by Michelle Arnold
First New Testament Reading for May 29, 2022
The Ascension of the Lord
Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? (Acts 1:11)
After what seemed, to me anyway, to be a respite from news of gun violence in America (if I’m wrong about this, don’t correct me), we’ve seen two incidents of mass murder in as many weeks. Both acts of domestic terror were committed by newly minted adults. One of them allegedly drove hundreds of miles from home, and is believed to have livestreamed his spree on social media. The other evidently stormed an elementary school days before the summer break, leaving nineteen children and two adults dead—the deadliest crime of its kind since Sandy Hook in 2012.
I’ve said about all I can say with some semblance of calm about the crimes themselves. Others have spoken far more eloquently than I can about what happened in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas.
In the wake of these tragedies though, we once again face the now ubiquitous platitude of “thoughts and prayers.” For years, it seemed, whenever politicians stepped in front of a camera after a mass slaughter, they’d assure everyone that their thoughts and prayers were with “all those affected” by the violence. These thoughts and prayers never evolved into action and reform—in fact, were often used to drown out calls for action and reform—and eventually became widely parodied when new slaughters occurred.
Did the politicians take note and start acting and reforming? Of course not. The only thing that evolved was their language. “Thoughts and prayers” became “I’m heartbroken and send my deepest sympathies,” or some similar rewrite of “thoughts and prayers.”
This Sunday, the Church commemorates the feast of the Ascension. For forty days following his Resurrection, Jesus spent time with his disciples, encouraging them with his presence, teaching them what his Resurrection meant, preparing them for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Finally, it was time to go. He ascended into heaven from Mount Olivet, leaving them staring at the sky, perhaps wondering when he was coming back, perhaps gawping in awe.
According to St. Luke, they kept standing around, looking up into the sky, until two strange men, clothed in white, appeared beside them and 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” (Acts 1:11).
Trance broken, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and closeted themselves in an upper room—perhaps the same one in which they’d shared the Last Supper with Jesus. For the next ten days, they prayed. We tend to consider this a good action, especially since Jesus’ Mother was there praying alongside them. But in the context of “Hey! Why are y’all standing around looking up at the sky as if it’s going to fall?” perhaps we might acknowledge there was some disconnect between the reprimand and the response.
Surely, the correct response to being told to stop staring up into the heavens isn’t to closet yourself away and keep staring up at the heavens. Right?
The disciples did take a break from their praying to decide who should be inducted into The Apostles Club as a replacement for Judas. Their requirements for apostleship were that the candidate had to have been a follower since the beginning of Christ’s public ministry and able to attest to the Resurrection. Did they choose Jesus’ Mother (who’d been with him since conception), or one of the women who’d funded the apostolic band and followed along after them? Or perhaps one of the women to whom Christ first appeared after his Resurrection?
No, of course not. They chose two men as candidates, then essentially rolled dice (Luke called it “casting lots”). Whoever won the roll of the dice would be God’s Choice for New Apostle—and let’s conveniently look past that God was only given two men to choose from.
Anyway, finally, on the fiftieth day following the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended. What was the first thing the apostles did after being filled with his presence? They went out and did stuff—preaching, baptizing, performing miracles, distributing charity to the poor. It was as if the Holy Spirit’s job was to kick the apostles in their collective rear and convince them to get back to work Doing Something.
For centuries, the Church has done the work of creating a more just society. Not without many derailments along the way, of course, but it’s only fair to note that the Church rebuilt Europe after the fall of Rome, inspiring cities to be built around religious houses, founding the modern hospital system and university system, taking care of the poor, the sick, the dying.
When the nation states of Europe discovered a new world and eagerly set about sectioning it off and claiming it for themselves, some Catholics, such as popes and saints, advocated for humane treatment for indigenous peoples and decried chattel slavery. They were mostly ignored, but they did lift their voices in calls for social justice.
All that was to the good, but the Church’s theology lagged far behind its charity and social justice advocacy. The Church’s entire God talk has focused on the next life. This life is considered valuable only insofar as it propels us to the next life. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Christian defense of this life as a good in itself.
That’s why you see Christians focusing on the soul and its eventual ends—either glorified or damned. For example, all that focus on unborn babies, getting them to birth, only to abandon interest once they’ve made it safely out of the womb? It’s to get them baptized, which removes any doubt that they might not make it to the beatific vision if they don’t receive the sacrament. After that? You’re on your own, kid.
What the Church desperately needs is a theology of this life—not to replace or delegitimize our hope of heaven, but to better prepare us for it. If prenatal care during pregnancy is considered necessary for improving birth rates and protecting women’s health, then why wouldn’t care for humans in this life better prepare them for their eventual heavenly home? This world will eventually end, yes, but care for the world while it lasts can increase our appreciation for the world to come.
And, perhaps, if we gave more thought to the world in which we live, to the children and to the marginalized struggling to survive societal breakdown, perhaps we’d prevent future mass slaughters. If we all stop standing around looking up at the sky, that is.
The sky may not have fallen when the apostles kept staring at it long after Jesus had disappeared from view. Some days though, after horrors like the ones in New York and Texas, I really do feel like the sky has fallen and no one is interested in doing anything about it.
Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.