Considering Consecrated Life
“Looking to Heaven”
I am going to presume that none of you have done this recently, but perhaps you did it when you were younger and more mischievous. You might get a group of your friends and stand on a corner or along a street or in a plaza and just look up at the sky. And maybe you would point upward every now and then. Of course, there is really nothing there, but it amused you and your gang to cause other people to stop and start looking up at the sky and wonder what you were looking at. Did you ever do that?
As we draw near the solemnity of the Ascension, we hear a story which might bring that kind of memory back, though it has more justification than our youthful pranks. Jesus has risen from the dead, and, over the course of 40 days, he has visited the Christian Community at various times and places. Now, at last, this time of personal contact closes. Jesus returns to the Father and the Ascension captures the experience. The disciples stand around watching as he rises from their presence. In the midst of this event, we read:
Suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
It seems a little funny to be chided by two angels about looking up to heaven, but that happens to the assembled community. They are reminded that Jesus will come again. In the meantime, they should get busy preparing themselves and our world for that return.
In the first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul alludes to a situation in that local church where some members have stopped working and started spending their time sitting around and waiting for the reappearance of the Lord. Paul describes them as “not keeping busy but acting like busybodies.” To deal with these individuals, Paul advises the community (in his typically practical way): “Anyone who does not work should not eat.” His point is that the Christian should not remain idle while anticipating the Lord’s ultimate return but should with vigor prepare by good works and faithful living.
We hear that instruction. It describes our heritage. Our vocation summons us to be workers consecrated to the service of our brothers and sisters in need. Vincent and Louise encouraged and practiced that kind of thinking and action.
Yet, today, for a few minutes, I would like to argue for the benefit of spending some time each day looking up to heaven and anticipating the Lord’s imminent return. I think that we can safely do that for several reasons.
First of all, in the Liturgy, we pray for the Lord’s return. Advent and Christmas Season advance the constant refrain: “maranatha,” “come, Lord Jesus.” We want the Lord to draw near and soon. In the Our Father, we anticipate and yearn for the coming of the Lord: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” We want God to establish the divine rule and ways among us, and that is done most fully with the return of Jesus in glory. Since we pray in earnest for this reality, it seems sensible to take a peek every now and then to see if the Lord whom we seek approaches. After all, we wait in joyful hope for that moment.
Secondly, we turn our eyes, minds, and hearts heavenward when we pray. We are so trained and inclined that looking up seems the most natural way to speak to the Lord. We think of our prayers tending up as incense rises and our hands point upward. We can hardly keep our eyes from following the direction in which all our symbolism places the throne of God.
Thirdly, we look up because it reflects our dignity. Bowing low and putting our face to the ground makes sense when we are so conscious of our sinfulness. When we remember, however, how much God loves us, and how he has made us in the divine image and likeness, and how much he yearns that we be joined to him forever, we cannot but look up to seek the face of God, eagerly turned toward us. We feel moved to do so as his beloved daughters and sons.
And so, as we reflect upon the experience of the earliest Christians at the Ascension, we find ourselves in sympathy with them. We, too, want to look up to heaven and watch for the Lord. Imagine if we did that on a street corner as people were passing. They might ask us “what are you doing?” and we might answer “looking for the Lord’s return.” That would give them something to think about!
Of course, the concept of “looking up to heaven” symbolizes the attention we must direct towards the Lord. As much as we hear the call to be busy preparing for the Lord’s return with Vincentian charity and service, we also hear the call to seek the Lord’s return in consecrated faith and hope. Yes, even now, in this Easter Season, we pray: “maranatha,” “Come, Lord Jesus.” We look to heaven for that glorious advent.