|The Conversion of Saint Augustine by Fra Angelico|
Homily: Solemnity of the Ascension – Cycle A
For those of you who know a thing or two about Saint Augustine, you’ll know that he wasn’t always a saint. He grew up in the late 4th century in Thagaste, which was on the northern coast of the African continent and was, at that time, part of the Roman Empire. He was a smart kid: a smart alec, in fact, and very precocious. His mother, Saint Monica, had converted to Christianity and is now a saint because of her long-suffering in a family that was hostile to her faith. She suffered much, also, because her son, Augustine, had dreams of moving to a big city to become a great orator. Although at first his parents couldn’t afford to send him far away, Augustine’s precociousness led him to procure a benefactor who would help him fulfill his ambitious dreams.
Carthage in North Africa was where Augustine would find his feet and begin to flourish. As a young man without parental influence, however, Augustine began to live a dissolute life: the life of the stereotypical “frat boy”, without much concern for the moral consequences. There he fell in love with one of his servants. Because of the difference in their social stati, Augustine would not marry her, but she did live with him and together they had a child.
There in Carthage, Augustine would also come into contact with the Manicheans. The Manichees (no, not the manatees, the strange “sea cows”, the Manichees) were a group of pagan intellectuals who proposed what they believed was the great synthesis of world religions. They were a gnostic group: meaning that they believed in the idea that “enlightenment” or “obtaining special knowledge” would help one to transcend the worldly condition and to realize a more perfect existence. Because of this they had a very clear notion of good and evil (which they labeled as “light” and “darkness”), which was something that, at that time, along with the highly intellectual nature of their beliefs, appealed to Augustine.
Following this path, Augustine began to turn from his dissolute life and began following the strict Manichee moral code. He soon began to see the flaws with the Manichee’s gnostic understanding of the world, however, in which everything that had to do with the body was bad, while everything that had to do with the spirit was good. He could definitely see how the spiritual was greater than the physical, but he couldn’t escape the feeling that the physical could not be wholly abandoned.
Although Augustine, after his famous conversion to Christianity, would spend the rest of his life striving to follow Saint Paul’s admonition to the Romans to “leave off the works of the flesh and put on Christ”, he would never wholly swear off the body. He would come to know that what we do in the body matters and that it is through our bodies that we achieve our salvation. This, in fact, he had come to discover and to teach, was everything that Jesus came to confirm for us and the feast that we celebrate today—the Ascension of Jesus, body and soul, into heaven—is the crowing jewel of this work.
Friends, in the Incarnation (when Mary said “yes” to the Angel Gabriel and the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and fertilized one of her eggs so that she might conceive a child) the Son of God—the Second Person of the Holy Trinity—took on a human body. The Son of God in human flesh was born just like everyone else, grew and matured just like everyone else, and lived and moved and breathed just like everyone else; and when the time came for him to fulfill his purpose on earth, the Son of God suffered, died, and rose again in that same human body. Now we can say with certainty that, because of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, which the Scriptures record for us, the Son of God dwells in eternity in his human body!
And so, while it is true that today we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant return to heaven after accomplishing his saving work here on earth, it is also true that what we celebrate is the full restoration of communion—that is, the perfect union of natures—between God and man that Jesus accomplished when he took his human nature with him as he ascended into heaven. My friends, this latter part is something very important for us to remember today.
This is because today we seem to be treating our bodies as if they are disposable; as if it is a tool for us to use for the time that we are here, but, once our spirit leaves, what we do with it doesn’t really matter. Saint Augustine treated his body this way before his conversion: first in the hedonism that he practiced, but then also in his Manicheism in which he continually swore off his body as something evil and to be discarded. One doesn’t have to look hard to see that the dominant practical religion in our country today is hedonism (that is, the constant pursuit of pleasure as the source of happiness). Nevertheless, I also think that the Manichean influence is alive and well. I see this in the increasing rate in which people are choosing cremation after death.
My brothers and sisters, we cannot detach our spiritual selves from our physical selves! Jesus did not leave his human body to return to the Father. Rather, he ascended in his human body to show us just how important and precious his human body is! He redeemed us in his human body so that through our human bodies we could find salvation. My brothers and sisters, when the Son of God took on a human body, it was for ever! Therefore, to think of a “spiritual only” second person of the Trinity is to think in error. To speak to Jesus, in other words, as if he exists in the spiritual realm only is to speak to a false Jesus. Taken to its fullest extent: if Jesus does not still dwell in a real human body (in its fully glorified form, of course), then what we receive from this altar is just a symbol. But if we believe that we truly do receive the Body and Blood of Jesus from this altar (and, yes, we truly believe that), then it must be true that Jesus still dwells in a fully human body. If Jesus dwells in heaven in a fully human body, then what we do with our human bodies matters.
Friends, if this is news to you, I don’t blame you. This hedonistic/Manicheistic understanding of the human body is so pervasive in our culture that it’s in the water that we’re drinking. And so what do we do? Well, first and foremost, we need to stop treating our bodies as tools for our own pleasure and start treating them like God wants us to treat them: like the beautiful means that God has given us to realize our salvation in this world and, therefore, our communion with him. Treated in this way, we will only indulge our bodies in order to satisfy its daily needs (e.g. eating well and getting the right amount of sleep) or to engage in authentic recreation (e.g. exercise, shared meals, vacations, etc.). To do more than this is to use our bodies selfishly. Still further, treated in this way, we will only use cremation of the body after death when it is truly necessary (e.g. when financial needs or the needs to transport the body demand it) and, when necessary, we will still give the remains of our loved ones a proper burial, so that they might have a place of rest. To treat our bodies otherwise is to disrespect Jesus, whose body became so integrally united to who he is that he ascended in his body into heaven.
Friends, the Ascension of our Lord is not just a place holder along the way to Pentecost: rather, it expresses important truths about God and about us. Let us live in our bodies, then, in such a way so as to truly glorify God: that is, until the day that our bodies are fully united to his in the eternal glory of heaven; a communion that we experience, even now, here in this Eucharist.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – May 27th & 28th, 2017