Feast of the Ascension
By Fr. Victor Feltes
The bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven feels like a bittersweet Christian mystery. Before ascending, Jesus said, “I am going to the one who sent me… But because I told you this, grief has filled your hearts. But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” Though Christ is no longer openly, visibly walking the earth today, he assures us, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” At this time of year, during the Easter season, when celebrating Jesus going up and the Holy Spirit coming down, with so many young people graduating from one life into another, and I am reminded of the most difficult homily I have ever preached.
I have heard it said that when a young person goes off to college or off into the world their experience is very different than their family’s. For the one who goes, the change begins an adventure. They learn and experience new, amazing things. They meet great people and make new friends, while still loving and caring about their family. They are happy and excited to be starting a new life, while their loved ones left behind understandably take this transition much harder.
For a daughter who goes off, her life becomes more full, but her family at home feels a new emptiness. She’s not in her room. She’s not in her seat at the table. Her voice and laughter are not heard like before. Of course, her family can still speak to her long-distance, and she’s still well-aware of what’s going on at home, but her departure creates a separation, and that’s difficult. Loving families could even wish their loves ones would never ever leave. But imagine how much those loved ones would miss out on if they never journeyed forth?
I first shared these reflections in 2015, at the funeral of a nineteen-year-old, first-year college student I knew named Bridget. Eight years ago, following the Sunday Mass of Pentecost, Bridget was driving to a friend’s graduation party. Her car hydroplaned on an old, country highway and she died in a violent crash.
Some people today, when faced with this world’s temptations, despite their Christian upbringing choose to leave our Lord and go their own way. Bridget, with her beauty, smarts, and popularity was free to choose that too, but instead she grew from good to better. During her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse, through the campus’s Catholic Newman Center, she participated in Bible studies, attended a five-day Catholic youth conference in Tennessee, and pilgrimaged to the March for Life.
On the bus ride of that last trip she shared with friends how Jesus was transforming her life and said she felt closer to him than ever before. At times during that final year when she was home from college, I would not only see Bridget receive Our Lord in the Eucharist at Sunday Mass but sometimes at weekday morning Masses as well before she would leave for her job as a pool lifeguard. The Lord was calling her to be closer to him, just as Jesus calls us all.
At her funeral eight years ago, I noted that Jesus never does evil. He is goodness and love incarnate, “in him there is no darkness at all.” But we also know the Lord refrained from intervening even with some subtle miracle to prevent Bridget’s car accident and death. Why would God allow such a charismatic young woman to die on Pentecost?
Consider how the Blessed Virgin Mary was an invaluable presence among the first Christians. Yet, once she had completed the course of her earthly life and was taken up into Heaven, Mary could assist more powerfully than before. Now, in glory, Mary can hear and intercede on behalf of many, many millions of people while loving each of us uniquely. Like Mary, the spiritual mother of all Christians, I believe Bridget was ready to graduate from this life to the next.
A final exam awaits you. You do not know its exact day or its hour, but it awaits us all. Are you ready for it? None of us know if we will still be here next year. Jesus hopes that with his help you will graduate to where he has gone before us. In Christian maturity, St. Paul writes that “we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.” This present world is not our true home. May the bitterness and scandal of death and parting not cause you to overlook the sweetness of heaven. And may you always choose to follow Jesus closely in this life so that you may one day follow him above.
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