not to have a membership in an organization that you can enter or leave at will. I once had a tense meeting with a non-Catholic woman who was upset that her children’s father had baptized them here, and wanted their baptism taken off our records, since she does not believe in infant baptism. Aside from the fact that a baptismal register records an historical fact – the children were in fact baptized – no amount of white out can erase an indelible mark on one’s soul.

            But is being a Christian just a permanent membership, a club that you cannot get out of even if you try? While it is true that, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” not just in a sociological sense (“You’ll always have that Catholic guilt!”), but in a true theological sense, this still misses the point and makes the Church more like a gang that it is impossible to leave.

            One more time back to that prayer from Mass today (Preface I of the Ascension): “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.” To be a Christian (and notice that I’m using “Christian” and “Catholic” interchangeably here, at that is not an accident) is to be a member of Christ. Not to be a member of an organization, but to be a part of a body – an arm, a leg, an eye, an ear, like that other famous passage from First Corinthians. Or to use another of our Lord’s words from a couple weeks ago, He is the vine, and we are the branches. We have been grafted onto the vine, and apart from Him, we wither and die.

            To be a Christian, then, is to live with an upward tension and pull, because we are limbs on the Body of Christ, whose head is in Heaven. So it would be tempting for us to live constantly gazing in that direction. And here things really come full circle. On Easter, we saw that the faithful women encountered the joy and hope of the Resurrection when they looked up, and we were encouraged to look up, and behold His risen body. But the angels tell us something very different today! As we heard in the gorgeous entrance antiphon, one of the best chants of the entire year, Viri Galilei, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

            To be Christian is not only to live with the upward tension of a body whose head is already in Heaven, but to live with an outward tension as well, recognizing that we live in a world that is passing away. Christ’s headship of the Church is exercised truly but imperfectly through the Apostles and their successors, as a sign that this is not the end state. The completion of the Body will come not when the individual members make it to Heaven, but at the end of all things, when the Lord will come in glory again, and only then will our bodies be made new and whole in the general Resurrection.

            So while we have come full circle, we are not quite here at the end of all things. That is still to come, and celebrating Christ’s Ascension into Heaven today reminds us that to belong to Him is to belong to His Body, the Church, of which He Himself is still the head.


The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, A.D. MMXXIV


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