Of all Christian holy days, I do believe that it is the feast of the Ascension that scares me the most. Abandonment – that’s what we’re celebrating, actually. We’re celebrating the day that Jesus commissioned His apostles to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, while He supervises from on high. Sure, as the angels instructed the thunderstruck apostles, “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven,” but that doesn’t really answer the question, does it? – how are we supposed to do this ourselves?
Obviously, the apostles figured it out eventually. After the descent of the Holy Spirit they burst out of the Upper Room and proceeded to preach the Good News to the ends of the earth – according to tradition, as far as western Spain, eastern Turkey and southern India. Part of their job was to teach their converts to do the same, to be the body of Christ here on earth. The results were frighteningly mixed, as documented in St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians:
… in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you. Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you?
Jesus Himself had a few choice words for the members of His body (in Thyatira) in His Revelation:
I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality. Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.
Yep, and it’s remained a mixed bag down through the centuries, this body of Christ. I always greet the Easter Vigil with mixed emotions – mixed because I myself as a convert know the inexpressible joy of being reconciled to the Church, as well as the bumpy reality of life in this struggling body of Christ. I know that those entering the Church at the Vigil will sooner or later have to face what all converts have to face: you and me.
It’s not a pretty scenario. Pity the poor convert who rises early to attend the daily recitation of the Rosary before Mass. She arrives starry-eyed, only to be greeted by – me. Bear in mind that I am not a morning person, nor am I a people person, and becoming a member of the body of Christ did not change that overnight. As I sit silent and aloof in my corner, you enter the room. You are by no means as antisocial as I am, not by a long shot, but after having had the mother of all arguments this morning with your better half (she was right, and you know it), you are in no mood for small talk. Ms. Convert waits uncomfortably for something to happen, and it does – Ramona bursts in, she of the huge devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the even huger devotion to the sound of her own voice. The daily wrestling match ensues between you and Ramona, as you struggle to get the Rosary started so we can end before Mass, and Ramona struggles to fulfill her pathological need to recount a blow-by-blow of her recent pedicure. Ms. Convert’s eyes widen as she wonders exactly how uncharitable this is going to get. You can see her straining her brain, trying to remember why exactly she was so keen on becoming Catholic….
For all those converts who are starting to have trouble remembering, the only valid reason to enter the Church is Jesus Christ. That’s why it is fitting that converts be initiated at the celebration of His triumph over sin and death. The problems arise when starry-eyed converts knock at the door of Jesus’ house and find us, the ones He left here to carry on, the spouse charged with conducting His business until He returns. It can be a shock to them when they find out how imperfect we are; we are in many cases even less appealing than some people who don’t pretend to be Christian – at least they’re honest….
But remember, O earnest, Christ-seeking convert, that we are all converts, too – even the cradle Catholics. Our conversion is meant to be daily, even moment-by-moment, for we too are here to encounter Christ in the Holy Catholic Church. He is truly Emmanuel, truly “God with us,” in the Holy Eucharist, and yes – in His people as well, despite all appearances to the contrary. Bread maintains the appearance of bread, and the body of Christ here on earth still looks an awful lot like me and you. Yet the Ascension of Christ was not some grand letdown or a Plan B; it was the beginning of something greater than any of the apostles could have imagined. For if you have been crucified, killed and resurrected, what do you do for an encore?
You indwell Your body, so that each member may learn to rise to new life as well. Despair not, O convert – He is making all things new.
On the memorial of St. Augustine of Canterbury
Deo omnis gloria!