Today is the Feast of the Ascension of Christ. What can we say about this Feast? It’s a proclamation and a promise.
What does it proclaim? That we are body and soul, and that our bodies are good.
What does it promise? That Christ has not abandoned us, and that we, body and soul, are destined for future glory.
Let’s start with the proclamation, because this message is urgently needed right now. Our world is filled with two extreme and opposite views of the human person. The first says that man is a body and no soul. This is the claim of modern atheists: You are just a collection of atoms, and when those die, you are no more. Of course, if that were true, it would seem that part of “you” dies every time you lose a skin cell or get a haircut.
At the other extreme is the idea that you are a soul “trapped” in a body. Sometimes, you’ll hear people say of the dead that they are now free from their bodies, like a cicada breaking out of its shell, as if the body is a prison for the soul. These days, it’s not uncommon to hear people speak of women trapped in men’s bodies, and vice versa. But this is just the opposite extreme error – where the first camp says you’re just your body, the second camp says that you’re not your body.
The truth is halfway between these two extremes: you are your soul, and you are your body. And just as your soul is a beautiful work of art, created by God and reflecting His grandeur, the same is true of your body. How do we know this? Christ shows us this radical truth in several ways:
- Through His Incarnation: He takes on a true human body and a true human soul;
- Through His Passion: He saves the world through His bodily death: “and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51).
- Through His Resurrection: Jesus doesn’t leave His Body in the Tomb. He glorifies it and restores it to life.
- Through His Ascension: Jesus Christ doesn’t enter into His glory by abandoning His body, but by glorifying it and bringing it into Heaven. And He wouldn’t do that if our bodies were prisons or were evil.
- Through the Eucharist: At every Mass, we offer to the Father the Body and Blood, as well as the Soul and Divinity, of Jesus Christ.
- Through the Assumption: Lest we think that the only Body in Heaven is Christ’s, He draws His Mother towards Himself. And He promises to do the same for us.
I think that we need to hear this message, because we live in an age which treats our bodies, especially women’s bodies, as objects. Not coincidentally, so many people today are unhappy with their bodies. But it’s more than that. Sometimes we speak and think as if the body is just an occasion of sin. It’s easy to imagine, “you know, I’d be a great Saint, if I didn’t have all of these bodily urges and desires.”
And sometimes we Christians sometimes fixate, or seem to fixate, just on the sins of the flesh, as if there aren’t worse sins, spiritual ones. C.S. Lewis makes an important point in Mere Christianity about these two types of sins. He says,
If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual. The pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me…they are the animal self and the diabolical self; and the diabolical self is the worst of the two. That is why a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But of course it is better to be neither!
Perhaps you will be shocked by this, but it’s true. The Pharisees were obsessed with avoiding “unclean” foods, keeping ritually pure and the rest. Christ corrected them by saying that it’s “not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man. […] For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man” (Matthew 15:11, 19-20). As the Catechism says, “the root of all sins lies in man’s heart.” (CCC 1853, 1873).
To be sure, our bodies can be a bit rebellious: we need to keep a close eye to make sure that we’re not wandering into sin. But that’s true of our souls, too, isn’t it? We are works of God, we are His sons and daughters, but we’re wounded – in body and in soul – by original sin.
And that’s why the promise of Christ is so important. Although He’s ascended into Heaven, He has not abandoned us. St. Augustine reminds us that Christ “did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven.”
Instead, He’s paving the way for us: Christ the Head goes first. On the feast of the Assumption in August, we celebrate what happens after this: He brings His Mother, body and soul, to join Him in Heaven. And all of us, provided we stay true to Him, are promised the same.
Jesus expressed in a beautiful way. In the Jewish culture of His day, there were two stages to a wedding. Remember that there were no “bachelor pads” at the time, so unmarried people tended to live with their parents. So the new bride and groom would get married, and then the groom would have a few months to go and prepare a home for his bride. This is how Jesus expresses His relationship with the Church (John 14:2-3):
“In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
This Ascension, we celebrate His going forth into Heaven to prepare a place for us. Let us live in anticipation of His glorious return, that where He is we may also be.