||This column is the bishop’s communication with the faithful of the Diocese of Madison. Any wider circulation reaches beyond the intention of the bishop.
This past Sunday we marked the Feast of the Ascension when, the Gospel tells us, Jesus took His place at the Father’s right hand; He took His place as the Eternal High Priest. This means something very powerful and very real for us today, for Jesus ascended and became the Eternal High Priest who leads all creation in the Eternal Divine Liturgy in Worship of God the Father, in the Communion of the Holy Spirit.
In our Gospel from the Ascension, we hear Jesus telling the 11 remaining Apostles clearly what His departure means for them. He tells them that they are going to receive power from on high — meaning the Holy Spirit. (And this coming Sunday we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.) Jesus tells the 11 that they are going to receive the Holy Spirit from on high, with power — the power to “handle serpents.”
We know, of course, of the image of the serpent through the Scriptures, even from the very beginning — the ancient serpent who brought down Adam and Eve — and so we know that Jesus’ Apostles received the power to, “handle,” in fact, the forces of evil. And we are still called to do that, especially when it’s needed through the Rite of Exorcism. But in a general way, even to this day we are called to handle those deadly serpents, the demons who seek to ruin people’s lives and to herald in the culture of death.
We are called to overcome evil
We are called to overcome evil which exhausts its energy in causing death — which Christ, of course, overcame in His Resurrection. When Jesus ascends, the Holy Spirit comes, and we are given tremendous power from on high, which is not on our own, but from the Risen Christ, to “handle” the culture of death and to “handle” the forces of evil. Jesus won that power for us, in His dying and rising, and grants it in His ascending.
Sometimes the forces of evil and the culture of death surround us so powerfully that we look as if we’ve forgotten the power we have. Sometimes the forces of evil and the culture of death seem so overwhelming that we feel “done-in,” and sometimes the Resurrection faith, which guarantees the defeat of the forces of evil and the culture of death, does not shine forth from us brightly as the True light that enlightens the world. And as the light seems so dim, we begin to wonder, “how bad is it going to get?”
Such wondering is reasonable, but it’s not faithful enough! What is reasonable is sometimes not faithful enough. And, if we are truly fearful as we face off with the forces of evil and the culture of death, we must recall and then live out — in our hearts and in our lives — that Jesus Christ is still risen, He is still ascended into heaven as our Great High Priest, He has still given us the power of His victory, and that cannot be snatched away from us! We have to go on, as filled with that hope which is the source of our happiness.
That moment of the Ascension and on the Feast of Pentecost, when Christ the High Priest is taken to the Father’s right hand and when He sends upon us the power of the Holy Spirit, is re-presented every time we come to Mass. Every time we come to Mass, we are called to enter the heavenly sanctuary, with Christ taking us by the hand. And from the Mass we need to remember that we have the power from on high, from that heavenly sanctuary, to handle and conquer the forces of evil and culture of death.
And so we must be filled with hope and filled with joy, even when the whole world seems against us. Even when the deck is stacked strongly against us — as it is in the present moment — nothing can thwart the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and there abides our hope! And God help us if we fail to drink from that spring of hope every blessed day.
When Jesus is taken up to Heaven, our humanity (except for sin) is raised up with Him. Our whole humanity is “heavenized,” (everyone else makes up words today, so I’ll join in). With Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, our humanity is remade and recreated in a heavenly fashion. That “heavenizing” of our humanity was a central concern of Blessed John Paul II, who saw that, in our day and age, mankind needed to be reminded of it once again so that their humanity find real freedom.
Blessed John Paul II emphasized, and Pope Benedict XVI has reiterated, the essential connection between Truth and freedom. Blessed John Paul saw the transformation of our freedom, by the resurrection and ascension of Christ, from the ordinary human freedom that we call autonomy, which our culture worships as the freedom to do whatever, to something far higher.
Ordinary freedom of choice can be as simple as the freedom to take home bananas or pears from the grocery story, or it can become so powerful that one can use it do something which will lead to the eventual loss of one’s soul. The freedom of choice that our culture worships can be seen clearly in this season of graduations, when speakers encourage our young people to, “go out and live your freedom, live your lives to the fullest!”
‘Heavenizing’ our freedom
Blessed John Paul II was focused on the “heavenizing” of our freedom, where freedom not only chooses this or that, but where our freedom becomes the ultimate in the power to express our full humanity (truly living our lives to the fullest!) the way Christ defines our humanity as He rises and ascends. Jesus Christ defines our humanity by giving it a totally new potential, and that potential is actualized not in the choosing of bananas or pears, or both, and not in the reaching for things that are ultimately destructive of our souls (of which there are so many things — the latest and worst of which is violence).
The fullness of our humanity lived-out sees all the choices of this life in the context of our humanity racing toward heaven and toward God. The “heavenizing” of our humanity in the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus Christ, shows that it is truly human to seek what is above at all times, and to reach out for that wonderful human self, fashioned for union with God, in Christ, in the Church.
The choices of this world, taken outside of this context, are ultimately a tremendous defacing of our freedom, for ultimately the choices we make apart from a striving for heaven lead to death and to total slavery. Our freedom in this world allows us to make immediate choices before us because they appear good, but we’re never satisfied — we want more good. We always want more, but there is nothing in this limited world that will satisfy our ultimate desire for more good. Our desire for more good is ultimately our desire for God, who is the absolute good. Any choices we make for apparent goods in this life, which do not lead to God, will ultimately leave us unsatisfied, empty, and in despair. Every time we perform a free act, we recognize that maybe some good came from that free act . . . but not enough, and we’re ready for more.
Every act of free choice should remind us of the greater freedom we have, which comes from God and ends up in God, with Christ. The only freedom in which I can find true happiness and true fulfillment is that “heavenized” freedom which Christ offers. Escaping into alcohol, or drugs, or sexual pleasure, or violence, or money, or power, or pleasure are a poor and ultimately unfulfilling substitute for arriving at the complete humanity in Christ for which we are made, and apart from which our human freedom will never be satisfied, and apart from which we will never find happiness.
The full potential of our freedom is actualized in its arriving at freedom’s union with truth, which is why God created it. We are called, in the risen and ascended Christ, to reach the pinnacle of freedom’s union with Truth. And in reaching the pinnacle of freedom’s union with Truth, we are then in the presence of true love and as a manifestation of true love — the height of our humanity, its “heavenization.”
Our culture does not view freedom in this way, for it is unpopular and politically incorrect to claim that there is a Truth which our freedom should seek. Many people want to hold fast to this truth, but they are afraid. To them and to the whole world, Jesus Christ, and the Church through power of the Holy Spirit, speaks the words, “Be not afraid!” At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit rushes upon the Church, to give it the power to “handle” evil and the culture of death, and that same Holy Spirit says to each of us, do not be afraid to seek true freedom, to seek your happiness, and to invite others to do the same! It is for this mission that we were created and it is why Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!