Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Hebrews 9:24-28, 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53
The magnificent sight of an eagle effortlessly soaring high up in the sky is perhaps one of those moments when we wish we could fly. Indeed the ability to fly and free ourselves from gravity’s downward pull is a common theme in dreams. In some instances our desire to rise up and soar above reflects a deeper longing for inner freedom and being able to transcend our present limitations, weaknesses, sinfulness and unhappiness. It persists as a longing because this transcendence and inner freedom seems so elusive as our efforts to take wing and fly. Even on those occasions when we do seem to actually get off the ground and cast off our spiritual shackles, it is temporary and all too soon we are pulled back down to earth by the weight of unhealthy attachments and our sinful habits reasserting their tenacious hold on us.
However the good news of today’s celebration is that these repeated efforts to break free are not a futile exercise. For although Jesus’ journey to this great moment of his Ascension was unique, it is also a pattern or model for our own journey; for Christ’s ascension came at a great price of much suffering, anguish and pain. And although he didn’t have to free himself–as we do–from sin’s stranglehold, he too battled temptation even to his last breath on the cross. And Christ’s persevering struggle against sin should give us courage and resolve as we consider that his ascension into heaven is a guarantee that his saving grace will gradually weaken the gravitational pull of sin in our lives and culminate in that day when our bodies, transformed in glory, will soar to the heights of heaven.
Indeed, in certain areas of our life, we may already be soaring free, having overcome some sinful tendency and thus broken the chains of a former spiritual enslavement. Sometimes in God’s saving mercy, even while the chains remain unbroken, they fail to prevent our being taken up–albeit momentarily–into that glorious realm of freedom, and this brief foretaste of eternal beatitude gives us courage to carry on. But like Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor, the enveloping cloud passes and we must descend the mountain to take up the struggle anew. For as Saint John of the Cross reminds us, even if what chains us to the earth is the thickness of a thread of a spider web, until it is broken we cannot ascend into that Freedom and Life to which Jesus wishes to lead us.
But because this can be a protracted struggle, the danger is that we will give up the seemingly futile battle, resign ourselves to our shackles, and forget the dignity that is ours as God’s beloved children. And so we need to cultivate a holy discontent with our present unfree state and resist seeking escape or attempting to deaden our inner pain and misery. Instead, we need to undertake the painful descent into the heart and through deepening self-knowledge expose the chains that hold us bound in order for Christ to set us free. Sometimes more contemplative forms of prayer are sought as a means of circumventing this otherwise painful process; but before deeper forms of prayer can break and heal the hold of sin in our lives, these chains need to be identified. Spiritual direction and recourse to the Sacrament of Penance are the usual God-given tools to assist this process and allow grace–reaching us through prayer and the sacraments–to heel and free us.
And so although today we spiritually gaze with wonder at our ascending Lord, we cannot yet join him. And so, like the apostles, we have to withdraw our upward gaze and head back to the ordinariness of everyday life, taking up anew the daily spiritual struggle that draws us ever closer to that day when (in the words of the hymn) we will soar where Christ has led, following our exalted Head. Made like Him, like Him we rise–ours the cross, the grave, the skies.