Can We Drop the Ascension Story?

Can We Drop the Ascension Story?
by Sean Fitzpatrick

The Ascension of Jesus Christ, related in the Gospels of Mark and Luke and referred to throughout the New Testament, can be taken as something of an awkward anecdote. “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight,” (Acts 1:9). There is something about the Ascension that is inconceivable, even for a miracle—something that is almost too fabulous about the idea and image of Jesus “flying.” For those who stumble over the Ascension, there is often an aspect of mythical fantasy or primitive whimsy involved in accepting such a thing. Can people really take seriously the account of a Man floating into the clouds? Is the Ascension worth the risk of alienating those influenced by a cynical realism? This is the Faith, after all, not a fairy tale. Can we drop this story of Christ soaring through the sky?
C. S. Lewis takes on this very question in Miracles:

Can we then simply drop the Ascension story? The answer is that we can do so only if we regard the Resurrection appearances as those of a ghost or hallucination. For a phantom can just fade away; but an objective entity must go somewhere—something must happen to it. And if the Risen Body were not objective, then all of us (Christian or not) must invent some explanation for the disappearance of the corpse. And all Christians must explain why God sent or permitted a ‘vision’ or ‘ghost’ whose behaviour seems almost exclusively directed to convincing the disciples that it was not a vision or a ghost but a really corporeal being. If it were a vision then it was the most systematically deceptive and lying vision on record. But if it were real, then something happened to it after it ceased to appear. You cannot take away the Ascension without putting something else in its place.

Lewis draws attention to the physical importance of the Resurrection, pointing out that the Ascension, like the Resurrection, required a Body—a point that cannot be dropped. While the Ascension of Christ is a moment of spiritual transcendence that may be difficult to relate or react to, it is also a material mystery. In other words, the Ascension is as much about the body as it is about the soul. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Dogma and Preaching, “The expression of our belief that in Christ human nature, the humanity in which we all share, has entered into the inner life of God in a new and hitherto unheard-of way. It means that man has found an everlasting place in God.” The whole purpose of the miracle of the Ascension is that it points out the way for all flesh. It was a physical miracle involving a physical body that illustrated a relationship that is supernatural and eternal: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Ascension confirms and completes the Resurrection in a way that goes beyond mere symbolism. It has a tangible dimension as it deals with a tangible body. The body of Christ disappeared from the tomb and then reappeared before disappearing again forty days later. It did more than just vanish, however. It was moved. It went somewhere and, even now, is somewhere. It is this second disappearance that gives modern sensibilities some pause, for it is in a way stranger than the first. There is a kind of gravity in the idea of a man rising from the dead. There is a kind of levity in the idea of a man rising into the sky. That such spiritual physicality can arouse human incredulity and challenge the scientific thinker is precisely the point. Miracles are as factual and physical as they are spiritual, and their breaking with the bands of nature must be held as a matter of faith and as a matter of fact. G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy:

I conclude that miracles do happen. I am forced to it by a conspiracy of facts: the fact that the men who encounter elves or angels are not the mystics and the morbid dreamers, but fishermen, farmers, and all men at once coarse and cautious; the fact that we all know men who testify to spiritualistic incidents but are not spiritualists, the fact that science itself admits such things more and more every day. Science will even admit the Ascension if you call it Levitation, and will very likely admit the Resurrection when it has thought of another word for it.

Chesterton agrees—the miracle of the Ascension cannot be simply dropped so long as man is material. The promise of extraordinary exaltation and supernatural splendor is not simply a matter of spiritual consequence, but a matter of physical consequence as well. Though Jesus’ body was glorified at the moment of the Resurrection beyond the normal experience of nature, He retained a body that was still in some veiled way like the body He had. There was certainly a different bodily relation that Jesus possessed with things like time and space, yet He was not outside of them. Though He did come and go at times like a specter, Jesus was sure to show His disciples that He was not spectral, as Lewis noted. He proffered His hands to His friends to touch and hold, for their eyes to see and believe. He ate and drank with them. He was flesh and blood. There was clear and careful intention in ascertaining these physical facts for the sake of the spiritual fact that was soon to follow.

From Annunciation to Ascension, there is a concrete side to the Incarnation that is harder to accept than the mystical character of Our Lord’s miracles. As Our Lady showed, however, it requires faith to hold that with God nothing is impossible, even though some things might seem implausible. Though the modern mind may struggle to believe the story of a Man ascending into a heaven somewhere on high where, as the Son of God, He sits on a celestial seat at the right hand of God the Father, this is the challenge of reconciling faith with facts. The support of reason is present given the common sense involved in communicating a physical promise to physical creatures, but there must always be something obscure in the realm of faith.

