“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”
That’s the question that hangs in the air on the feast of the Ascension. It’s a question the angels ask of the Apostles in the book of Acts. But it’s also the question the Church wants each of us to ponder.
Why do you look up at the sky? What do you hope to find? And what will you do besides look?
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is a model for how a Christian answers each question.
Mother Seton’s ecstatic relationship with Jesus Christ began with her looking up at the sky.
In St. Elizabeth Ann’s writings, we find recorded flashpoints of memories from her childhood:
At 4 years old, she remembers sitting outside while her sister Kitty, aged 2, lay in her coffin, staring at the clouds and imagining Kitty meeting her mother there.
At 8, she loved to walk alone, admiring the clouds and remembering Kitty and mother.
At 14, sitting by the ocean singing hymns and staring up at the stars she says she felt her “transports of first pure ENTHUSIASM,” putting that word in all capitals.
On the feast of the Ascension, as Jesus disappears into a cloud, we are all supposed to experience a little of that.
“The Lord draws the gaze of the Apostles — and our gaze — toward heaven to show how to travel the road of good during earthly life,” Pope Benedict XVI said about the Ascension.
Mother Seton’s delight in Jesus led to her desire to follow him to eternity.
“Oh my soul, there is a heaven! There is a savior!” she wrote in a letter to her sister-in-law, Cecilia. “There we shall be always joyful — always beholding the presence of him, who has purchased and prepared for us this unutterable glory.”
In the final weeks of Easter, every Sunday includes a reading in which St. John describes heaven, in hopes that we would each catch some of that joy.
We should stare up at the sky and imagine the “new heaven and new earth” where, “The Lamb … will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water” and “wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain.”
For John, it is the martyrs who ascend to heaven first, “washing their clothes in the blood of the Lamb.”
For St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and for us, we ascend through the quiet martyrdom of a life of sacrifice. “Let me mount to God by the stairs of humility on which you came down to me,” said Mother Seton. “Let me kiss the path of Mount Calvary sprinkled with your blood since it is that path alone which leads me to you.”
But Mother Seton didn’t only gaze at the sky. She also looked around her.
“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,” the angels told the Apostles.
That made them remember Jesus’s parting words to them, about how “repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
That’s the second reason Jesus ascended: Not just to lead us to heaven, but to leave us the world as our mission ground. Jesus told the Apostles the important work that needed to get done, then left them to do it, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Mother Seton also didn’t let sky-gazing become an end in itself, but drew from it an urgent need to do God’s work. “Let us be courageous with love and zeal to fulfill the will and order of Providence,” she said.
The same grace that fueled the Apostles who founded the Church energized Mother Seton’s congregation of religious sisters, who went on to found schools, orphanages, hospitals and more.
As Pope John XXIII said, when Mother Seton was beatified in 1963, “In a house that was very small, but with ample space for charity, she sowed a seed in America which by Divine Grace grew into a large tree.” St. John Paul II said, “the country’s Catholic school system began under the leadership of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.”
What great work will our own lives begin, in our families and our parishes, if we follow in her footsteps?
There is a third lesson Jesus left us with at the Ascension: His most consoling message ever.
In Matthew’s account of the passion, before Jesus ascends, he says: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
The disciples on the road to Emmaus had discovered how the Risen Jesus would remain when they invite him to “Stay with us.”
In answer, Jesus “took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.”
The message was clear: Jesus would remain in the Eucharist.
Elizabeth recaptured the all caps ENTHUSIASM of her girlhood at an unexpected moment in her adulthood.
During her time in Italy in 1804, she was invited to Mass in Tuscany. When the priest said the words of consecration and raised the host, an Italian friend told her, “This is what they call [the] real PRESENCE.”
When she wrote down the story, Elizabeth’s ecstatic capital letters returned, and thereafter the Blessed Sacrament replaced the sky as the place she gazed to see God. “At last, God is mine and I am his!” she said at her first Holy Communion, and spent a life imitating the self-gift of her Eucharistic Lord.
So, think of Mother Seton this Ascension.
Look up at the sky, where Mother Seton has joined Kitty and her mother.
Ask her intercession to gain some of the ENTHUSIASM she had for the PRESENCE of Christ in the Eucharist.
“Christ has not gone away but is with us forever,” said Pope Benedict XVI.
Find him in the Eucharist, bringing strength and grace to our lives.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: The Ascension of Jesus (The Ascension), by Harry Anderson