The following is a homily for the Feast of the Ascension, Year A. The readings can be found here.
Technology is amazing these days, isn’t it? Despite being trapped at home, away from everyone we know, we can just pull out our phones, open our computers, and not only hear the voices of our friends and family, but see them. During lent, the students at UGA got together each Friday and prayed the stations of the cross together. This week, the women’s group hosted more than 30 people on one call for prayer and fellowship. I mean, c’mon: My family has been getting together every so often for a virtual happy hour. Just stay grab a drink wherever you are and hang out with the family.
It’s absolutely amazing. It’s like they’re in the room with us. It’s why everyone is completely fine social distancing, feeling like everything is normal, no one thinks they’re missing anything at all and hope that we stay like this forever!
Okay, maybe not.
Even with the advances in technology, something is missing. It’s not the same. No matter how spectacular it is that we have this, many of us are starting to get a bit tired of it, wishing we had more, realizing how important it actually is to be in the same room with someone, to have a physical presence. It is not enough to have a voice, not enough to have a vision—there is something to this bodily experience that really, really matters.
Unfortunately, we too often have a limited view of the human person, a dreadful one, really.
Whether conscious or not, we have this sense that a person is simply soul trapped in the body, that when you die, your soul is freed and goes to heaven, while the body stays here and doesn’t matter. We see it in cartoons and movies all of the time, and I suspect that many people believe that that is how things actually work. But that is not what we believe. In fact, it’s kind of a heresy. Look at the Apostles Creed, pay special attention to the very end: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” Ever notice this? It’s pretty important, actually. Against this notion that we are just souls trapped in a human body, what it says is that we believe in the inherent importance of the body, that it will be with us, even in heaven. We believe that the soul animates the body and the body gives substance to the soul, that they exist together as one, that you cannot know a person without their body.
So why do I bring up this up? You see, today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension, the culminating moment of the resurrection, really, the culminating moment of Jesus’ life on earth, when he returned to heaven. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. We’ve heard 100 times over the past few weeks that Jesus came from the Father, and he will return to the Father. He lived among us for a while, and now reigns in heaven. But what part of him reigns in heaven? Just his divine spirit? Just his disembodied soul?
I think not.
When Jesus was resurrected, he had a physical body. Remember the other stories we’ve heard this Easter
Thomas touches the wounds in his flesh. Pretty tough to do if you’re just a spirit. Jesus shares a meal with those on the road to Emmaus. Pretty much impossible without a body. While we don’t know exactly how it worked or what he looked like, we know that when he was resurrected, he had a body, and when he ascended to heaven, he left nothing behind. All of him—not just his soul, but his body as well—ascended into heaven to live forever with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This point was so important to the early Christians that a devotion began to develop around what was believed to be his footprints at the ascension, the place where his body literally made marks in the earth before he left. Look to famous paintings of the ascension, and you will see footprints on the ground below his feet. This was not just some spirit rising, it was a whole person.
But again, you might be wondering, why is this any of this important? What’s it got to do with me? I tell you, everything. This very fact may be the most important detail for us in the whole Bible: The fact that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, taking with him his physical body, his human nature, opened the door for our own eternity in heaven. Think about it: our human natures—our bodies, something God created, something finite, something contingent—now exists in eternity, never to be lost or forgotten. At the Annunciation and Christmas, feasts of the Incarnation, we celebrate the fact that Jesus came to be like us, but now on the feast of the Ascension we celebrate the reason for it all: Jesus came to be like us, so that we could become like God. A few weeks ago we heard Jesus say that he was returning to the father, that he was preparing a place for us in heaven, that this place was not to be found in some temple but in the heart of God. This is what he meant. We have a place in God because our natures, our bodies, something completely other than God, now exists in God. We will live forever in heaven, body and soul, because Christ ascended with his human nature, body and soul, to make room for us.
So, yeah. Our bodies matter. And so do the bodies of those we serve. I hear people say it all the time, that the role of the priest is to save souls, and that’s it. We shouldn’t be getting into social work or politics or social justice. All that matters is the soul, they say. But as we can see, this is clearly not the case. Knowing what we know about Jesus’ Ascension, hearing his command in this passage, we know that we are called to serve the whole person. As he leaves his followers for the last time, he gives one final command: make disciples of all nations. He doesn’t say to go save souls, doesn’t say that our mission is simply to teach divine truths. He says make disciples, make people who do what he did, who want to go where he went.
And what did Jesus do? He gave the hungry food, cured their illnesses, cared intimately about the entire person, not just the soul. For if a body is hungry, if a body is abused, if a body is left in destitution… the soul will suffer as well. The two cannot be separated: the soul gives life to the body, and the body gives substance to the soul. If we are to be true believers in the resurrection, making people true disciples of Jesus, then we must teach, yes, but we must also heal, feed, console, and protect, just as Jesus did. We must care not just about the soul, but the body as well.
It is not enough to have Zoom calls to fully experience someone we love. It is not enough to watch the mass from home for the rest of our lives. It is not enough to treat the soul and ignore the body. Christ shows us that the body is integral to everything we do, that it has a place in heaven, and so we must do everything we can here on earth to honor and cherish it. Our own, and our neighbors’.