The Ascension of Jesus Christ is not simply a glorious finale of the story of human salvation, but a glorious beginning. In His departure from earth, Our Lord came to man as never before. By the mystery of the Ascension, Jesus gave his Church a miraculous sign that He is not far, and that the human body that houses the human spirit is something that belongs with God. As Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote concerning the significance of Our Lord’s bodily Ascension, “[Christ’s] intercession consists in this, that He perpetually exhibits himself before the eternal Father in the humanity which He had assumed for our salvation: and as long as He ceases not to offer Himself, He opens the way for our redemption into eternal life.”

Even though logicians (and theologians, for that matter) can demonstrate that heaven cannot be reached by a flight through the clouds, it does not render the Ascension account embarrassing or isolating. People need solid symbols and signs. They need to connect an ever-present, infinite God to the ever-present, infinite sky. The way of redemption exists for people living in the world, not for disembodied souls. It is outward yet inward, with defined margins and divine mysteries. Man requires bodily things to draw him to the divine. He needs incarnations just as he needed the Incarnation. The Word Made Flesh, therefore, operates in ways consistent with the principle of accord between the physical and spiritual, and this is the reason why we cannot simply drop the Ascension story.

3rd Annual Soiree

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On March 3, 2018, the faculty and students of Gregory the Great Academy gathered for our annual Soirée fundraiser at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Scott Bloch in McLean, Virginia. Our keynote speaker this year was Dr. Scott Hahn of the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The evening included an array of excellent dishes prepared under the direction of alumnus Marc-Pierre Jansen, fine wines, a silent and live auction featuring incredible handcrafted works of art, and a performance by the Highlander Schola Cantorum. Old friends and new gathered for the event to raise funds and awareness for the Academy’s Homeward Campaign. A warm thank you to all of our guests and benefactors, to the many volunteers and coordinators who ran the evening, and to our gracious hosts. The Soirée was a great success for the third year running.

Listen to Dr. Scott Hahn give his talk.

 


 

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2017 Graduation Mass Sermon

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by Father Christopher Manuele

Truly this is a season of departures, saying ‘goodbye’, yet not abandoning. Our Lord left his Apostles and you seniors leave this Academy today. On that occasion, our Lord spoke these prophetic words to His disciples: “Amen, Amen, I say to you, he that believes in me, the works that I do, he also shall do. And greater then these shall he do.” Today these words are the prayer that we the faculty and your parents have for you as you depart from us: that you do greater than what you have already done and even greater than we ourselves have done.

How mysterious and strange are these words of our Lord Jesus. No doubt, a man like us; yet He is God. How is it possible for a mere man to do greater things than God? And yet the divine promise was given, and so it must be. Not so strange, however, that you seniors do greater than we have done here at Gregory the Great.

St. Gregory’s, if it is anything, it is modest: modest in its purpose, modest in its means, modest in its intention. Gregory the Great has made no attempt to be a ‘school of the wise’ – that is the privilege of a life well lived and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Gregory the Great does not pretend to make you scholars – that is the purview of institutions of higher learning. Rather our purpose simply was to teach you how to PLAY.

Perhaps, you did not realize this. Perhaps, this was even hidden from your parents as the real purpose of this school. But, in fact, this is what Gregory the Great is about. You might have thought you came for a high school education, and, indeed, you received that. Your parents were told this education is an education distinct from all others by its being a schooling in poetic knowledge: to awaken in you the very desire to know the truth, to desire what is good, to be captivated by beauty by leading you into contact with what is real: to discover by experience the totality of what is, in its whole-ality before we begin to articulate what it is. In a word, ‘to play.’

Does not wisdom call,

Does not understanding raise her voice?…

at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:

“To you, O men, I call,

and my cry is to the sons of men…”

Hear, for I will speak noble things,

and from my lips will come what is right;

for my mouth will utter truth;”

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,

the first of his acts of old.

Ages ago I was set up,

at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

When there were no depths I was brought forth,

when there were no springs abounding with water…

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,

then I was beside him, like a master workman;

and I was daily his delight,

playing before him always,

playing in his inhabited world

and delighting in the sons of men.

And, now my sons, listen to me:

Happy are those who keep my ways.

(Proverbs 8:1, 3-4, 6-7, 22-24, 29-32)

per singulos dies ludens coram eo omni tempore ludens in orbe terrarum et deliciae meae esse cum filiis hominumludens, playing  ludens coram Deo.

Can play, so perfectly exemplified by the child, also be the same activity of the wise man?

