On the Sundays of these past few weeks I have woken up with a sense of excitement, even joy, as I have prepared to go to church for Mass. I am definitely not a morning person, so getting up extra early is something that would not ordinarily lend itself to excitement. Lately, however, I find that I am so excited that it is palpable. Mass is an invitation to be fed in the Word and the Eucharist, and it is a way to express gratitude through worship; perhaps this is why I have always felt ‘at home’ there. But because the past year required protection from contagious illness, as a safety precaution going to Mass in person was not feasible. Having attended Mass for as long as I can remember, it felt strange to be in my living room instead of in the actual church. Worse still, not having access to the Eucharist was spiritually painful. When we were finally able to safely return to ‘in-person’ worship, the realization of what a great gift it is to be with the community has been heightened. This unexpected joy has reminded me how community, worship, Word, and Eucharist offer gifts which enable us to transcend the daily grind of our burdens, sufferings, difficulties, and even isolation. Furthermore, it is not a momentary transcendence because these gifts help us to grow in all that leads us closer to God.
This week we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, one of the most important feasts on the liturgical calendar.* It marks the completion of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ: He died, rose, stayed with the disciples for 40 days, (a number which signifies completion), and then ascended into Heaven in order that the Holy Spirit would come to usher in, and subsequently guide, the new Church. This event is also about the power given through grace and the Sacraments to rise above all that which conspires to weigh us down. The Ascension of Jesus is not to be understood as the time when Jesus left as if to ‘make room’ for the Spirit. (Remember, Jesus is with us until the end of time, as He promised.)** Rather, the celebration calls us to reflect upon the gift of salvation, but also to consider that which we need to rise above and which is in need of the faith, hope, and love that will lead us higher, so to speak, in holiness.
Two problematic temptations that work against our growth in holiness are our propensity for assumption and our expectations. Assumptions are generally things we presume without all the information needed. Not all assuming is a bad thing, but it becomes divisive if we presume to have knowledge that we do not concerning other people or situations and it can lead to dispositions of hubris and exclusivity. Expectations are what we want to happen, either concerning the behaviors and choices of another, (especially in our relationships with them), or in what we desire to be the outcome of a particular situation. The main problem with these two interior stances is that both are focused on the self and not on the other, (including God). In assuming, we rely upon our own ‘wisdom,’ insights, and judgement concerning the fullness of a situation. With expectations, it is our own desires and outcomes which we seek and into which we place all of our confidence. When the outcome of these expectations is not as we have desired, we become angry, and even blame God.
On this celebration of the Ascension of the Lord it would be good to reflect upon those areas of our lives which are in need of transcendence. We can take the temptations to which we are bound, to assume, to form the expectations to which we cling, and whatever keeps us from trusting in the Lord completely, and ask Him to help us rise above them. As we do, we will find joy and renewed spiritual life which in turn can move us to become truly excited to share in the many gifts God offers as we gather with our brothers and sisters in worship together. Indeed, we will find a greater freedom flowing from ascending above all that holds us from holiness, opening our heart and offering our will to the One who loves us more than we can fathom.
The Ascension of Jesus teaches that the grace of God can enable us to transcend assumptions and instead seek truth through the gift of faith. The Truth is found in the gospel of Jesus through which we are offered life to the full, that is, eternal life (John 10:10); we are offered the gifts of the Holy Spirit; we are offered a deeper experience of the love of God; we are offered membership in the community of believers, our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ; we are offered faith as well as every manor of grace which helps us transcend the weight of life’s burdens. The Ascension also teaches us to rise above expectations through the gift of hope. To hope is to actively await that which we believe through faith; it is to open ourselves to the will of God and His wisdom. In short, the Ascension invites us to an interior shift, to ‘up-grade’ our assumptions and expectations to the gifts of faith and hope which are bound together through Love. It is Love which leads us from assumptions to faith and from expectations to hope, and through faith, hope, and love, we are moved to gratitude and joy.***
May we embrace the freedom and joy which comes from ascending above our assumptions and expectations! May we trust in the Loving guidance of the Holy Spirit! May we open ourselves to the gifts offered in worship with the community! And may we grow in gratitude for all that is offered to us by the Risen and Ascended Lord! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* Some dioceses celebrate the Ascension on Thursday of the 6th week of Easter and others commute it to the following Sunday, the 7th Sunday of the Easter season.
** This was a promise made by Jesus in the final words of Matthew’s gospel, Mt 28:20.
*** It is important to understand that joy is not the same as happiness or good feeling, although both of these can be present within joy. Joy is a spiritual gift that is so prominent when experienced that it goes beyond just the feeling; it permeates everything. It is God’s very presence somehow made manifest within us. Indeed it is the presence of the Holy Spirit.
1. My photo, taken in Dingle, Ireland. The colorful houses and the playful dolphins speak of community and of joy.
2. Painting, The Ascension of the Lord, part of a triptych by Blessed Fra Angelico.
3. My photo, taken on the road to Mt. Cook in New Zealand, (south island). These mountains, with the optical illusion of the road being 'swallowed up' by them, are not only humbling, but remind us that all is not always as it appears.
4. My photo, also taken in New Zealand, (north island). The rushing water reminded me of the movements of the Holy Spirit, leading us to greater freedom.
5. Icon, Mother of Holy Hope, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. Mary, visibly pregnant in this icon, said 'Yes' to the will of God, laying all her expectations at His feet. She never wavered in her hope in God's promises. It can be found at fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-holy-hope-263-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6. Painting, Wheatfield with Crows, by Vincent van Gogh, 1890. This is thought to be van Gogh's last painting. It spoke to me of freedom as we see the crows rising into the sky on the wind.
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Heart Speaks to Heart