Not too many miles from here, the Wright Brothers realized a long-cherished dream—that of taking flight and, however briefly, severing the heavy gravitational forces binding us to the earth. Space travel and the desire to explore distant galaxies is a further expression of this fundamental human longing to transcend the limits of earthly existence. Spiritually, this seemingly irrepressible longing to rise above our present earthbound and body-bound limitations has sometimes found problematic expression in dualistic spiritualities reiterating ancient Greek notions of the body being the prison of the soul, and ultimate liberation requiring escaping and discarding the body.
This latter notion seems to be supported by many of the mystics whose privileged experience of union with God had them lamenting the limitations imposed by their bodies which prevented—at least temporarily—their complete and final union with God in the fullness of eternal and divine life. At a more mundane level those who have experienced serious physical illness and pain, or the debilitating limitations that can accompany advanced age, can probably also resonate with this desire to escape the weariness and heaviness that our bodies often impose on us.
In the light of these considerations today’s feast brings good and welcome news that both answers this human longing and affirms the goodness of the body and its eternal destiny. Accordingly, the body is not some entity that contains or imprisons our souls and spirit such that at our death we happily shed it and consign it to the dust from which it came. Instead, Christianity has always defended the goodness and nobility of the body, seeing it as inseparable from the soul and integral to the persons we are. This Easter Season has had as a central focus the resurrected body of Christ thereby proclaiming that the body Christ assumed in the womb of the Virgin Mary was not just some instrument to be used in the process of redeeming us and then summarily discarded.
Instead, the Ascension celebrates the great mystery according to which our frail, finite, human nature—assumed by Christ—has now been taken up into glory and in a manner we cannot begin to understand, is now part of the godhead and integral to the inner life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus reassured the disciples that he had not discarded his body or his humanity to reassume his solely divine nature. That being said, his appearances make clear that it is a radically transformed body no longer bound and limited by its former earthbound qualities. This is epitomized in the ascension itself described in terms of defying gravity and the severing of all its former earthbound limitations. The precise nature of Christ’s resurrected and ascended body is in the realm of mystery and one that we can only speculate about. But although we can speculate it is preferable to exercise faith and as Saint Paul suggests to not ask foolish questions about the precise nature of our own resurrected bodies and their relationship to our souls.
And it is within this context of faith that we can rejoice today that this apparently inborn longing for flight, space travel, and transcending the sometimes heavy weight and burden of our present bodies, it not a futile and unattainable dream, but one that God has placed deep within our hearts precisely because he intended to fulfill it in the reality of the resurrection and ascension. And so in a spirit of faith we take heart and affirm with Saint Paul that although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. And while we are in this tent [that is our bodies] we groan and are weighed down, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Today’s feast is a promise that this wish will be granted—granted by the One who has preceded us into glory, immortality, and Eternal Life!