It’s Personal

The Gospels we read on the Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord are powerful – in them we witness Christ ascending bodily to the right hand of the Father.  On this day we are reminded how Christ has elevated the human body to the heights of heaven.  But, I think, because this event, of Christ ascending bodily is so powerful we miss another very important realization of His ascension.

This year we read the short version from Matthew, but in Luke the ascension story ends in a rather strange way: ‘They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.[1]  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI comments on this in his second volume of Jesus of Nazareth. He says: ‘This conclusion surprises us. Luke says that the disciples were full of joy at the Lord’s definitive departure. We would expect the opposite. We would have expected them to be left perplexed and sad.[2] If someone we know, an important person in our life, leaves us and we never expect to really see them again our reaction is melancholy at least – but not so with the disciples. How is this so?

It might help to look back at a peculiar line from the Gospel on Tuesday in the octave of Easter. Mary Magdalene, having recognized Jesus, moves to embrace him when: ‘Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.[3] Christ needed to ascend to do something He can’t do while bodily on earth – be close to everyone!  The disciples were not acting as we would expect because they know that Christ, having ascended to heaven, is now closer to them than when He was here.  He hasn’t left them alone; He is within each of them. Their relationship with the Lord is more intimate and personal than it ever had been; which leads us to another important realization from today’s celebration.

It is personal.
Holy Mother Church is built; our faith is built; indeed our salvation is built on this very important aspect of Christ – we must have a personal relationship with Him.  To many Catholics this idea smacks of Protestantism; the idea of a personal relationship makes some of us, probably many of us, uncomfortable; but it is the core of Catholicism. It has been proclaimed by Holy Mother Church for millennia but lost to the faithful in recent generations even though our Holy Fathers have continually proclaimed it.

Pope St. John Paul the Great said in 1993: ‘Sometimes even Catholics have lost or never had the chance to experience Christ personally: not Christ as a mere ‘paradigm’ or ‘value’, but as the living Lord, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’.[4]

Pope Benedict wrote in his first encyclical: ‘We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.[5]

Pope Francis has continued this proclamation of the importance of having a personal relationship with Christ saying: ‘It is the joy of faith, the joy of having encountered Jesus, the joy that only Jesus gives us, the joy that gives peace.[6]

This is foundational to all we hold in our faith.  Our faith is not a set of rules to be lived out, a great philosophy that we strive to hold on to.  It is a personal relationship with God.  He desires it, He offers it – but do we work at it?

A problem and solution.
That we have to ask this question at all is due, mostly, to the Church’s fault; we clergy are guilty of not emphasizing this most important grace God gives to us, relationship.  Most Catholics, indeed most Christians are not even aware that having a personal relationship with God is something that can happen.  It is no wonder that church life is thinning, activities are being attended by the same few people; that many wander in and out of their faith.  To them their faith is a cultural phenomenon; it is something to do; a routine; one more activity in their life.

If that is how people view their faith then the results are understandable: we prioritize our activities, whereas we hold tightly to special relationships. Family and friends come before activities because we hold these people dear.  We do for them, we help them, we encourage them and they us – relationships make our lives dynamic – worth living! It is the same and even more so with our Lord.  All these activities: the liturgy, the devotions, the readings, the praying come to life when we understand and embrace it as part of our relationship with Christ.  What to some might seem rote and mechanical, to those within this personal relationship they shimmer with the energy of a friendship, shine with love, they are alive!

How many of you desire this type of living faith?
How many of you are trying to build this relationship but are at a loss in how to?
How many of you want insight and help; companionship in this all important part of your faith life and feel left out in the cold?

I am sorry; we have failed you; but let’s stop this now.  Today, on this feast of the Ascension; on the day when we celebrate Christ rising to heaven and thus making Himself close to everyone, let’s start finding our way close to Him.  Let’s join with each other and grow in our relationship, our personal relationship with our Lord, let’s allow Christ to be our best friend, our brother.  Let’s grow in our faith; a dynamic, interactive and personal faith. You want someone to talk to about this? We are here.  Would you like help in getting to know our Lord better, personally? Let’s find ways to help each other.  I am willing to listen, I am willing to help and so are others.

Brothers and sisters, together let’s find ways of nurturing our faith by deepening our personal relationship with Christ. Let’s come together and share our journeys; let’s build a faith community on our relationships with God and each other. Let’s bring to life our faith. All it takes is our action because as Jesus says in today’s Gospel: ‘lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.[7]

[1] Luke 24:52-53
[2] Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two (Holy Week) pg.280 – Pope Benedict XVI
[3] John 20:17
[4] Pope St. John Paul the Great – L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition) pg 3 – March 24, 1993
[5] Pope Benedict XVI – Deus Caritas Est #2
[6] Pope Francis – April 2013
[7] Matthew 28:20


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