Catholic Exchange: The Ascension Reveals to Us Our Ultimate Hope

It is during these dark days of uncertainty that we must raise our eyes to heaven. It is through Christ’s Ascension and return to the Father that we learn to follow Christ to our ultimate end. He shows us that our true home is not to be found in this world. We are made for eternal life. It is this message of hope that we must cling to and boldly proclaim as we continue through this pandemic and the separation from the Sacraments that continues in so many dioceses around the world.

In the days and weeks following His Resurrection, Christ sought to prepare the Apostles for His return to the Father, but they could not bear the news. They were filled with grief, so Christ gently, over time, revealed His plan to them that would result in the coming of the Holy Spirit, Who is our Advocate and Comforter.  Nevertheless, His return to the Father was necessary because we are called to follow Him wherever He goes.

Through the Ascension, Christ completes His earthly pilgrimage and leads us to our ultimate home and union with Him. We cannot attain eternal life fully until He ascends back to the Father. The Ascension raises our eyes towards heaven.

The Ascension is, then, a feast of hope, a sweet foretaste of heaven. By going before us, Jesus our Head has given us the right to follow Him there some day, and we can even say with St. Leo, “In the person of Christ, we have penetrated the heights of heaven.” As in Christ Crucified we die to sin, as in the risen Christ we rise to the life of grace, so too, we are raised up to heaven in the Ascension of Christ. This vital participation in Christ’s mysteries is the essential consequence of our incorporation in Him. He is our Head; we, as His members, are totally dependent upon Him and intimately bound to His destiny.

Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary MagdaleneDivine Intimacy, #179.

Through baptism we have been incorporated into the life of Christ, which means we live in the hope of our own resurrection and sharing in His glory. We too will follow Him to the Father at the end of our earthly lives. The Ascension is the event that most clearly reflects our hope in eternal life.

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People Do Change, We Must

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Image: Wiki Commons

There is an adage in our culture that is prevalent in movies, books, even daily conversations. It is: “People never change.” It is even quite common for Catholics to make this statement. If this is true, then we are all in trouble. Scripture and our Faith tell us otherwise. People deeply attached to sin and disorder are made new in Christ. Individuals who have been discarded, abused, hurt, sick, lost, and committed great evils do indeed change. We underestimate how much seasons of illness impact a person. We also forget that people carry very deep wounds that only the Divine Physician can heal. It is much easier to live in our assumptions and presumptions about people and constantly compare them to their failures or weaknesses, but this is wholly unjust and is a sin against charity. Authentic love is constant regardless of these failings. It does not accept them, but love is not revoked in the face of failures either.

Anyone who makes frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance (Confession/Reconciliation) comes to realize how weak they truly are and how much they need Christ. It is true that we tend to fail in the same ways over and over again until God provides the grace and we need to develop the habit of the virtue necessary to overcome a certain vice or character flaw. This means that change is slow and on-going. Very few of us have radical conversion stories. Even St. Augustine’s Confessions demonstrates the struggle each person has with particular sins. It is easy to forget that our progression in holiness is dependent on God’s working within us on His timeline, not our own.

There are indeed times when changes must happen rapidly. This takes place when tragedy strikes or an unexpected and life-altering diagnosis occurs. In those moments we are faced with monumental decisions about ourselves, our loved ones, the people around us, and the future. These times tend to reveal the best and the worst in us and we have to fight for the best to win. Our self-centered Fallen nature will rear its ugly head when what we wanted is either impossible or irrelevant. We must pray for the strength to persevere when we would like to give up and to embrace God’s will over our own. Very few people go through their entire lives without wanting to give up in the face of tremendous adversity at least once or twice or a hundred times.

Change is actually inevitable. I am not the same person I was even three years ago. There are aspects of my personality that do not change, but a fog I walked in for 3 years lifted and I could finally see myself again. I came out of that fog higher up on the path and stronger for it despite the misery I endured. We walk in valleys and up to, and on, mountain tops in this life. We become different depending on what we face, but the deepest reality of who we are as created imago Dei does not change. Our unique incommunicable and unique personhood is not lost in the face of tragedy, illness, mental illness, abandonment, and suffering; rather, we are refined and the unique person we are is made more beautiful in God’s furnace of love.

