As we bid adieu to Paschaltide this week and especially today in observing the Octave of the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, we are encouraged by the saints who have enabled us to follow their example in gaining eternal life and following Christ into Heaven.
Learning from Saint Therese of Lisieux
St. Therese of the Infant Jesus, the Little Flower of Lisieux, made an amazing promise to us before she died: "I will spend my Heaven doing good upon the earth!" Quite a bold proclamation from one of God's meekest souls.
Such boldness is the hallmark of sanctity. Apostles, Evangelists, martyrs, confessors, and virgins are made of stern stuff. God has graced Heaven with a Little Flower, but you will find no shrinking violets before the divine Throne.
It might seem that a frail, consumptive, cloistered nun would be a strange choice for patron of missionaries, but that is exactly what Pope Pius XI declared St. Therese (along with the Jesuit, St. Francis Xavier). So great is her charity, so powerful her zeal for souls, so enormous her desire to please her divine Spouse, that she lived convinced that nothing would be refused her by her Beloved. While on earth she did not go to the mission lands, but she prayed fervently for the missionaries and their prospective converts. Her boundless faith assured her that in Heaven her work would only have just begun.
Thus, before leaving us physically, she announced her intention to continue doing in Heaven what she had done on earth - only better. Prayer is the life of the Carmelite. Prayer is the Life of Heaven, for prayer is communion with God. The difference between the saints at prayer in Heaven and the would-be saints at prayer on earth is that the beatific company suffer no distractions, experience no failures, have no doubts. Hence, their prayers carry an extraordinary efficacy for us, which explains the Church's immemorial admonition to her children to appeal to the saints for aid and comfort.
Proof of this truth and of the vindication of St. Therese's audacious assertion is found in the incredible number of conversions, healings, and spiritual renewals that flowed from the devotion to the Little Flower in a startlingly brief period after her birthday into Heaven. Somehow, people all over the world learned of this obscure nun from the nondescript Carmel in the French provinces. Miracles rained down from Heaven in response to the spontaneous and widespread pleas to the as yet undeclared saint. True to her word, St. Therese wasted no time in eternity getting down to the business of pleasing her Savior with more blossoms to add to the bouquet of souls adorning the Court of Heaven. St. Therese died to this life knowing that the blessed have infinitely more ability to obey God's will than we have on earth; she lives forever begging God on our behalf, and begging us to trust this simple truth: that Our Father loves us and wants nothing other than for us to love Him with all our hearts, all our minds, all our souls, and all our strength.
We would be fools not to take advantage of this gracious offer from St. Therese. She has gone to Heaven proclaiming that her desire to please God will be fulfilled by helping us to please Him. The only thing that she and all the other saints desire other than God's glory is for more souls to give Him glory.
This should sound familiar to ears, minds, and hearts attuned to the mysteries surrounding the great Feast of Our Lord's Ascension. Remember that Jesus said, "I go to My Father and to your Father, to My God and to your God." Before He went to the Cross on our behalf, He prayed to the Father to preserve us from falling into the unbelief of the world. He promised to send the Paraclete to be our Advocate before God. He assured us that when we prayed that Our Father would hear us just as He always hears the Son. Jesus told us that it was good for Him to leave, because that would make it possible for Him to send the Holy Ghost, in whose power we would be able to know the truth, to be confirmed in charity, and to perform the works of God that Christ Himself manifested in His time on earth. Saints have been following Our Savior into Heaven according to these promises lo these two-thousand years now.
Saint Mary Magdalene sets the example for everyman
For instance, St. Mary Magdalene, a saint for whom St. Therese had a tremendous affection, sat at the Lord's feet hanging on His every word. Her sister, St. Martha, was performing the laudable works of hospitality (with a wee bit of the uncharitable murmuring that St. Peter warns us to keep from our acts of hospitality). St. Mary is rewarded with the praise of her Savior, Who said, "Mary has chosen the best part, and it will not be taken away from her!"
This is reminiscent of the words that St. Dismas heard on his cross: "This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise!" What better comfort in the midst of trials could there be than to hear God Himself tell you that your reward is sure and that none can snatch it from you? The best part chosen by Mary (and eventually by Martha, too) was the fulfillment of the promise given St. Dismas, to be with Our Lord in Paradise forever.
St. Mary Magdalene was bold enough to seek to begin her eternity with Jesus during their time together on earth. And she was richly and repeatedly rewarded for her boldness.
