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One of the major recurring themes within Sacred Scripture is the experience of exile: of being separated or banished from one’s home, land, or place of origin.
That seems to be essential aspect of the narrative of God’s chosen ones: his people, champions, patriarchs, prophets, and covenant mediators. You know many of these stories:
Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden after they disobeyed God by the act we call original sin. They were driven out of Eden, the gate was sealed, and the entrance guarded by angels and a sword of fire.
Many generations later, their descendant, Noah was exiled, we might call it, from the world as he knew it; there was no going back to the world, as it was before the Great Flood. His descendant, Abram, left Ur of the Chaldees in obedience to God’s command, never to return. His grandson, Jacob, whom God gave the name, Israel, fled to Haran for many years to escape his brother’s vengeance.
Jacob’s son, Joseph, was exiled into slavery, prison, and servitude in Egypt, until God raised him up to be second only to Pharaoh. Joseph preserved the lives of many nations through his prudent governance over Egypt. Generations later, a son of the tribe of Levi had to flee from Egypt after committing murder. He lived as a refugee in the land of Midian until his return to Egypt, at God’s command, at around the age of 80. That was Moses.
After their deliverance from Egypt, the Twelve Tribes of Israel were exiled into the desert for forty years with no land of their own. In the kingdom years, David lived in exile twice: first, as a soldier, when he had to flee from King Saul; and later as king, when David’s own son, Absolom, tried to usurp the throne. Within a few generations, the northern kingdom of Israel was exiled into oblivion by Assyria. Ten tribes were forever lost to history. Later still, the southern kingdom of Judah was exiled into Babylon. The list goes on.
Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus seemed to embrace exile as an inheritance. In his desert journey over forty days and forty nights, Jesus seemed to take into himself, at least symbolically, all of man’s estrangement from mankind’s proper place in the world and with God.
From that exile, Jesus emerged as one who would enter into the exile of others, one encounter at a time, and lead others to emergence: into a place of communion. We see that constantly as he enters into the lives of various people in the gospels: from the leper to the woman who wept at his feet, from the house of Matthew the tax collector to the home of Zacchaeus, from the demoniac to the paralytic, and many others.
These were all signs of what Jesus really intended to accomplish. Ultimately, our Lord entered into the exile that plagues all of humanity: the inescapable fate that we call death.
By doing so, Jesus established that there is no exile beyond his power of redemption. There’s no human experience untouchable by his grace. There’s no one, however lost or abandoned that person might seem or feel—that person is never truly isolated or alone—because Christ turned even death itself and God forsakenness into the birthplace and gateway to eternal life and perfect communion.
No matter what exile you and I may be experiencing now, Jesus comes to end your exile and mine. By himself dying, he destroyed our death; by rising, he restored our life. And then, when that mission was complete, it was time to return home, to end the primordial exile that plagued all of creation. And he wasn’t alone.
There’s a brief passage from the gospel according to Matthew, which is rarely commented upon, I feel, but appears right after Christ’s death on the cross: The earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many (cf. Mt. 27:51b – 53).
When Jesus rose from the dead, Eden’s gate was opened once more. And finally, the holy ones of God could come home. Today, we celebrate that great return. We share in the Father’s joy at the return of the Son; and with the Son, all the ancient ones who long awaited his coming.
When the Father and the Son saw each other face to face again, the Love who eternally flows between them—the Holy Spirit—burst forth in a light that pierces every darkness. Heaven itself couldn’t contain such light, and so it overflowed and filled all of creation—renewing it with pure and perfect grace. That outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the world is Pentecost which we celebrate next Sunday.
We remember this reunion today in our Solemnity of the Ascension, but in truth, we celebrate this mystery at every Mass. That’s the theology of our liturgy: the exitus and reditus of the Son; the exile of the Son into the world and his return to heaven in glory. 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, and cries 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. But it also points to our final glory. When we are summoned, from this life to the next, in God’s mercy, we’ll find our 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. God bless you.
Himmelfahrt Christi, by Andrej Rublëv and Daniil, oil on panel, c. 1408, Tretyakov Gallery, [Public Domain]