May 24, 2020
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
Psalm 47: 2-3, 6-7, 8-9
Matthew 28: 16-20
A number of years ago, I was seated in an airport lounge waiting to board a flight that had been delayed for several hours — a flight that I thought would never get off the ground because of weather and mechanical problems.
Judging by the weather I was half hopeful that it would never get off the ground for the simple point of avoiding turbulence. While seated, I was reading a newspaper, when a young woman seated across from me asked me a question, “Are you a priest?”
I glanced up from my newspaper and looked at her face. I saw that her face was filled with intensity but sincerity. My being dressed in a black suit and Roman collar was not sufficient to answer her question about my being a priest. Her question was not seeking a fact as much as it was introducing a conversation in faith that transcended small talk. I answered her question with a simple “yes.” So much of our Christian and sacramental life and ministry begins and ends with the simple answer “yes.” I said “yes” to the woman’s question because I first said, “yes” to Christ’s call at Baptism and Confirmation. I said “yes” to Christ in each of my ordinations, as have other bishops, priests, and deacons. Husbands and wives have said, “yes” to Him through their wedding vows spoken to each other. The answer “yes” marks us as followers of Jesus and distinguishes us from being simply admirers of Jesus. At a priest’s ordination, his “yes” is preceded by responding “present” when called by name.
The woman’s next question surprised me, “Do you believe in an afterlife?” I paused for a moment. I thought reflexively to myself, “Why would she ask that question? Isn’t it obvious by the way I am dressed?” Then I thought further as I listened, “she has phrased the question in a peculiar way.” If I were to be completely truthful, I would have to answer that question by saying, “No, I don’t believe in an afterlife, I believe in eternal life.” Trying to invite more conversation and evangelization, I answered her by stating, “Yes, I believe in eternal life.”
We are often asked about the “afterlife” by the voices of the culture of today, but we Catholics do not believe in an afterlife. We believe in eternal life. Eternal life is Christ Himself, who said, “yes” to the Father’s will. Eternal life is our “yes” enveloped in the here and now of Communion with God. The term “afterlife” points to the unknown of the future. It is contained in the question of the young woman and in the limits of our culture today. It asks, “What does the future hold?” The communion of eternal life reveals to us intimately “it is God who holds the future.”
As the theologian Joseph Ratzinger once observed, “Present and eternity are not like present and future, located side by side and separated; rather, they are interwoven.” This is even more beautifully stated by Saint Therese of Lisieux, “I do not well see what more I shall have in Heaven than now. I shall see the good God, it is true; but as to being with Him, I am wholly with Him already upon earth.”
The Eucharist is the means instituted by Christ for us to be with Him now. It is the foretaste of eternal life. The gift of the Holy Spirit draws us into the disposition to live eternal life, the life of a saint, in the here and now, away from the mediocrity and complacency of sin.
When we detach the gift of eternal life from Christ and our communion with Him through sin and selfishness, we begin to consider the concept of an afterlife as a void into which we stare with confusion and fear as the disciples stared at the sky in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. When that happens, we become either paralyzed by fear or puffed up by presumption. The gifts of faith, hope, and charity given through the Holy Spirit open to us eternal life. The same Holy Spirit then sends us forward with the confidence buoyed by His gifts — confidence, not presumption.
My conversation with the young woman did not answer her questions concerning the specific qualities of an afterlife, but that is not important. My conversation invited her to consider the path of eternal life that begins and ends with Jesus Christ in the here and now, the path of authentic love.
It is this strong confidence that the “men in white” summon the disciples to live in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles when they say, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” The Catholic’s mission and responsibility are not to gaze into the world of the abstract and to ignore the concrete. We are baptized to look into the faces of those who suffer real problems and are set adrift on the sea of meaninglessness and to have an answer for them. We are baptized and confirmed to teach the Gospel as Christ intended it to be taught. As Saint Thomas Aquinas describes the ministry of teaching, “The teacher looks not only at the truth of things; at the same time, he looks at the faces of living men and women who desire to know this truth. Love of truth and love of people — only the two together constitute a teacher.” I would add that they very much constitute the life of the Christian who is baptized to evangelize.
Eternal life begins here and now in the selflessness of love and comes to its culmination in the beatitude of heaven. We pray for those who have died, and we pray to the saints in heaven through the promise of eternal life. As Pope Benedict XVI once said, “Heaven: this word Heaven does not indicate a place above the stars but something far more daring and sublime: it indicates Christ himself, the divine Person who welcomes humanity fully and forever, the One in whom God and man are inseparably united forever. Man’s being in God, this is Heaven. And we draw close to Heaven, indeed, we enter Heaven to the extent that we draw close to Jesus and enter into communion with him. For this reason, today’s Solemnity of the Ascension invites us to be in profound communion with the dead and Risen Jesus, invisibly present in the life of each one of us.”
We read in the Gospel just proclaimed, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” These words reveal to us the significance of the Solemnity of the Ascension that we celebrate today. They are words of promise and fulfillment — promise and fulfillment that prompt confidence within us in place of the meaninglessness of sin.
The commissioning by Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit reveal that Christ’s Ascension is not His abandonment of His disciples or of His Church. It is not an event for sadness caused by the absence of a dear friend. The period between the Ascension and Pentecost is a threshold that prepares us for entry into the Kingdom of God that is already here and yet to be realized. It is eternal. Jesus Christ is always present; He is present to us in this way that is made easier for us to understand by His Ascension where our humanity in Christ is embraced in eternal and Divine power and that mandates in justice the grateful embrace of God in response, a response that can only be justly given through the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit that we will celebrate on Pentecost.