Father Donald Senior, CP

May 13: Ascension of the Lord

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Is there a heaven?

Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Eph 1:17-23; Mk 16:15-20

Mary Schmich, the highly regarded and thoughtful columnist for the Chicago Tribune, reported recently on a conversation she had with a dear friend who was mortally ill and asked Mary, “Is there a heaven?”  

Mary quickly replied, “no” but later realized that her friend’s question was not another “meaning of life” conversation between old friends over a glass of wine. A belief in heaven that might appear childish and sentimental in casual and sophisticated conversation — something we accepted in childhood but have a hard time believing now — might mean something else to someone facing the unknown.  

Later Mary visited her friend again. This time her friend did not repeat her question about heaven, but asked something similar: “What do you think happens to us after we die?”  This time Mary realized that for herself, too, when she thought of loved ones who had died she found herself turning to images of another world, of hoping her loved ones were without fear and “at home.”  

To reply to her friend’s earnest question, Mary cited the words of a song by Iris DeMent:

Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from

Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go

When the whole thing’s done

But no one knows for certain

And so it’s all the same to me

I think I’ll just let the mystery be

As Mary concluded what was to be her last visit, her friend repeated that thought: “Let the mystery be.” 

This might seem like a long segue into the feast of the Ascension that we celebrate this Sunday. Yet the question of “what happens to us after we die?” and the notion of “mystery” are at the heart of this great feast.  

The Ascension of Jesus into heaven is explicitly commemorated by the evangelist Luke at the conclusion of his Gospel and repeated at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, the passage that is our first reading today. But what is explicit in Luke is strongly implicit in all four Gospels and is a fundamental conviction of the entire New Testament — namely, that death is not the last word but that through the power of God’s tenacious love, Jesus passes from death to new life. 

We, too, share in Jesus’ destiny. This is the basic meaning of the Ascension. For Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ return to his Father completes a long journey whose roots go deep into the history of Israel itself and comes to its climactic realization in the life of Jesus.  

The infant Jesus is surrounded by faithful Jews who cling to trust in God: Mary and Joseph, the temple priest Zachary and his wife Elizabeth, the shepherds, the temple prophets Anna and Simeon, the latter of whom gives thanks to God as he holds the infant Jesus in his arms. Jesus’ adult mission of teaching and healing and enduring rejection and suffering unto death leads not to dark emptiness but to the loving embrace of God and to the fullness of life.

As Christians we cannot claim to have all the answers to the genuine questions about death and the possibility of life beyond death. The enduring conviction of Christian faith, rooted in the Scriptures, sealed in our trust in Jesus, is that indeed there is life beyond death — not some form of grim endurance but abundant and joyful life with God and with those we love.  

This powerful legacy of faith in which we share is compatible with our questions and anxieties about death and its aftermath.  

The questions posed by Mary Schmich and her friend have been posed over and over by faithful Christians through the centuries, including the father of the epileptic boy in the Gospel who said to Jesus, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief” or the words of Paul to his confused Christians in Corinth: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”  

Celebrating the feast of the Ascension is another way of proclaiming in the face of death our conviction about God’s unending love for us.



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