In a culture where it is quite popular for folks to say that they are “spiritual” but not “religious,” we Catholics are proud to proclaim that we are intentionally religious. This is a very important term for us. The word religious is from the same root as the word ‘ligament,’ that which binds the body together, the Catholic religion holds together the Body of Christ. That’s why we refer to nuns and monks as ‘religious,’ they are bound together in community. We can and should be referred to as religious. We are connected. We have self descriptive phrases like: “the people of God,” a ‘royal priesthood,’ ‘a pilgrim people,’ the “Body of Christ.”
A primary event that binds us together is the Ascension of Jesus. We read in the pertinent passage from “The Acts of the Apostles” that Jesus says… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “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.”
Some literalists who refute the faith would argue that this is preposterous. As someone once said: “anyone with a contemporary, scientific understanding of the atmosphere and the cosmos knows that it would take Jesus several billion years, traveling at the speed of light to reach the edge of the known universe and enter a transcendent realm beyond. It would take him another several billion years to return.”
Jesus’ Ascension into heaven it is not so much a matter of astrophysics as it is a matter of theology. Jesus went to heaven to finish what he had begun to do for us here on Earth. It was not enough that Christ came to Earth as the Incarnate God, born as human flesh from the Blessed Virgin Mary, His Mother; it was the most wonderful Christmas gift of all time. Ironically, this departure was a gift as well. By his Ascension, Christ imported the fullness of humanity into heaven for the very first time. As an aside, some of you would refer to Enoch and Elijah in the OT as having gone into heaven before Christ, but neither of them died first. It was the entirety of the human experience, including death and rising from the dead that Christ pioneered.
He paved the way for us so that when we eventually do get there, all the Angels and Archangels won’t be completely shocked to see us. By ascending bodily into heaven, Jesus showed us that God who created us flesh and blood, also redeemed us through flesh and blood and flesh and blood is the medium that God likes when he is dealing with us humans. By putting on flesh and blood at his conception, Jesus brought God to us and it is by flesh and blood that Christ has brought us to God.
And now we wait and anticipate.
In so doing, let us affirm something as I toss out a double negative: absence isn’t nothing. It is something. It’s the stuff of promise and yearning, a heightened awareness, a sharpened appetite. When someone I love is absent, I become closer to what that person means to me. Details that get lost in our togetherness are recalled in our separation and the awareness of them at that intimate level has the power to pry my heart wide open. Absence does make the heart grow fonder. I see the virtues in those absent loved ones that I overlooked, the opportunities that I have missed. The quirks that were crazy making at close range become endearing at a distance. This is the stuff of love. There is something else that happens during an absence. If the relationship is strong and true, the absent one has a way of becoming present, if not in body, then in mind and spirit. I have listened to countless widows and widowers who have spoken of having a strong sense of the presence of their departed spouses. A myriad of parents have shared stories of having an intense awareness of the presence of a child who has died. When a spouse is serving in harm’s way overseas, when children and grandchildren have moved a long way away, we who miss them dearly know the ache and the heightened awareness that comes about because of their absence.
One thing is sure; there is no sense of absence where there has been no sense of presence. What makes absence hurt, what makes it ache, is the memory of what used to be there but is no longer. Absence is the arm flung in the middle of the night, the empty space, the hole in the bed. Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood, the home in which people loved and laughed and fussed and thought that this family bond would last forever.
You cannot miss what you have never known. And if you think about it, it makes sense of absence and especially our sense of longing for Christ’s return, for it is the very best proof that we love him and know him and hope one day to know him more fully. There is loss in absence, but there is also hope. You see the absence hones our need.
And God does tend that need. After Christ’s Ascension, the Holy Spirit came and empowered the Apostles to become bishops, the elders to become priests, the servants and administrators to become deacons, and listeners became preachers, converts became evangelists, the wounded became healers.
And once the Holy Spirit descended on them they were empowered to do surprising things. They began to say things that sounded like Jesus and they began to heal the sick and cast out demons and proclaim the Good News. They became brave and competent and wise. Whenever two or three of them came together the sense of Christ’s presence was very telling. And soon those baptized were called his Body and they saw him in one another and the Body of Christ soon came together regularly, sometimes daily and certainly weekly, miraculously and mysteriously to receive Christ fully, his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Bread and Wine, the Body and precious Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. And their eyes were opened to see Christ not only at the Mass, but in one another and especially in the poor and neglected and outcast. They became truly religious.
Did they miss him? Of course, but they soon learned that it was not helpful to stand around looking up into heaven, awaiting his return. All they had to do was to look around, to look around and there he was, and is. We wait for Christ to return in glory. In the meantime, like the early disciples we can look around and discern him right here, right here in the midst of us. As we look around we see that we are connected by the great ligaments of the Church holding together the Body of Christ and upon his return, we will be fully religious.