On this Feast of the Ascension, I want to turn to the lesser-known theological work from 1994, Disney’s “The Lion King.” You might be wondering what this fable sung by Elton John and sitcom stars from the 1990’s has to do with God, but there are several parallels to today’s readings, and Christianity in general.
Simba, at his birth, is presented to the pride, lifted up and anointed, paralleling our baptismal rites. His calling and name are made known to the community. In the Gospel, the disciples are called to make disciples of all nations and to baptize. Simba, the son of the King of the pride, Mufasa, is called to a special role, but he also has to show that he is ready to carry out the call. In Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from the Second Vatican Council, we are reminded that we are all called to holiness and united in Christ through our baptism. This is the basis of our call as disciples in the world, what unites us, what brings us into the community that is Christianity.
At the end of the reading from Acts, we read, “When he [Jesus] said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” Then, after Jesus ascended, we read that two men dressed in white ask, “…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.” Early in the film, Mufasa explains to Simba that all the ancestors that went before them are seen up in the stars and will be there to guide him. I personally find this one of the best explanations of the communion of saints if you substitute heaven for stars. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 949-959, the emphasis on communion, especially through the various gifts that we receive through the same faith and sacraments, especially baptism, reminds us of our unity. The references to the communion of saints remind us that our unity extends beyond just those who are on earth and that the living and dead pray in unity to and through Christ. We, in our death, will be called to communion with Jesus the Christ, who ascended into Heaven, as we too participate fully in the Kingdom of God.
Following Mufasa’s death, Simba is scared, denies his responsibility, and ventures down a fun but reckless path. It is only when his childhood friend Nala finds him, and he has an encounter with the wisdom figure Rafiki, that Simba is reminded of his responsibility not just to the pride, but to all the creatures that live on the Pride Lands. Nala reminds Simba of his true calling and of his responsibility to the common good. It takes a leader and the whole pride, as well as others who share the land, to re-create good lands and to restore them for the good of all. In our baptism, we are baptized into Christ and called to work for the common good. This call is with the promise that is included at the conclusion of today’s Gospel, where Jesus reminds us, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Christ’s ascension into heaven means he is present in a new way, not that he has abandoned those of us who are called to be part of Christ’s mission.
This naming and anointing at baptism, connection with the communion of saints, and call to work for the common good, Christ’s mission, is the call of all Catholics. We have leaders in different aspects of life who are recognized publicly on a regular basis. We have musicians who only need to use their first names, as that is enough for the world to know who they are. The world tuned into the royal weddings over the past decade. National leaders are recognized by name and face when they provide updates on television to the joy or horror of the people, depending on their political affiliation. The call to holiness that stems from our baptism reminds us that all are important in the order of society, in the work that happens behind the scenes, and in the building of the kingdom.
On this Feast of the Ascension, we recognize all the essential workers, whose holiness means that our grocery stores are filled with fresh food, grown in fields, transported and stocked overnight. We recognize those that ensure our packages and lab samples are delivered, that doors and floors of hospitals and offices are cleaned, that gas is available for our cars for now rarely needed travel and that trains, planes and buses continue to run. We recognize the men and women who fight fires, keep our cities safe, care for the sick, and keep our roads and technology up to date. We recognize the people who work in the myriad of other essential jobs that allow us to stay home and safe. On this Feast of the Ascension, we acknowledge that together we are part of the kingdom, united in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
In one of the virtual graduation celebrations, Oprah asked the graduates, “What will your essential service be?” For those of you who already know the answer and have continued to provide essential services for the benefit of all, at the risk of your own health and the challenges it brings to your family, “Thank you!” May your work be valued, and you be seen for the good that you do. May each of us be guided by Christ, who is in heaven, the saints who provide models of holiness, and by each other to do what is right for the common good.
Please join us today as Fr. Ryan celebrates Mass for the Feast of the Ascension streamed live at 1pm from Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale. https://stm.yale.edu/youtubelive-mass
1 (Atkinson, et al. 1994)
2 (Pope Paul VI 1964, 10-14, 31-34)
3 (USCCB 2001)
4 (John Paul II 1997)
5 (USCCB 2001)
6 (Bogel-burroughs 2020)
1994. The Lion King. Directed by Rob Minkoff Roger Allers. Performed by Rowan Atkinson, Matthew Broderick, Niketa Caleme-Harris, et. al.
Bogel-burroughs, Nicholas. 2020. "Oprah to Class of 2020: 'What Will Your Essential Service Be?'." NY Times. May 15. Accessed May 16, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/us/oprah-winfrey-2020-commencement-speech.html.
John Paul II. 1997. "Catechism of the Catholic Church." Vatican. August 15. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p123a9p5.htm.
Pope Paul VI. 1964. "Lumen Gentium." Vatican. November 21. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html.
USCCB. 2001. "The Ascension of the Lord." USCCB. Accessed May 15, 2020. http://cms.usccb.org/bible/readings/052120-ascension.cfm.