Why Are You Staring at the Sky?
Gospel Commentary for Feast of the Ascension
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ROME, MAY 2, 2008 (Zenit.org).- In the first reading an angel says to the disciples: "Men of Galilee, why are you staring at the sky? This Jesus, who was taken up from among you and assumed into heaven, shall one day return in the same way in which you saw him go to heaven."
This is an occasion to clarify once and for all what we mean by "heaven." Among almost all people, heaven indicates the habitation of the divinity. Even the Bible uses this spatial language: "Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace to men on earth."
With the advent of the scientific era, all these religious meanings attributed to the word "heaven" are now in crisis. The heavens are the space in which our planet and the whole solar system moves, and nothing else. We all have heard of the remark attributed to the Soviet astronaut after returning from his trip through the cosmos: "I traveled through outer space a long time and didn't see God anywhere!"
It is important therefore to try to clarify what we Christians mean when we say "Our Father who art in heaven," or when we say that someone "went to heaven." In these cases the Bible adapts itself to the common way of speaking (we do it today too, even in the scientific era, when we say that the sun "rises" and "sets"). But the Bible knows well and teaches that God is "in heaven, on earth and everywhere," that he is the one who "created the heavens" and, if he created them, cannot be "contained" by them. That God is "in the heavens" means that he "dwells in inaccessible light," that he is as far beyond us "as the heavens are above the earth."
We Christians also agree that in talking about heaven as God's dwelling place we understand it more as a state of being than a place. When we speak about God it would be nonsense to say that he is literally "above" or "below," "up" or "down." We are not therefore saying that heaven doesn't exist but only that we lack the categories with which to adequately represent it. Suppose we ask a person who is blind from birth to describe the different colors to us: red, green, blue. ... He could not tell us anything since we only perceive colors through our eyes. This is what it is like for us in regard to "heaven" and to eternal life, which is outside space and time.
In light of what we have said, what does it mean to proclaim that Jesus "ascended into heaven"? We find the answer in the Creed. "He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father."
That Christ has ascended into heaven means that he "is seated at the right hand of the Father," that is, as man too, he has entered into God's world; that he has been constituted the Lord and head of all things, as St. Paul says in the second reading.
In regard to us, "going to heaven" or going to "paradise" means going and being "with Christ" (Philippians 1:23). Our heaven is the risen Christ together with whom we shall form a "body" after our resurrection but also, in a provisional and imperfect way, immediately after our death. It is sometimes objected that no one has returned from heaven to assure us that it truly exists and is not just a pious illusion. It's not true! There is one who -- if we know how to recognize him -- returns from heaven every day in the Eucharist to assure us and to renew his promises.
The words of the angel -- "Men of Galilee, why are you staring at the sky?" -- also contain an implicit reproof: We should not just "stare into the sky" and speculate about the beyond, but rather we should live in expectation of his return, follow his mission, bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, improve life in this world.
He has gone to heaven but without leaving earth. He has only disappeared from our field of vision. Indeed in the Gospel he himself assures us: "Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the world."
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for this Sunday are Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20.