The Ascension of the Lord: Lesson in Paradox

Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on the Solemnity of the Ascension at Saint Dominic's Monastery in Linden.

Webster's Dictionary defines "paradox" in this way: "A seemingly contradictory assertion or situation." As we gather to celebrate the Mystery of the Lord's Ascension, we are, in fact, in touch with a paradox. Why? On the one hand, the Ascension of the Lord Jesus points to Christ's return to His Father Risen and Glorified. In today's gospel account from Saint Luke, we heard: "Then he led them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands and blessed them. As he blessed them, he parted from them and was taken up to heaven …" Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles confirms this return of the Risen Christ to His Father in heaven: "… when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight." The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews echoes this return of Jesus Christ to God His Father: "Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf." Yes, today's Solemnity of the Ascension states clearly that the Lord Jesus left us and, as the Risen Glorified Son of Man, intercedes for us before His Father.

Yet, - and here is the paradox - His Departure, His Return to the Father, is really His Continuing Presence. In Saint Matthew's Gospel, the Ascending Christ promises: "And, behold, I am with you always until the end of the age" (Mt 28: 20).

Why is Christ's Departure, not absence, but presence? Because His going to the Father ushered in the beginning of a radically new and different kind of presence. Before His Resurrection and Ascension, the Lord Jesus was limited to His physical body, to a certain historical period of time and place. After His Resurrection and Ascension, He is no longer limited, present in every time and every place. As Pope Francis explains, "… the Ascension does not point to Jesus' absence, but tells us that he is alive in our midst in a new way. He is no longer in a specific place in the world as he was before his Ascension. He is now in the lordship of God, present in every space and time, close to each one of us …"

Yes, the Lord Jesus is not absent but very present in His saving Word in the Scriptures; in each of the Sacraments, especially in the Holy Eucharist; and in His Mystical Body, the Church, the Community of His Disciples. Yes, the Lord Jesus seemingly has left us but in fact, He remains, so very much present.

So, made aware of His continuing presence among us, we encounter "paradox" in yet a different way. What should cause us depression and sorrow in fact causes hope and joy. The Lord Jesus is interceding for us before the Father. Again, we heard in the second reading, "let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy. "No wonder, after the Ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God." Of course, the Lord Jesus is pleading for them - and now for us - before God the father. Imagine: right now, Jesus is interceding for you - for me!

Herein lies the fundamental basis for true and enduring hope. Thus, we prayed earlier in the collect: "… where the Head is gone before us in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope." And today's Preface likewise affirms: "… 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." Again, the paradox: what should be the cause of depression and sorrow is the cause of hope and joy!

Yet, another paradox is also evident this day. It is "Mother's Day" in this country and it would be altogether fitting to observe this day here: in this community of celibate cloistered nuns. How so? You are not mothers yet you are: you are spiritual mothers within the Community of Christ's disciples, the Church. Yes, you give life to the Church, Christ's Body by and through your cloistered life of prayer and penance and witness.

Your prayer is daily offering of praise and adoration, lifting up our world to the Lord, that He might purify it with His saving Blood and strengthen it to be the place of justice, peace and life. Once with Christ Jesus in His intercession before the Father, you too intercede daily for the conversion of sinners, the perseverance of the just and the needs of all God's people, especially here within our beloved diocese. To this prayer, you add penance: the daily self-sacrificing aspects ushered in by physical limitations at times, and living in community. Your prayer and penance remain life-giving for the Church and in doing that, you are spiritual mothers.

You also witness: to the centrality of God's presence, to what is true and good and lasting, to enteral life! Such witness is life-giving, motherly, because it leads people to stop and to reflect, and with some, to pursue a return to the Church, or to enter consecrated life or the priesthood. To come home to God, to respond to His call: are not these occasions for giving life?

Yes, paradox abounds as we celebrate the Mystery of the Lord's Ascension. His absence is really His new presence! What would cause depression and sorrow becomes, in fact, hope and joy! And, yes even here, in this Monastery of celibate, cloistered nuns, it is truly fitting to wish you: "Happy Mother's Day!" from the heart of your bishop and from all God's people who form our diocesan Church!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016