Mass readings for The Ascension of the Lord:
Acts 1.1-11 Psalm 47.1-2, 5-8 Ephesians 1.17-23 Matthew 28.16-20
We often look at events like the Ascension as something, for a lack of a better way of putting it, something that happens to Jesus. The Son of God returns to God the Father where he is seated at his right hand and we understand that to be a privileged place. Good for him! But good for us to as we are taught that where the head goes, we the body will follow.
What can be overlooked is that this is momentous for humanity in a more immediate way – and that’s because Jesus bodily returns to the Father and his physical humanity, his flesh, becomes part of the Trinity of God – human life both in spiritual and material terms then is glorified and shown to have infinite value.
We read in scripture that God is a spirit. And indeed, when we come to understand how we are made in the image and likeness of God, a phrase used to express the inherent dignity of human persons, we know that what we’re saying doesn’t concern our facial features, having two hands or two feet, and so on – and if we think about it that’s not really what is essential about us. The same physical attributes could be attributed to a chimpanzee.
Rather, our likeness to God is in how we possess an intellect, and the faculty of reason; our senses and how we use them, our emotional states, are reflective of divine properties. We’re not as smart as God, and our senses are limited, and our emotions too often get the better of us. But these, and other aspects of our personhood, both material and immaterial can be found in a perfect spiritual form in God.
So, the human body, our flesh and blood, is something far less than what God possesses; we are, to put it bluntly, derivative, less than the original, and lesser by a considerable degree. And yet, for all that, God takes up the flesh derived from Mary into himself to be kept as integral to him forever. The spiritual and the material is reconciled in God and human life is given greater dignity.
Now, it needs to be stated that this is the body of the Resurrection, so we understand it to be superior to what we have; it is a glorified body and it is imbued with divine qualities (Jesus can go wherever he wants, no locked door can keep him out; and no amount of distance prevents him from being where he wants as soon as he wants), but there is still no denying it is a human body that Jesus possesses (the Gospels tell us that he eats and drinks, that he made a fire to cook over, that he can be touched as when Thomas doubted the resurrection).
This should shape our attitude toward humanity and our physical existence, even in its fallen, broken, sinful state. That what we have is precious, even as it, perhaps, doesn’t work quite as well as we would want, even if we suffer it in anticipation of a Resurrection that can’t come soon enough.
This flesh is the stuff of Resurrection, it is this that will be glorified, and raised up at the culmination of history, when this great project of God is brought to final fruition. So, we possess this tremendous potential.
It is troubling to see how attitudes toward humanity are so awful these days; and there is a disturbing shift in attitude in our post-Christian society towards the body and human life more generally. Yes, we still find examples of the beauty of human life in sentimental advertising, movies, songs and so on, even as there is a movement afoot that looks to largely extinguish it in the perverse logic that this will ultimately save humanity.
We are aware that human beings can fall prey to an obsession with beauty, with the perfect physique, and so, a perverse overvaluing of the body occurs periodically in our culture. However, as you likely know from looking at our media, the concept of beauty and the ideal human form is now a battlefield. And while there are dangers in the worship of perfection as imaged in the sculpted, lean athletic body; to say whatever we do with our bodies, including growing obese, all options are valid and good — this imperils the health of people. Neither looks at our physical selves in a healthy spiritual manner. As human beings we are a miraculous fusion of the material and the spiritual, and it is in striking a balance between the two that we have full health of body and spirit. That is, we don’t solve our problems entirely in one sphere or the other.
The person who has a deep sense of self-loathing cannot repair their self-esteem, dispel a sense of shame or inadequacy just by hitting the gym, or going on a diet, or having plastic surgery – no alteration of the body can repair a broken spirit.
Nonetheless, it’s not a bad idea to improve physical fitness, to care for one’s physical self, and to value what you are as a physical being. Saint Paul said that we live and move in God, so best to keep moving and maintain as best we can our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit – this material life is the means by which we pray and worship, contemplate the holy and express our thanksgiving, our penance and our praise.
The denigration of human life as a species, as something preferably limited in both numbers and duration is becoming a disturbing trend. We can obviously point to the horrors of abortion and assisted suicide; but beyond these individual acts of destruction of human life, we see people of influence and leadership making plans for all of humanity based on the premise that human life itself is the problem: there are too many of us walking around. And we have to also note that it’s not their lives that are the problem; it’s always everybody else’s.
So, a sense of dire emergency has been created, and food and energy shortages are being engineered. There is this stated goal of delivering us from an impending evil, but the recent track record of our elites in approaching problems by making them crises has not been good.
And for all the statistics that get bandied about, one irrefutable number is the global birth rate, and it is falling. That might resolve a great many issues without us having to do much, but there comes a point where this will mean real human suffering as an overburdened younger generation simply can’t take the strain of caring for the rest, of keeping a productive economy going to sustain us all.
Do we hear much discussion of how this is to be managed? A reasoned discussion of our future where human life is not seen as problem but the answer to our common challenges? Or are we going to be guided by those who either wittingly or not see death and suppression of human life as good?
Historically, the optimistic take on human existence has led to flourishing; Jesus spoke often of how wonderful we are in God’s eyes, how he numbers the hairs on each of our heads, how he is lovingly attentive to us.
Insofar as we have experienced human life as a scourge upon creation, it has been when our values become disordered, and virtue gives way to decadence, when sound religion is discarded – and science is no guarantee against us following lunatic ideas whether they come from a shaman or an expert in a lab coat.
And this means we need to change: Jesus has said as much; and the change is by way of the cross. So, this isn’t about looking back. The good old days weren’t all bad, but these were stations along the way. Sadly, we’ve lost our way, we left the narrow path for the broad, paved multilane highway of modernity; and now find ourselves in an existential traffic jam. We can speculate as to when that fateful wrong turning came: fifty years ago, a hundred? Whenever that happened, we can see that we’ve not really progressed as a society intent on holiness in God and harmony with nature, as a living reconciliation of the material and the spiritual, a combining in ourselves of heaven and earth in sanctifying imitation of our God.
One then has cause to wonder that, perhaps at the level of collective sub conscience, we know we’ve failed in our vocation and are now imposing a harsh penance on everyone; but with no hope of absolution.
We, being baptized and confirmed in the Holy Spirit have access to the Spirit of Truth to guide us in our discernment; and Jesus told us not to forget what he had taught – and so we look to the Apostolic heritage that teaches us about our fundamental worth that is truly realized in this great project of being Christ in the world; and that’s not about indulging in the guilt of Adam, but in recognizing the glory of the resurrection as our destiny, a resurrection to eternal life when heaven and earth are brought together forever.