As a shameful sinner, she threw herself at Christ's feet and begged forgiveness. The Jews murmured their disapproval. Jesus forgave her and cast out seven devils from her. Mary wept in contrition for her many sins, using those tears to wash Our Lord's feet, drying them with her voluptuous hair, and anointing them with expensive oil. The Jews murmured their disapproval. Jesus praised her immense charity, recognized her contrition, and acknowledged her act as a preparation for His Cross. Our Lady, St. John, St. Mary Cleophas, and St. Mary Magdalene stood bravely at that Cross. The Jews screamed their hatred. Our Lord blessed St. Mary Magdalene for her steadfastness by making her the first person to whom He manifested Himself after His Resurrection.
St. Mary Magdalene did not experience Our Lord's Ascension as Our Lord's Absence. She trusted in His promise to her: "It shall not be taken from her." The forgiveness of her sins, the deliverance from satan, the participation in the Cross were the gifts that Jesus bestowed on her which she chose to accept with gratitude, humility, and charity. She felt no fear that she would lose them. Even thinking that the Body of Our Savior had been taken away did not diminish her desire to be near Him, and finding Him truly risen filled her with ecstatic joy. St. Mary knew that the best part was to be with Jesus, and He would never deny that goodness to whomever wanted Him. She believed that the Friend Who had blessed her so much on earth would bless her all the more from Heaven - and in Heaven!
St. Martha did not quite understand at first that the whole point of Jesus being with us was so that He could always be with us, and we with Him. St. Mary Magdalene received the grace to understand this sooner than her sister. Jesus died on the Cross to remove the obstacles of sin and death that prevent us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus Ascended in order to send the Holy Ghost by which the power is given us to follow our Risen Lord, to enter the many mansions of Our Father's House, and to experience His loving Presence for all eternity.
The lesson for the Ascension of Our Lord that we can learn from St. Mary Magdalene is to trust that all desires are satisfied if our one desire is to be with Jesus. She desired only Him Who desired her with great desire, and in Him she receives her heart's desire. The example of St. Mary extends into eternity the revelation begun at Christmas: Jesus truly is Emmanuel, God with us for a time, that we might be forever with God.
Another great saint picks up on the deep understanding we see in St. Mary Magdalene of the importance of choosing the best part; none other than Our Lord's foster-father, St. Joseph. It is popular to remember the labor of St. Joseph as an encouragement to simple souls to perform their earthly duties for the greater glory of God. This is certainly not opposed to Catholic truth, but it falls woefully, almost laughably short of the mark.
A man of few words and all action - Saint Joseph
To say that the work of St. Joseph was that of a carpenter is like saying that Shakespeare devoted himself to sharpening quills or that Fra Angelico gave himself to interior decorating or that Michelangelo's contribution to civilization is quarrying rock. It is not unreasonable to think that St. Joseph was a skilled carpenter, perhaps even a genius at it, but that is not the work for which Christians should seek his example. St. Joseph labored for far greater ends than mere utility, beauty, or craftsmanship.
When the angel told St. Joseph not to fear taking the Blessed Virgin Mary into his house as his wife, the righteous and just man did not hesitate to do so. When the angel told him to take the Son of God and His Mother into Egypt, St. Joseph moved his family immediately. When the angel told him that it was safe to return home, St. Joseph leapt into action. The Gospel has no record of St. Joseph questioning, second-guessing, or bewailing the commands of God. For him, the commands of God were not to be called into question, submitted to review, or judged unfair; the commands of God were for St. Joseph meant for nothing other than to be obeyed.
In fact, the Gospel records absolutely nothing that St. Joseph ever said. St. Joseph was a man of actions, not of words. To the extent that words meant anything to him, only one word mattered: the Word of God made man. Fostering that Word was St. Joseph's life's work. Being a carpenter was the means to the awesome end of being father on behalf of God the Father.
St. Joseph realized that the real work of salvation is not a matter of wood and stone, the Cross and the Tomb notwithstanding. St. Joseph knew that his part in God's will to save man was a very small part by comparison to what the Son of God was sent to accomplish. St. Joseph did his part without fanfare, without drawing attention to himself, without an inordinate concern for the measures of this world. Hence, the Holy Family was an obscure family, a simple family, a poor family. But the Holy Family was also the Family by which God shows all families how He expects them to live: with Our Lord at the center, devoted to prayer, solicitous of one another, giving a minimum of attention to the world and giving all to and for God.
