Ascension Sunday – Year C
[Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Luke 24:46-53]
Today, as the Church celebrates Ascension Sunday, a long-hoped-for victory is on the minds of everyone. No, I am not referring to the Battle of Alberta. Admittedly, victory in hockey has been long desired in this city, and when the win is against an archrival, the joy intensifies. The victory marked on Ascension Sunday is of infinitely greater import and carries with it a joy that knows no bounds. Nevertheless, some analogies with what we have been witnessing of late on the ice suggest themselves as we seek to understand and receive the message of the biblical texts.
The victory at the heart of the scriptural announcement is that of Jesus Christ. Throughout this Easter season, we proclaim that, by his death and resurrection, Jesus is victorious over sin and death. By his Ascension he returns to the Father from whom he came to earth and thus opens wide the gates of heaven for those who follow him in faith and love. This is why the scriptural texts of today are suffused with joy. One might have expected the disciples to be overcome with sadness as they witnessed their beloved Lord and Master depart from their midst as he ascended from their sight. Instead, we are told that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. They saw achieved in Jesus the long-awaited victory, one, moreover, in which they were destined to share.
That joy experienced by the disciples was not that of fans. We have in this city a very strong and dedicated fan base for our hockey team. I even saw a police van pass by the other day with Oilers flags waving away. When the team wins, we feel we have a share in the victory, even though we haven’t actually played the game and are physically separated from what’s happening on the ice. Discipleship is different. Disciples are not mere fans of Jesus, distant from the action. Jesus is the sole victor, certainly, but he summons us to get into the game with him, to participate in his victory. Jesus wills to accomplishes his win in us in order to bring us with him to heaven. We lace up and get onto the ice, as it were, by believing in him, by surrendering the whole of our lives to his mercy, and following in faith and obedience where his teachings lead us.
We do not do this alone. In any sport, players have to work as a team, striving always to set one another up for success, for victory. So, too, in the Christian life. Followers of Jesus must always play “heads-up hockey”, aware not only of their own position but also that of others, so that we support one another towards the goal. This arises from the fact that the Holy Spirit, promised to the disciples by Jesus before he ascended, is for the whole Church, bestowed in the sacraments to fashion us as a communion in the Lord. We are called to be mindful of one another, encourage one another, challenge each other as needed, so that together we come by God’s grace to the goal won for us by Jesus.
Occasionally, I get to a game at Rogers Place. When I do, I worry that I will leave the place deaf, so loud is the noise. Edmonton fans love to cheer on the team and shout out no end of instructions or admonitions to the players. However, we know the players are not listening to the fans; they have to pay attention to the one behind the bench. To function as a team, they each have to follow the coach, not the crowds. So it is with us who are followers of Jesus Christ. He alone can lay out the game plan and lead us to heaven. Yet we face daily the very strong temptation to follow the crowds and not the coach.
Those crowds are not quiet either. The voices shouting out instructions to follow a path other than the one set down by Jesus Christ can be very loud indeed, even shrill at times. Seeking to drown out the Gospel, they become loud through the strong pressure they exert towards social conformity. This is why it is critically important for disciples to exercise team discipline by listening attentively to the coach in quiet prayer, and sticking carefully to the winning strategy he sets out before us in Sacred Scripture and the teaching of his Church.
Finally, we can observe that the victory won by a team is enjoyed only for a given season. As the next one begins, we hope that the victory will be repeated, but we cannot be sure what will happen. We hope, but know only too well that we may be disappointed in the end. Not so with the victory won by Jesus Christ. The Ascension assures us that his victory is eternal, and that consequently our hope in him will never be disappointed. As St. Paul teaches, Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the Father, far above any and all power on earth. We are weak and make mistakes, more than occasionally going offside by our abiding sinfulness. But for those who join his “team” through faith and obedience, the mercy of Jesus Christ will allow no defeat, and this fills us with a joy that no difficulties or setbacks can take away from us.
The victory won by Jesus in his dying and rising, and manifest at his Ascension, is rendered present here on the altar every time we celebrate the Eucharist. As by the gift of Holy Communion he gives us a share even now in his triumph, may we be renewed in our Christian joy, and resolved once again to follow him in faith until he brings us rejoicing together into the fulfillment of that victory in heaven.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
May 29th, 2022