Play is the activity of wonder: to discover and touch a mystery, to delight in the inexhaustible treasures of everything. Play. Is it not to imagine what could be, ought to be from what apparently is not so? Is it not to create and to destroy and so to create again, a thousand times over? For what we have made we discover is not quite what it is.

We play because we delight in what God has made: He has left His mark, His inexhaustible truth, His all-encompassing goodness and the splendor of His beauty in all of His works: to behold them is to behold Him.

How unthinkable that He who is wrapped in darkness, a mystery so inaccessible; yet it is for us to glimpse Him – though as in a whisper, covering us by His almighty and creating hand to behold the backside of His uncreated glory.

At St. Gregory’s, if we have given you anything, if we could give you anything, it has been to delight with you in the works of God, to play before Him, to begin to learn this activity of the wise man.

You and I, indeed, – we all have played – though perhaps, it seemed like a labor. But all the activities here at Gregory the Great, all that you have done, were done so that you & I could play and play we did.  The rigors of Euclid, Latin and Algebra, our dabbling in philosophy and theology so as to know the truth; reading history and literature, to parade before our imagination what is noble: the images of the virtuous and evil men so that we might choose the good and flee from evil; the discipline of rugby to subjugate the body and train the passions for what is better; a common life to learn sacrifice and to fall in love with what is beautiful, by creating beautiful things, to delight in what is good.

But this play is hard because we live in a cynical age, we have forgotten how to take delight in what is good. For we have been taught that there is nothing beyond ourselves which is desirable. So we had to learn how to play again. So simple our purpose here: not just to know (the truth), but also to become what we know (the good) and this desire to become them happens only when we first delight in them (the beautiful).

To know what justice is, is not enough- indeed, so exceedingly wonderful and worthy to be known; but to be a just man – that I, Christopher, be a just man – this is more to be prized. And so if, and when, I am persuaded by justice, captivated by its charm, when I take delight in just acts, then, perhaps, – God willing by His grace – I will be a just man. You looked to just men, living here and there; we have looked at the great men of old – saints, statesmen, scholars – and in them we have discovered the splendor and beauty of justice; by poetry and literature our hearts have been enflamed to be like them.

This is why beauty is so prized here at St. Gregory’s. Beauty is the bridge between knowledge and goodness – between what is and what is desirable for me. Beauty is to delight in things – but for me to become, for me to take hold of. And so of the multitude of things we do here at Gregory the Great – these thin encounters with reality which delight us so – is so that we might delight in God himself. ‘To know God’ is exceedingly good; but to be with God: to love and serve Him, to be as holy as He is holy is most excellent. And this is possible because we first have glimpsed the beauty of God, which arrests, draws us to Himself. And so we have delighted in Him.

Only before Him is the ugliness of this world, marred by sin, healed and restored; only there in the divine light is meaning bestowed and hope renewed; only in Him does the beauty of every man and creature shine with such brilliance and clarity that we can but cry out “it is good,” “it is very good.” This is why we never tire of contemplating Jesus, the Son of God; He is the Beautiful Shepherd, who by His incarnation persuaded us, taught us by his example how to be sons of God.

It is on purpose that you and I end our days here at St. Gregory’s in this playground- this chapel- in the Divine Liturgy of the Mass and of divine praise. Daily we have played here, we have been delighted and have delighted in the Lord and in the sons of God. This is why at Gregory the Great the sacred liturgy has first place, this is why the sacred liturgy must be -before all else- beautiful; it must be holy- not merely because of what it is: a mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise; not merely because it is our mystical service to the Lord; but because by beauty we can take delight in the Lord, to stand before Him.  So captivated by His grace and His charms, we will desire to be with Him now and in the age to come.

This is why our divine play looks to/ends in the Holy Eucharist – the communion of you and I in God – the foretaste of the divine communion of beatific knowledge perfect in love hereafter. You and I learned the true delight of man: man to God and man to man. Beauty, indeed, we are told will save the world, this beauty will save you and me. For this is the very promise of our Lord Jesus. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:23-24)

Gentlemen, today is a day of rejoicing, we have marked it by this Divine Liturgy, we have begun this day in divine play and we will pass this day playing. You have spent these many years learning to play: in the liturgy of divine worship, in the life of Gregory the Great Academy and you have made it your own. We will behold, we will delight in your husbandry – your own handiwork of beauty – in the “Woodcutters Dream,” where truth and goodness embrace in beauty. You will go forth this day playing, growing wise by this play, and you will teach your children how to play. And having forever recourse to the play of the Divine Liturgy you will enter into the presence of the Lord to take delight in Him unto the ages of ages. Amen.