Imagine the bliss of daily life for St. Joseph. Each day he provided bread for the Bread of Life. He shared a perfect and chaste love with the Mother of Love. He made His living to support the Author of Life. He built with his hands in order to nurture the Hand that created all things. He watched over Him who watches over the universe. He, the least of the three members of the Holy Family, was set at the head of the Family to serve as father in service to their Father.
As a man lives, so a man will die. To live in the Lord is to die - and rise - in the Lord. St. Joseph lived all of his married life in the Presence of God and His Mother. His dying day found them at his side. St. Joseph as the Patron of a Happy (Holy) Death makes so much sense when it is remembered that the Font of all Graces along with the Vessel of all Graces bid him farewell from this life. It might be that the words of Our Savior to His foster-father on his deathbed were a variation on the words of comfort that He gave to St. Dismas, something of the order perhaps of, "One day soon we will be together in Paradise." Even as they labored together on earth to do the Father's will, Jesus and Joseph are together praising the Father in Heaven.
St. Joseph is that good and faithful servant, trustworthy in small things like carpentry, and rewarded with the far greater gift of being foster-father to the Son of God. St. Joseph is the faithful steward whom the Master places over the treasures of His household, His Son and His Son's Mother. St. Joseph clothed the naked child Jesus, gave Him food and drink, and built a home for Him on earth during His exile from Heaven, thus he merits to hear those wonderful words of Our Lord, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, into the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!"
Our Lord's Ascension was a family reunion for St. Joseph. He had the opportunity to present Our Lord to the Father as he and the Blessed Mother had done in the Temple after His birth. St. Joseph found Our Lord in the Holy of Holies as he and Our Lady had found Him in the Temple when Jesus was twelve. And just as St. Joseph was present when the life of Jesus began on earth, he is present at the moment when the Risen King began His eternal reign in Heaven.
Gate of Heaven - the Blessed Virgin Mary
Of course, the other party to the Holy Family reunion in Heaven is Our Lady, Heaven's Queen. She is the model par excellence of imitation of Christ. In her every grace is perfected, every prayer is answered, and every hope fulfilled.
One of the Marian doctors once said, "Our Lord is omnipotent in His nature; Our Lady is omnipotent in her prayers!" The Blessed Virgin Mary is the sinless Refuge of sinners. Our Lord's first Blood shed for our salvation at His Circumcision came from His Mother, the Queen of Martyrs, witness to the Cross.
Hence, as the Little Flower promised to spend her Heaven doing good on earth, Our Lady spent her earth bringing it the good of Heaven. As St. Mary Magdalene sought forgiveness, deliverance, and the Presence of the Lord, Our Lady is the Mediatrix of all graces, the Virgin whose heel crushes the head of satan, and the Tabernacle in whom Our Lord deigned first to take flesh. As St. Joseph labored humbly to obey all that the Lord commanded, the Imperatrix of the Universe meekly proclaimed, "I am the maidservant of the Lord; be it done in me according to thy word!"
Our Lord's Ascension was perfectly reflected in Our Lady's Assumption. Through the grace of her Immaculate Conception, Our Mother never was separated from her Son. Sin is wholly alien to Mother and Son alike. From the very moment of her coming into existence, Our Lady has shared perfect communion with God. The Holy Ghost sent upon the Church at Pentecost to bridge the gap between Heaven and earth, descended first upon the archetype of the Church at the Annunciation. She was present at the Cross by whose efficacy the Church continues the Lord's work of salvation in the world. She saw the Risen Lord in the Upper Room with the Apostles and was on hand at that first Pentecost. Now and ever she reigns with Him, having followed Him in her Assumption after the exaltation of His Ascension.
Where Christ has gone, we hope to follow. The saints, with the Blessed Virgin Mary at the forefront, have led the way in following the Way. "Men of Galilee," asked the angels, "why do you stand there looking to the heavens? This Jesus whom you have seen Ascend into Heaven shall return even as you saw Him go!" Indeed, we wait that happy Day when the Lord of Heaven and earth casts out the prince of this world into the lake of fire prepared for him and all the damned. Even more, however, we look for that Day when, in consummation of the gifts of grace by which we strive to make Our Lord at home with us, we will come to dwell with Him in His Home forever in Heaven!