Ascension Lessons

Today, we hear Jesus tell his apostles, and us, to ‘“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”[1] And so the apostles did – with great joy. It seems they had heard their master and they understood His desire. It would be ten days later that the Holy Spirit would descend upon them and endow them with the strengths and wisdom needed; but as Christ ascended they knew what they must do.

Two points came to me as I reflected on this question:

  • 1) What type of life do I need to live to follow as a follower of the apostles?
  • 2) What type of apostolic action am I called give?

In the Ascension we are witness to the elevation of humanity to the divine.  Christ not only ascends back to Heaven but takes with Him His body.  This should point out to us that we too are meant for Heaven – completely soul and body; our lives should reflect this fact.  St. Paul reminds us of this when he writes to the Colossians: ‘If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.[2] So, though we are born of this reality and we journey through it – we have another home – we are citizens of another kingdom and it is up to us to live a life as a member of Heaven.  Each of us needs to live our lives as citizens of Heaven – we need to continually turn ourselves from a life lived in the flesh and reach for a life of sanctity.

But along with this important and daunting task is how we are to witness to the gospel during our journey. What type of apostolic action are we to follow.  Living a life of a citizen of heaven has mostly to do with an internal struggle – witnessing to the good news is more an external activity.  At first glance these seem to be two different actions – but are they? By our witness of living a life of a citizen of heaven we are, in fact, fulfilling our commission to proclaim the gospel.  The activities of the heavenly hosts (our fellow citizens) are both adoration and celebration of God; and of constant interaction with us – by intercessory prayer.  Their upward actions of lifting our prayer and submitting them to Jesus, the great intercessor, is also a downward action of passing God’s blessings to us.  We are strengthened by their intercession and their guidance; their looking to us down here brings yet another connection to heaven.  They, in a special way allow Christ to return to us by helping us. To a degree they are putting into action what the angels spoke to those who witnessed the Ascension in Luke: ‘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.[3]

Now, of course, the angels primarily spoke of the final coming; but they also were speaking of our Lord’s constant and always present help through His Holy Spirit, His Blessed Mother, and the angels and saints – Christ is continually returning to us through them. He is ever present in our proclaiming the Good News.  But just what is this action that we can participate in?  We can better understand this action if we look at the Ascension narrative in Gospel of Luke: ‘Then he led them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.[4] Christ left this world; physically left us; with His arms outstretched blessing His followers.  Christ left us in the act of blessing and as the angels told those at the Ascension He will return the same way – blessing.

This is how we are to view our living a life of a citizen of Heaven while journeying through this existence.  By our actions in living a holy life publically we are bringing to those around us the blessing of Christ.  By our embracing the gospel and living a life in and of love we are helping those estranged from joy, happiness, and peace because they can see and hear and almost taste this joy that we have.

Brothers and sisters, we are constantly blessed by the return of Jesus through the actions of the Holy Spirit, Holy Mary, the angels and the saints – we need to pass this forward.  Like our fellow citizens in heaven we need to participate in the same two way interaction. First by accepting the gifts of Christ and pass them to others through helping them receive God’s blessing and second by passing their needs upward through prayer. I don’t know about you but when I meet Christ in judgement and He asks whether I lived a life as a citizen of Heaven or of earth, I don’t want to admit that I hoarded His blessings.

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[1] Mk 15:15
[2] Col 3:1b-2
[3] Acts 1:11
[4] Lk 24:50-41

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‘Grey’ isn’t the Only Color

This weekend I saw a headline that said Fifty Shades of Grey overtook the Passion of the Christ as the best opening day for a February release for an R rated movie; talk about slicing the statistics.  I can’t help but feel this was just to show that the baseness of people is more popular than the goodness of mankind.

The media is constantly trying to marginalize faith.  When the Passion of the Christ came out they slimed it in hope of destroying its popularity. When ‘The Nativity Story’ came out the media focused on pregnancy of the 17 year old actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, who played Mary; with undertones of pointing out self-righteous hypocrisy. But both movies defied the attempts of the ruling entertainment elite and were huge successes – even in their calculations.

What those in positions of power don’t understand is that as much as they think and pander to the debasement of mankind, thinking that these give mankind freedom (and also money their pockets); Catholics and other faiths don’t look at the ‘falleness’ of mankind and accept that level, we look to the elevated mankind, to mankind’s ultimate attainment and strive to help everyone climb to that destiny. Cardinal Ratzinger in a reflection on the Feast of the Ascension said: ‘We do not understand man when we ask only where he comes from.  We understand him only when we also ask where he can go.[1]

Brothers and sisters, in our society where gray is the desired color because it blurs true definition of vision – we are the ones who are called to bring the color to the human journey.  In our society where the overwhelming point of view is downward, or level at best – we are the ones who are called to lift mankind’s eyes to the heights.  Why? Because unlike other definitions of love we have the one that lifts the human spirit to the altitude that true love can attain – the freedom of God Himself.

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[1] Essay – Beginning of a New Nearness – The Ascension from Images of Hope, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) 1976

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]

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[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