Ascension – June 2, 2019

The “Worst Cooks in America” is a very entertaining reality-tv show in which two professional chefs mentor contestants who were chosen because of the repulsive meals they cook for their families. The contestants face weekly cooking challenges and are eliminated from the show until only two remain. The final two contestants face the ultimate challenge of trying to pass themselves off as trained chefs.

On last week’s episode, the four remaining contestants were given a cooking assignment to complete with no help from the professional chef-mentors. The professional chefs left the soundstage, allowing the contestants to believe that they were entirely on their own. In actual fact, the two professional chefs watched the contestants’ antics on closed-circuit television monitors. The contestants, thinking that they were alone, began to panic. At one point, one of the contestants shouted, “The parents have left us alone! What are we going to do?”

The professional chefs hoped that their students would begin to take greater responsibility for the learning process. Their strategy worked to a limited degree. The contestants were not brilliant, but each one made a palatable plate of food. No one was going to be fooled into thinking that they were trained chefs, but no one would have refused to eat their creations. Given the exceedingly poor cooking skills that the contestants possessed at the beginning of the show’s season, they had made significant progress. I’d like to suggest that the Solemnity of the Ascension is a feast of significant progress.

The Ascension of Jesus is a rather curious event. The meaning of the Ascension is so elusive that all of the Gospel authors treat it differently; the author of Luke-Acts goes so far as to give two different accounts of it, one in each book. The first reading describes the Ascension as taking place forty days after the Resurrection. (Acts 1:3) Surprisingly, the Gospel (by the same author) describes the Ascension as taking place on the night of Easter Sunday. (Lk. 24:32-36)

For two different reasons, the Ascension is a practical necessity in the plan of salvation. Jesus rose from death on Easter, but the rest of the world awaits the day of general resurrection. As creation has not yet been perfected, Jesus had to return to the Father; he could not remain here where imperfection continues to reign. There is a second necessary aspect of the Ascension that applies to us, the Church. Embracing the “repentance, for the forgiveness of sins” described in Luke 24:47 requires that each person, and the whole community of the Church, take an active role in bringing God’s plan of salvation to completion. Specifically, our active role is to follow the promptings of the Spirit that lead us to individual repentance and to proclamation of this Good News.

No one needs to be told that the universe in which we live is imperfect; we are reminded daily of the limitations of creation. We know, by virtue of faith, that one day the world will be raised up with Christ but we haven’t arrived at that day yet. It is necessary to ask, then, what are we to do about the continuing reign of imperfection?

The Ascension is an event that marks, and demands, significant progress. Like the reality-tv contestants, we are expected to begin to take responsibility for proclaiming Jesus’ message of repentance. Neither our proclaiming nor its effectiveness will ever be perfect; in this world, however, imperfection is no excuse for inaction. The spiritual needs of the world are plain to see and, therefore, the responsibilities of God’s People are plain to see. We are responsible for making significant progress in cooperating with God’s plan of salvation. Too often, however, the baptized stand transfixed, looking up toward the heavens like the disciples in the first reading. (Acts 1:10-11)

It might seem perfectly logical to excuse oneself, on the basis of one’s imperfections, from becoming involved in parish ministries or outreach activities. The obvious flaw in this logic is that everyone and everything in this world is imperfect; lack of perfection is not a valid excuse for lack of involvement.

Our parish, the local community, the Diocese, the nation, and the world offer countless opportunities to become involved in charitable works, proclaiming the Gospel, serving the poor, and lifting up the burdened. Jesus ascended to the Father, not to leave us unsupervised, but to inspire us to grow in responsibility for the Church and the world.

The angels’ proclamation to the disciples in the first reading is sufficient reason to make every possible effort in Jesus’ absence. The angels said, “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.” (Acts 1:11) One day, Jesus will return. One day, we will dine at the eternal banquet. Until then, however, no soul should be left to hunger for God’s Word. Perhaps, our individual efforts will never reach beyond being merely palatable, but that is no excuse for not trying to make significant progress in living and proclaiming the Good News of repentance and reconciliation.