I’ve shared this story with you before. My father used to be a sailor in the United States Navy for twenty years; and at times throughout those years, his mission had kept him at sea for many months.
Whenever the time came for dad to return home, my mother would bring my brothers, my sister, and me to Pearl Harbor, so that we could be reunited with dad as soon as possible. We would wait there at the harbor; but we were never alone. We were simply one among many military families ready to greet the fleet at her arrival.
As we’d look over the waters, we’d eventually see the fleet break over the horizon. The number of ships would increase as they approached, and seem to fill the entire harbor; ships of different sizes and shapes. The ships were many, but they were all one fleet, united under single banner. Proudly, they bore the flag of the United States of America, the flag which had finally come home.
Soon, we’d be able to distinguish the individual ships. My own young eyes would scan the fleet, until they found the hull number 1077: the USS Oullet—my father’s ship. At that point, the fleet would be near enough for those on shore and those at sea to see each other face to face, for standing at parade rest along the rails of each ship were the sailors themselves, their own eyes searching the port for their loved ones.
One could see on each of their faces a mixture of pride in their mission and nation, a longing to see their loved ones again, and joy when their eyes would find them standing there at the shore.
Deep calls to deep in the roar of waters, sings the psalmist. And it was true. Shallow emotions have no place among loved ones who have been separated for so long. When family was reunited with their beloved one, no words were necessary, and in truth, no words could suffice. One simply must be there, joyful at the real presence of the other, a joy shared among all who were present. That burst of joy at the return of the fleet washed away whatever anguish of separation that had lingered up until that moment of reunion.
That’s a story of just one family—my family; but the truth is that all of us, at some point or another, have experienced, or will experience, the anguish of separation. Whether it involves graduations where sons and daughters leave for college, or one’s children leaving the home to begin families of their own, or other friends and family moving away to begin work in a new place, we all know the sorrow that touches upon us when we say goodbye. Many know the pain of burying someone they love, knowing that we will not see that person again in this life.
But by the grace of God, we also know the joy of reunion; of seeing a beloved one face to face again. And so, we all have experienced a hint—just a small hint—of that drama of the Son’s return to his Father in heaven.
Today, we celebrate the mystery of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ into heaven. Today, we share in the Father’s joy at the return of the Son.
You see, a very long time ago, a mission had called the Son to come down from heaven; to begin his voyage into our humanity. There was a reason for the Son’s departure from heaven, which we recall every time we pray the Creed: for us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.
His mission was to save us, to liberate us from sin and death, to which we all were once enslaved. The Son sailed across that infinite distance that separates God and man and entered into our human condition. He did this purely out of love for you and for me. There was no other reason.
He emptied himself unto even death, death on a Cross, so that we could truly say that there is no human experience that is untouched by his grace; that no one, however lost or abandoned they might seem or feel—that person is never truly forsaken or alone—because Christ turned even death itself into the gateway to eternal life.
By dying he destroyed our death; by rising, he restored our life. When his mission was complete, it was time to return home. And when he did, he wasn’t alone. With him was an entire fleet of those ancient saints who had long awaited his coming. All of them came from different times and places throughout human history, all unique and distinct in their own way. They were united under a single banner: the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Their flags were made white in the blood of the Lamb.
The gates of heaven had finally been reopened, and the children of the Father had at last come home. For his part, at the eternal shore, the Father wasn’t alone in awaiting his Son’s return. All the hosts of heaven were with him; all the choirs of angels and archangels; thrones and dominions; virtues, powers, principalities, seraphim and cherubim. They all sang the ancient hymn of glory from time immemorial: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts; heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the highest!
When the Father and the Son saw each other—face to face—again, the eternal Love between them—the Holy Spirit—burst forth in a light that pierces every darkness. Heaven itself couldn’t contain such a light, and so it overflowed and filled all of creation—renewing creation with pure and perfect grace. That’s Pentecost, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the world, which we’ll celebrate next week.
We remember this mystery in the Solemnity of the Ascension, but in truth, we celebrate this mystery at every single Mass. This is the theology of our liturgy: the exitus and reditus of the Son; the descent of the Son into the world and his return to heaven. At every Mass, we truly share in the Father’s joy at the return of the Son.
When the priest elevates the body and blood of Christ, crying out: “through him, with him, and in him”, he invokes the mystery of the Son’s return to the Father.
And once again, the Son does not return alone. Like the ancient saints, who were with Christ at his ascension, we too ascend to the Father spiritually, in Christ. This happens sacramentally in the Mass.
And it also foreshadows the final glory to which we all are called. At the end of our lives, by our fidelity to Christ now, we’ll find the Father waiting for us at the eternal shore, with all of the choirs of angels and saints, with all of our loved ones, happy to welcome us to our eternal home, rejoicing at our return.