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We Belong to Someone, Not Something, Larger Than Ourselves
The Ascension of the Lord
You can look at a child and see the raw capacity for human relationship. You can see in an infant, too young to even be aware of his or her own existence, this great desire to reach out with a hand and hold onto something beyond themselves. You can see children playing in the streets or in the yard and the effortlessness with which they are able to give themselves to one another in friendship. When we are young, our lives are defined by relationship. When we are young, we don’t really belong to ourselves. We come to discover who we are against the background of the people around us. The relationships come first—family, friends, even teachers—and through them we come face to face with ourselves.
Something really does change as we get older. We carve out a space for ourselves from the web of relationships into which we are born—you can call that space our personality or our identity. We start to live more like individuals than as people embedded within a web of relationships that define who we are. We get older and start to ask new questions: What do I want? What are my desires? How am I feeling? What do I think? What do I believe? All the sudden, we are talking and thinking about ourselves first, and other people, other relationships, second.
There is a problem that comes with getting older and starting to understand ourselves as individuals: We start to feel alone. We really do. No matter the quality of the web of relationships in which we are still embedded, we experience this sensation that we don’t have enough relationship in our lives. We get the sense that we are lacking something, that there is something more for us out there in the world if only we could find it. What we find within ourselves, I think, is a desire to become a part of something larger than ourselves. We want to belong to something that is bigger than us, more than us.
So, we go out into the world on a search for meaning and fulfillment; no one wants to feel alone in life. When we are still young, the desire to belong to something bigger than we are is often superficial. Maybe we find meaning through a sports team, or a new friend group. As we get a little older, our search for belonging gets more serious: We embed ourselves within new communities, we invest ourselves in careers, we find a cause out there in the world that is worth fighting for and we join the movement and start fighting. There in the background behind much of what we do is this desire we have to belong to something more than us.
I imagine that Mary Magdalene knew for herself the experience of wanting to belong to something more than yourself. We don’t know much about her life. We know it was probably a hard life before she met Christ. When Christ found Mary, she was afflicted by demons. Christ freed her from those demons, and Mary became a disciple. She no longer lived alone but was a part of something so much larger than herself—this group of followers being formed by their teacher and friend. We can imagine something of the pain and loneliness Mary must have experienced during Christ’s passion and death. She stood there at the foot of the Cross and watched Christ die; she wept alone outside of his tomb. My guess is that Mary Magdalene experienced in the death of Christ not only the death of someone she loves but also the loss of meaning in her life, of purpose. For some time, Mary had been a part of something so deeply good and real and true, and now that sense of belonging had been taken from her.
We can imagine, maybe, something of her experience of the resurrection. Christ calls Mary by name and she realizes in that moment that the one whom she loved is no longer dead—and now there is so much meaning and purpose in life again. Now Mary belongs again. We can imagine her reaching out in that moment, reaching out toward Christ, like an infant wanting to hold onto something beyond themselves. And how does Christ respond:
Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.
There, in that moment of relationship between Christ and Mary Magdalene, is the first clear mention of the Ascension in the Gospels. Why there? Why then? I don’t think we can know for sure. But the thought occurred to me that in that moment of relationship between Christ and Mary Magdalene, this moment of once again belonging to something so deeply good and real and true, Mary just might have reached out to take possession of the source of meaning and purpose in her life; to take possession of the one who speaks the words of eternal life; to hold onto the one she loves so not to lose him again.
And Christ responds to Mary’s gesture by saying: Do not try to possess me, to hold onto me, but allow yourself to be possessed. I am ascending to the Father and will take you with me. Go and tell my brothers the same.
There is a way in which I think the Solemnity of the Ascension is a reminder to us that we need to let ourselves be possessed by Christ. The problem with the search for meaning and purpose and belonging in life is that even when we find it, there is always that part of the experience that is grounded in good old-fashioned selfishness—I need Christ for me, I need Christ for meaning and purpose in my life, I need to belong to something more than me, I need Truth, I need Goodness, I need Beauty. And, you know, that is all exactly right. We do need Christ and we do need meaning and purpose in our lives and we do need to belong to something more than ourselves and we do need Truth and Goodness and Beauty. We really do. The problem with love, though—and we all know this—is that we can get in our own way. The love is real, but we start to love on our terms. We reach out to hold onto something or someone because there is always that desire within us to possess—to never feel alone, to never experience the sensation of not-belonging.
Christ reminds us with the Solemnity of the Ascension that we need to allow ourselves to be possessed by God. What does that mean? What does that kind of life look like? I think our readings give us answers to these questions.
I don’t think it is an accident that our Gospel for the Solemnity of the Ascension gets at the same truth that Christ drives home to Mary Magdalene in that moment outside of the tomb: Do not hold on to me but go and tell others that death is conquered, and life is restored. To let yourself be possessed by God, to belong to Christ, is to belong to the Church which is his body. And the Church has work to do. There is a world out there that does not know God, so many millions on the search for meaning and purpose and belonging. And to belong to Christ is not to hold onto Christ, take possession of Christ, to make Christ fit into our lives in the way that makes the loneliness go away and gives meaning and purpose to our lives. That kind of life would be much more about us than it would be about Christ. That kind of life would be more about Christ belonging to us than about us belonging to Christ; that would be a life of possession, grasping, clinging, a life of holding on for the sake of self-regard.
The person who belongs to Christ lives a different kind of life; we don’t hold onto anything for ourselves. The Christian lives a life that is evangelical—literally of the Gospel, never wanting to possess but only want to give, to go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded. To belong to Christ is to belong to the Church which is his body, and the Church has work to do. To be possessed by God is to hold onto nothing, not even Christ, for yourself, but to give to others the depth of meaning and purpose and belonging that you have found in the one who calls to you by name and restores you to new life.
There is an upside that comes from belonging to Christ, of course. We call it salvation most of the time. St. Paul, in our second reading, calls it our ‘inheritance,’ the ‘riches of glory’ that is given to those who believe, given to the holy ones of God. The Ascension is the moment in the life of Christ take makes that kind of glory for us possible. Your whole life, the who you are in your humanity with its brokenness and its fragility, can now exist eternally with God because Christ is ascended to the Father and now our humanity is restored to glory. There is a mystery to the Ascension of Christ, this divine reality that because we belong not to something but to someone who is so much larger than ourselves, because we belong to his body which is the Church, a body which is ascended and now sits at the side of God, there is an inheritance that is given to us, a richness of glory that is ours. There is the hope of our call, says St. Paul.
And what does that call look like? We are not called to possess but to allow ourselves to be possessed, to go out and tell the world that there is not something but someone to whom they belong, and that our lives are now filled with so much meaning and purpose.
Homily preached on Sunday, May 21st at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary