Ascension Thursday: another Holy Day devoured by Christianity as loving people

Ascension Thursday (celebrated now by most of us on Sunday) would be a good time to talk about the Ascension.  The doctrine than Jesus ascended bodily into heaven is less clear to us than it was to the ancients, who tended to assume that heaven lies physically outside of the celestial sphere.  Today, we don’t have any such clear idea of where heaven is, although we must still regard it as sufficiently like a physical location (rather than, say, a state of mind) that it can be meaningfully said to hold physical bodies.  We don’t know what to make of Jesus floating up into the sky, and understanding the gospel is what homilies are supposed to be for.

Back when I was in New York, I attended a parish that once took a crack at the Ascension, but in its usual modernist way.  That is, instead of explaining what the doctrine means, the priest explained to us how it should make us feel–reassured, of course, because God has in some vague way maintained His intimacy with human nature.  Much more common, in my experience, is what I got last Sunday, the same homily we always get:  Christianity is about sacrificing for other people and sharing God’s love, joy, peace…[insert sugary Church word]…with them.  Last Sunday it was the deacon preaching, and he decided to tell us about the movie Pay It Forward.

We often criticize Catholic homilies for reducing the faith to niceness.  It’s actually not quite that bad, in that the priests do stress that love of neighbor can require real sacrifices on our part and can make us unpopular, which would not be true of mere niceness.  On the other hand, they really do reduce Christianity to morality, i.e. “love of neighbor”.  Ironically, this reduction has happened at the same time that the local Churches have become so very vague about the moral law, which tells us what is and is not compatible with love of God and neighbor.  (It’s stunning, isn’t it, that 90% of Catholics are committing the mortal sin of contraception, and yet our priests don’t think this issue is worth addressing at all?  It’s as if they don’t actually care if their parishioners go to heaven.)

Just beefing up on the specific content of Christian morality, though, wouldn’t solve the basic problem.  The basic problem is that Christianity is not fundamentally about morality.  Of course, it does have necessary consequences for our moral duties, but the core of the message is God revealed in Jesus Christ.

God must be the main focus of a parish.  He is not just a word to be tacked on when talking about how we should love our neighbors.  Remember, there are two greatest laws.  Love of God is the first. Love of neighbor is the second.

The most painful week of the liturgical year, Trinity Sunday, is coming up.  It’s the week that pastors’ refusal to focus on God is most awkward for them.  Usually, they’ll start off by saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is “a great mystery”, meaning there’s nothing to be said about it, but the real point of Christianity is loving each other, so let me tell you this story about a little boy who gave his ice cream cone to a homeless man…

I’ll make a separate post when the time comes so we can share stories.

5 Responses

  1. I suppose I’m a simpleton, but I have no difficulty with the doctrine of the Ascension. The body in question was resurrected, so it could not die and be buried a second time. Obviously the intention was not that Jesus would just hang out in the world for a couple of thousand years, since after a century or two everyone would then have recognized his divinity without faith. So the body had to be removed, and there are only a couple of ways this could be done. He might have “popped” out of sight, like Bilbo donning the magic ring, but this would have been too abrupt and alarming. He might have sunk into the ground, but the associations with Hell make this impossible. He might have receded, or shrunk down to a speck, or faded out like old Star Trek characters in the transporter, but all of these exits entail diminishment. So there is only one way to go, and that is up. In every human symbolic I know of, ascension is identified with improvement, with movement to a better place.

    I quite agree with your second point. In fact, I just heard from a friend whose pastor is trying to change the golden rule into something like this: “Love the earth, your home, and love your neighbors (especially those who live far away).”

  2. My geographical home parish is called Holy Trinity. Every year the homily is about the pastor and the old timers reminiscing about the early days when the parish was operating out of a high school gym. Occasionally they add the throwaway line about how the Trinity is a great mystery, i.e. we’re not smart enough to grasp the Church’s teaching on it.

  3. Ascension Day is a public holiday in France and, for many Catholics, a controversial one. Apparently, the government told the bishops that they could have only one holiday that always falls on a Thursday, the reason being that people would « faire le pont » literally, “make the bridge” and take Friday off to turn it into a long weekend. That meant the bishops had to choose between Ascension Day and Corpus Christi (« Le Fête-Dieu » or “festival of God,” to give it its lovely French name). Whichever they chose, it was bound to be controversial and so it has proved.
    In country districts, they still keep up the old custom of the Rogations Days, on the three days preceding “Holy Thursday,” with processions around the fields and vineyards. Even in places where church attendance is pitifully low, everyone not actually bed-ridden turns out and follows them. I remember arriving in a village near Toulouse during the procession; the shops were all closed and shuttered and a cat was walking down the middle of the main street.

  4. […] Over at his home blog, Bonald considers The spread of Leftism: What if it’s the other way around? What if, in other words, students are driving the education system leftwards? I have my doubts. But it is an interesting question to ponder. Also this bit of Catholic introspection was good: […]

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