By Sam Keyes
Many of the classic depictions of the Ascension, including both paintings and statues, show Mary and the disciples looking up into heaven at an awkward pair of feet sticking out of a cloud. Perhaps it is slightly sacrilegious to say this, but there are worse metaphors for senioritis. The student who, for the better part of four or five years, has been attentive and diligent, all of a sudden goes missing from the conversation — you find that they are, figuratively, and maybe literally in some cases, floating off into space.
Which brings us back to the scene of the Ascension. Jesus zooms up into the sky — personally I think it’s more fun to think of him as going up like a rocket rather than a balloon. And the disciples are sitting there, staring up into space, wondering what the heck has happened. Then angels appear — and the fact that no one notices this or finds it frightening suggests just how distracted they are. And they say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?”
That question is my theme tonight. Why do you stand looking up towards heaven? We’ll take it in three scenes.
Scene One: the Cloud.
When I say that phrase, the Cloud, what do you think of? Maybe, like my children, or a meteorologist, you go for the big words like cumulonimbus and altostratus. But for a lot of us the Cloud is that nebulous set of networks that control our information. Our documents are stored on the cloud. Our photos are stored on the cloud. Pretty much everything is stored on the cloud, which is why it has become so much easier in recent years to switch from device to device — so you can, you know, hand over your laptop and your tablet and your phone and your second phone to Mr. Lachut, and still pick up where you left off with whatever’s left. But there are times when this can go terribly wrong. And I’m not talking about when you run out of phones to get confiscated. I’m talking about when you forget that not everything is on the cloud.
A few days ago, I was cleaning up an old computer for recycling. I thought everything was good. We had iCloud synced up; we had dropbox synced up. We looked and tried to make sure nothing was missing. And then, about five minutes after I clicked the button to erase everything on the system, we realized — with that sinking feeling in the stomach — that all of my wife’s audio files, manually imported and not purchased, had not been backed up. These were sentimental things. Music that friends had given her in high school, back in the days of mixtapes or mix cds. The recording of the music from our wedding. All gone. And there we were, staring up into the digital cloud, trying to control our emotions, angry and sad about this loss that we could do nothing about.
Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?
Because it’s hard. Because we don’t know what else to do.
I don’t want to imply that my personal data loss, high school graduation, and the Ascension of our Lord into heaven are the same kind of thing. They’re obviously different. But I want to highlight the feeling of loss — the feeling that, despite everything good that may be coming next, there is something sad about the change. There is a reason that so many people will cry later on tonight even if they’re not normally the crying type. We are entering a new world, whether we’re leaving or staying. Things will change.
As they did for the disciples and the early Church. I’ve always loved that question: Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? I’m good at staring up at heaven. I have a Ph.D. in medieval theology, for goodness sake. But there is a temptation, for many Christians, to imagine that the main thing in life is simply looking up and waiting for heaven to happen. Or worrying about whether you’re going to heaven when you die. But the point of the Incarnation, the point of God becoming man, was that heaven has come to earth. And the point of the Ascension is actually that Jesus has even more fully expanded the presence of heaven on earth by making it clear that his human, earthly existence is no longer limited by ordinary time and space but is somehow present in his people everywhere. Why do you stand looking up into heaven? Heaven has already come down. Get to work. It will be ok.
Which brings me to scene two: Swinging on a star.
My young fogey wife has made me watch all sorts of musical films from an earlier era. Lately I’m even more conscious of that since I’m heading to a place where many of my students will be learning how to make movies. When I started thinking of the Ascension this year, for some reason that image of sailing off into the clouds brought to mind a song made famous by Bing Crosby in his 1944 film Going My Way — I bet there are at least a few people out there who know it.
Would you like to swing on a star
Carry moonbeams home in a jar
And be better off than you are
Or would you rather be a mule
A mule is an animal with long funny ears
Kicks up at anything he hears
His back is brawny but his brain is weak
He’s just plain stupid with a stubborn streak
And by the way, if you hate to go to school
You may grow up to be a mule
Ok, it’s a little preachy, but this is a sermon, so I’m allowed to use a preachy song. Bing Crosby is right: You can be better than you are. You could be swinging on a star. But the way to get there is not to stare off into heaven. It’s not to obsess about that great apotheosis in which you finally get to play major league baseball or sing at the Met, or cure Parkinson’s Disease. It’s to do what is in front of you at this moment: to learn, to make friends, to develop, to practice goodness. So this moment is for those of you who are glad to be graduating, who are ready to be done with this place and on to something better and more useful. I have a secret to tell you: If you can’t be happy here, you can’t be happy anywhere.
That doesn’t mean we may not flourish better in a different setting. It doesn’t mean we can never change or seek something different. Believe me, I know. I’m leaving too. And there are some things that I will not miss. But even when we do move on, it is those same skills, those same relationships, those same habits and values that we practiced here that will stay with us wherever we go next. In other words, there’s no escape from the need to be where we are. That’s something that many of us have to learn over and over in our lives. And there’s a very real spiritual principle that goes with this: If you can’t find God — if you can’t find goodness, and joy — where you are, it is doubtful you will find him somewhere else. Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?
Scene three: The unexpected gift
As far as I can tell, I did not grow up to be a mule. Some of you may disagree. But the fact is that I liked to go to school. Too much, maybe. One day, my senior year of high school, our substitute French teacher, Mrs. Frederick, asked me to come see her after school. (I told this story a while back, and some of you may remember it.) She said, in a nutshell, that she had noticed that I liked school, and she wanted to make sure I could keep doing that. I didn’t know this lady very well; I didn’t even take French. It turns out she was a widow, and her husband had been a very successful surgeon who had, sadly, died young and left her with a substantial amount of money. So she basically offered to pay for me to go wherever I wanted to go for college.
And she did. It is still weird to think about it. But she did. I ended up at Richmond, as some of you know, and she worked out a deal where she prepaid the tuition up front for all four years.
That was a gamechanger for me. How could it not be?
Aside from the Bing Crosby song, here’s the connection I want to make: Part of what it means to be where you are, and to be better than you are, is learning to see the ways that you can make other people better, the ways that you can see heaven in them and raise them up and realize it. I was struck, a few weeks ago, on the Hershey Park trip, by this quote from Milton Hershey written in large letters on the wall: “One is only happy in proportion as he makes others feel happy.” I am not sure if this is absolutely true in every possible sense, but it’s a beautiful idea.
We are not alone. You cannot be brave, you cannot be a leader, on your own. Not everyone can be that amazing financial benefactor. But you, the class of 2019, you can live in the present — not looking to the clouds, to your dreamy dreams of world-changing brilliance — but looking at the people you know, the places you live, the immediate tasks in front of you, which will soon be going to college and once again being a student.
And it is exactly this kind of living in the present — what we talk of all the time here as living bravely and leading for good — that will make you better than you are, that will bring you closer to that life Jesus wants for us, uniting earth and heaven. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go…” and God “has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Find him, and find yourselves.
The Rev. Sam Keyes serves as professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California. This sermon was preached at the Baccalaureate Service for the 2018 graduates of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.