Homily, Ascension A
Most of us don’t usually think of rest and relaxation as hard work. It should be easy for us to unwind, to put aside our frantic thoughts and worries, to put up our feet and fall asleep, but anyone who has tried to really go on vacation and leave behind all the emails and phone calls, all the distractions and anxieties of life, we realize just how difficult rest can be. Technology is not always helpful. If we’re not careful, we can end up just filling our lives with noise and images, moving from one distraction to another and never really finding authentic rest. Now I don’t drive very often, but I was very disappointed to see that at lots of gas stations, they’ve been putting up screens and ads at the pump, so now you can’t even fill up your car and clean your windows in peace. These might be modern problems, but God always knew that we would need to make rest a priority in order to really find it. He reveals as one of the Ten Commandments, and as the Israelites understood, one of the most important of the Ten, the obligation to keep holy the Sabbath day, the day of rest, which for Christians would be moved to the Lord’s Day, Sunday.
Today, we rejoice that Jesus has entered once and for all into the heavenly rest and eternal glory of God Himself. As the Son of God, He once came down from the heights to become Man, to become like us in all things except sin, even to the point of death on the Cross. So now He has taken our human nature back with Him to the heights of heaven, to sit at God’s right hand and to prepare a place for those who follow Him in obedience.
Now we shouldn’t think of this heavenly rest as something dull and boring or as the absence of activity. As I mentioned before, authentic rest can actually be fairly challenging, one of the many paradoxes of Christianity. We have to work hard at resting. The prophet Isaiah says, “They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.” So heaven will definitely not be boring. Heaven is activity and adventure that brings constant renewal and strengthening. Heaven is the fullness of life and communion with God, entering ever deeper into the knowledge and mystery of God’s own life and existence, and of all that He has done in creation. Even today, the saints are not static in heaven, but we even assign them as patrons of different areas or concerns that we have. St. Anthony is always busy looking for things that we’ve misplaced. St. Jude is always working on seemingly hopeless causes. St. Thérèse of Lisieux once said, “I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth.” Those who turn to the Little Flower in prayer find powerful help. And Our Blessed Mother Mary exercises a mother’s concern over all the events of our lives.
One of my favorite explanations of what prayer is comes from St. Augustine. He talks about prayer as being an exercise of desire. Exercise. Work. The gifts that God has for us are so great and so glorious, that in order for us to have the capacity to receive them, we need to be stretched, we need to grow, and prayer, and the commitment to prayer, is what stretches us. That as we persevere through dryness and through distractions to spend time in the presence of God, our desire for God’s gifts grows, and so does our capacity to receive His blessings. So how strong are you, spiritually? Just like in our physical life, without exercise, we can become rather wimpy. How often do we really think about heaven? How often do we exercise our desire for the life of heaven? How much of a priority do we give to authentic rest and prayer? In the Old Testament, those who violated the Sabbath suffered death, and today, those who are negligent in keeping God’s command to attend Mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation suffer the spiritual death of mortal sin. How seriously do we take our spiritual health? How hard are we willing to work, to get to Mass on Sundays and holy days?
Heaven is a continual growth in the knowledge of God Himself. Do we devote any time and energy on a regular basis into really learning our faith and the reasons for faith to prepare ourselves for the life of heaven? At the end of our lives, I truly believe that God will give us what we want. But if we go throughout our lives without much of a commitment or desire for prayer, if we can’t be bothered to really spend any time alone with God during this life, what makes us think we’re going to suddenly want to spend an eternity with Him in heaven at the end of our lives? The time to prepare ourselves for heaven is now, and for the rest of our short life on earth. Let’s not waste this opportunity.