This refinement only works if we desire joy and if we learn to embrace the hardships and sufferings that will come our way. It is a process and we will fail to accomplish at times and struggle with self-pity, anger, and frustration. We must fix our eyes on Heaven and remember that this is temporary. Each moment of every single day we are moving towards Heaven or hell. We know intuitively when we have made the wrong choice, unless we have completely deadened our conscience. Every step in either direction changes us into the person we will be in the next life. If we choose not to change in either direction that is also a choice and the wrong one.

Our purpose in this life is to be a saint. We are made for goodness, truth, beauty, and happiness, but we can only attain those gifts from God if we relinquish ourselves and allow Him to dwell within us. We must choose each day to change for the better. When we fail–which is inevitable–then we ask God to pick us back up and march ourselves back to the Confessional. Change only occurs if we never give up. The Enemy wants us to stay face down in the mud sobbing about our failures or our lost dreams. We have to say “no” and get back up. Thankfully, God gave me a rather stubborn personality. This is good and bad, but I am thankful that it makes me less likely to stay down for long.

I love to hike and I love mountains. I grew up in Montana so the Rockies are deeply embedded in my psyche. I love living in the Appalachians, but there is a rugged, strange, dangerous, awe-inspiring, and compelling quality to the Rockies. The idea of the holy mountain we are climbing in this life is an old image. It’s found in the Old Testament since God was understood in relation to specific mountains i.e. Moses. Purgatory has also been called a holy mountain. Anyone who has hiked on granite peaks like the Rockies knows that there are long ascents, slippery shale crossings, snow, run off, mud, sudden afternoon thunderstorms, not-so-friendly wildlife, random summer snow storms, and winds. The views are phenomenal and they provide strength to continue onward when the climb becomes steep. Those who climb mountains like Mount Everest know that as you go higher the more treacherous the trip becomes.

The spiritual life seems to be similar to these treacherous climbs. The attacks, temptations, and reality of our weaknesses come to the forefront the more we climb. The Enemy changes tactics on us and at times we can mistake light that is really darkness (St. Ignatius of Loyola). The hidden places of darkness within us that we didn’t know about or never wanted to confront come out into the light. They have to so that God may shed His healing light and wipe away every darkness within us. Many of the saints experienced greater attacks from the Devil and struggled mightily with interior darkness as they continued the ascent. They relied solely on God amidst profound desolation.

The higher we climb, the more God reveals to us that we must give our entire selves to Him alone. The path becomes more difficult as we are asked to detach from more and more in this life, so that it is Christ who dwells fully within us. This takes a lifetime to accomplish since we are attached to much, some of which we don’t realize until we are faced with it at certain points on the journey. In our sinfulness, we do not realize that this detachment is the path to joy.

To be Catholic is to change. To be human is to change. There are relationships that may never fully heal and some people may choose the wrong path, but they are changing as they age. It is impossible not to. The deep changes, the necessary changes require God’s grace in our lives. The pruning away at the dead branches weighing us down becomes greater and greater as time goes on. In the end we may feel like a rose bush cut to the root, but any gardener knows the rose will come back in greater glory after an intense pruning. The same is true of us. With each new pruning, we change for either good or bad. It is up to us to rely on God in leading us to the good as we battle our selfishness and our own plans that are not united to His will for our lives.

We must also remember that people are not required to change in the manner we desire. We cannot force our will upon other people and make them into something in our own image. We must pray for others who have hurt us or who we may not agree with at times, but we cannot turn them into something they are not. God has plans for each individual based on the gifts and personality that He has bestowed upon us. Not everyone in the world is meant to be like us. Thank God for that! The last thing we need are carbon copies of me all over the world. In humility, we should recognize why people are meant to be different from one another. Oftentimes people will be upset when we make changes for the better, when we progress in holiness. Christ promised this too! Not everyone will understand, but we must continue on the path that He has laid out for us.

A very blessed last week of Advent to you as we wait in hope for the celebration of the coming of Our Savior at Christmas and while we wait ever watchful for the day He returns at the end of time.

