Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly.
Thus is our prayer this Sunday. This translation is based on a Latin prayer that dates from at least the 7th century that was appointed for Ascension Day. As Our Lord ascended to the heavens, the prayer reminds us, that is where our thoughts and focus should be, and not weighed down by things earthly and temporal. The prayer for Sunday is a bit longer and equally beautiful, but I hope the opening clause, Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly, will be a refrain that we can memorize and have at the ready when earthly anxiety begins to well up.
Anxiety is the consequence of the Fall. Human beings were created to glorify God and trust in Him for everything. This is the point of the Garden of Eden story. Adam and Eve were permitted to enjoy everything, save the fruit from one tree. Just trust in God. Enjoy it all, but don’t eat of the fruit of this one tree. By taking of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve bet on themselves. They bet they could handle discerning good from evil. They bet they could glorify God and live in harmony by following their own plan. Of course when they ate of the fruit, their eyes were opened and they were literally exposed. The first post-Fall emotion was anxiety. They were anxious about being naked and so they covered themselves. They heard the sound of God coming near, so they hid. What is anxiety but covering ourselves in the (futile) illusion of control?
The story of anxiety goes further. Aware of their own mortality, human beings were now anxious of it. Not only are we anxious about our own death, but we pass this anxiety down to our children. We don’t pass it down in conscious ways, but in the subtle and profound teaching through our choices, priorities, and actions. We know, as the Psalms tell us, that we have 70 years or perhaps in strength even 80 (Psalm 90:10). The clock is always ticking in the back of our minds. That sense of urgency encourages us to use earthly things not as a means to glorify God, but as (futile) means to assuage our anxiety. People, places, and things become for us treatment for anxiety. The problem, of course, is that medicine only exacerbates the condition instead of promoting a cure: because it never ends. We never have enough. Or we if think we finally have enough, we are anxious about losing it.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read the prescription from the Great Physician. “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself (Jesus Christ) likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2.14-15). Jesus Christ took on our nature and our anxieties and went to the root cause and vanquished and returned victorious. We fear death because it is the ultimate unknown. We can’t ask anyone what it’s like, what to expect, or what happens. We can ask physicians what happens to our body, but they can’t tell us what happens after our heart stops beating. Jesus has gone to the unknown and made it known. He has exposed it with his victory. The Risen Christ is the answer to our question: what happens when we die? We still must make that journey, but the journey is no longer veiled in anxiety, for we know He who has gone there and come back.
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly. The role of the Church is to show us both the heavenly things and how to love them. St John wrote “perfect love casts out fear.” Loving heavenly things is to love He who sits at the right hand of the Father, Jesus Christ. Loving him is to cast our fear. For those is no need to worry. Truly, there is nothing to fear.