What gives depth to our shallow existence

Published May 29, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Fr. Rolando V. De La Rosa, OP


Fr. Rolando V. dela Rosa, O.P.

Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. Although the current practice is to hold it on Sunday, it used to be held 40 days after the resurrection, as the Bible says (Acts 1:3-9).

You might ask, “Why 40? Why not 30 or 50?” Forty is a significant number in the Bible. The Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years. Moses had to stay on Mt. Sinai for 40 days before he received the ten commandments. Saul, David and Solomon each ruled Israel for 40 years. God gave the citizens of Nineveh 40 days to repent, otherwise their city would be destroyed. Jesus fasted and was tempted in the desert for 40 days. The number 40 symbolizes the length of time needed for testing, renewal, reward, or punishment.

We Filipino Catholics also give importance to the 40th day of a loved one’s passing. It is as though we set 40 days as the temporal limit to our grieving. We do not want our sense of loss to dominate our lives. After 40 days, we keep the memory of our beloved dead, not as a source of sadness, regret, or despair, but as a joyful inspiration to get on with our lives.

This is why, on the 40th day after the death of a loved one, we celebrate the Mass. In the Eucharist, word becomes flesh, and flesh becomes memory. We recall what Jesus says every time we celebrate the Mass: “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). Whenever we celebrate the Mass together, we remember that Jesus has not abandoned us. He is always present.

We celebrate the Ascension Day of Jesus with that in mind. The gospel reading for this feast narrates that, as the apostles beheld Jesus being lifted up to heaven, they were filled with joy. Were they rejoicing that Jesus had finally left them? No, their joy came from their belief that Jesus had assumed a new kind of presence, one that transcended the spatial and temporal limitations imposed by His bodily existence.
With His ascension, His presence was no longer bound to His visibility. So, even if He no longer walked, talked, and ate with the apostles, they believed that He would always be IN them, BETWEEN them, AMONG them. They had the conviction that nothing, not even death, could separate them from Him, a conviction fortified by His words: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of time” (Matthew 28:20).
Perhaps we should stop saying, “Bahala na ang nasa itaas.” Jesus is not “up there.” With his ascension, He is now closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is in the depth of our being. Or, more precisely, He is the God who gives depth to our often superficial and shallow existence.

The ascension of Jesus reminds us of the cosmic story of creation, sin, and redemption. This bigger story gives a transcendent meaning to our experience of life and death, and makes us believe in lasting values, principles, and truths.

Sadly, today, this sense of transcendence is beginning to fade in our memory, thanks to the onslaught of secularism and commercialism. We have become habituated to superficial pleasures that are immediate, practical, and within reach. We easily give up the struggle for lasting values because these require a lot of pain, sacrifice, and long-term nurturance. We settle for short-lived triumphs and make-believe heroics of superheroes and celebrities.

Don’t you notice? In many ways, sports, entertainment, and politics have become a substitute for our diminishing religious sensibility. Authentic religion gives us hope to share in Jesus’s triumph over death. But sport, entertainment, and politics elevate the trivial to the monumental, giving us the illusion of greatness, as we bask in the glory that can never be ours.