Catholic Exchange: Responding to the Painful Reality of Death

It is fitting that my daughter came to me on a dark November night. It is the month the Church remembers the dead and prays ardently for the poor souls in Purgatory. The days are cold while the trees shake off the last remnants of autumnal glory to enter into the silent deep of winter. November here is always gray, almost maddeningly so. It seems strange to go from the mountains set aflame with the burning colors of October to end up gray and stark in November. In this time of year the Church and the natural cycle of the seasons invite us to enter into the quiet, dark, and hidden places. This time of year naturally lends itself to the contemplation of mortality and death.

My daughter came and sat on my lap two nights ago and began to sob. Like every other November evening, it was pitch black at dinner time and I was sitting on the couch when she came to me. She nestled close to my heart as I wrapped my arms around her trying to understand what was wrong. She finally sat up looked at me and through sobs she blurted out: “I don’t want to die.” I think every parent feels a dagger to the heart when their child comes to them about death, even those of us who are Catholic. It is true that we are a Resurrection people, but like anyone else, we must confront the reality of death.

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Catholic Exchange: Confronting Death in a Culture of Avoidance

Death comes to us all. It is a hard reality, but it is a reality that we can face with hope through our faith in Christ Jesus. Meanwhile, we live in a culture that largely ignores death. We hear mantras such as “You only live once” or “Live today like it is your last”, but these are typically expressions to assuage guilt over leading an immoral life. The reality of death is also ignored by the majority of people because death is something that is hidden or locked away in Western culture until we are faced with it. The only time it seems to be discussed is when a group is pushing for “mercy” through euthanasia.

I know I have largely lived as if death was some far-off reality. This makes little sense since I was a 9/11 relief worker and confronted the hard realities of violence and death at 20 years of age. I profess, along with my fellow Catholics, the teachings of the Church each Sunday which discuss the Last Things. It was not until recently, when my husband’s health took a dramatic turn, that I began to confront death. We are confronting it together, as married couples must.

Two months ago, I woke up at 4:30 AM to my husband yelling for me. He was standing over our sink coughing up a large quantity of bright red blood. He had coughed up blood a few years ago and had a lesion on his lungs, but it healed and we thought it was some kind of fluke. It wasn’t. Instead, what happened a few years ago was the first sign of symptoms of a mysterious disease. Over the course of the last couple of months, doctors have ruled out every normal possibility from tuberculosis to bronchitis to fungal infections. He’s been negative on every single test and more cavitary lesions (holes, for lack of a better word) continue to form in his lungs. We are now faced with a series of intense tests to definitively see if my husband has a very rare disease known as pulmonary vasculitis. He will have an open lung biopsy performed by a thoracic surgeon in the next couple of weeks along with a MRI, MRA, even more bloodwork, and the list goes on. A neurologist has also been brought in to begin seeing if he has the even rarer form of brain vasculitis. It’s a difficult disease to diagnose and treat. It comes with serious risks, including premature death.

This period has been marked by immense grace. God truly gives us the strength we need to confront the hardships of this life as they come. It doesn’t mean any of this is easy.

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Catholic Exchange: The Ascension and Our Journey Home

The Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord oftentimes is an understated event in the Church’s liturgical year. We profess the reality of this historical and supernatural event each Sunday as we profess the Creed. It is a significant event, in fact, it is the climax before He sends the Paraclete. In returning to the Father, Jesus leads us into the Father’s presence and forever tears the veil dividing mankind from God. It is through the Ascension in light of the Paschal Mystery that we are able to go home. Our Lord, now sitting at the right hand of the Father, in His Glorified Incarnate form, brings us to the Father. We are now able to enter into the Heavenly sanctuary and behold the Beatific Vision at the end of our holy lives.

The Ascension reminds us this is not our home.

In the glory, awe, mystery, and joy of the Resurrection we celebrate the gift of our salvation. We have been redeemed in Christ. The Lord’s Ascension reminds us that earth is our temporary home. We are sojourners with our gaze fixed on the faraway land. We seek the white shores, the place of peace, eternity with our Beloved. Christ has paved the way for us and He calls each one of us to follow Him back to the Father, so that we may truly rest in the love of the Most Holy Trinity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Left to its own natural powers humanity does not have access to the “Father’s house,” to God’s life and happiness. Only Christ can open to man such access that we, his members, might have confidence that we too shall go where he, our Head and our Source, has preceded us.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 661

We are now able to follow Christ back to our permanent home in Heaven. We too are called to return to the Father.

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