JESUS ASCENDED BUT IS STILL WITH US
SOLEMNITY OF THE ASCENSION
May 17, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Reverend Deacon David Justin Lynch
Acts 1:1-11 Psalm 47:2-3;6-9 Ephesians 1:17-23
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
In the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, a debate raged within the Church of England over whether Jesus was present in the Bread and Wine at the Eucharist. To give you some background, the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church, is composed of both Catholics and Protestants. Way back then, and now, they continue to argue this and other theological points. In Fifteen-Fifty-Nine, the Protestant side was dominating that church, and insisted on putting in the Book of Common Prayer what is known as the “black rubric.” It is rather long, but it says, in essence, that Jesus is only spiritually present in the Eucharist, because Jesus is in heaven, and not here. The basis for their belief is that the Bible tells us Jesus physically ascended from earth to heaven, and that’s what we celebrate today. This idea is consistent with the Protestant belief in what’s called “sola scriptura”, or Bible-only, as the basis of faith. Based on scripture alone, many Christians say that Jesus literally rose into the sky. and went to a heaven which is somewhere up there, in outer space, and in the ancient world, that’s where people believed heaven was, in the days before astronomy and astrophysics.
But we Catholics have a much different take on this situation. For us, not only scripture, but the traditions of the church, are authoritative sources for faith. We look not only at what the scripture says, but what it means. The Ascension invites us to ask the question, “where is Jesus now?” Part of the Catholic tradition is the Real Presence of Jesus in the Mass. The Mass has been called, “the source and summit of the life of the church.” It is what we do, to be who we are. However, while Jesus is present on the altar in a very special way, the actual physical presence of Jesus in the world today extends beyond His presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
By virtue of His resurrection, Jesus is not dead. In the resurrection, Jesus demonstrated his immortality. Even if one accepts the proposition that the resurrected Body of Jesus took flight and now sits on His throne in Heaven, that event does not exclude the continuing presence of Jesus among us in a concrete way. That is because even though Jesus lived among us as a human person, Jesus is simultaneously God, and God is by definition, everywhere in the Universe. The divine and human natures of Jesus cannot be separated. Jesus went to heaven, but did not leave earth. Jesus only went out of our physical world. Jesus Himself assured us of that when he said at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, “Lo I am with you always until the end of the age.” We need to take seriously the warning of the Angel to the Galileans in today’s first lesson, “Why are you looking up to heaven,” and instead remember Jesus is still with us. What establishes the fact we continue to experience the presence of Jesus in a tangible way, is not where Jesus is, but who Jesus is. The Ascension speaks volumes about who Jesus is. Rising to sit in Heaven, wherever that might be, to sit at God’s right hand, illustrates that we cannot pigeon-hole or confine Jesus. So what in manner is Jesus still with us now, besides on the altar?
Today’s First Lesson from the Book of Acts, which was written by the same author as Luke’s Gospel, is, just like that Gospel, addressed to someone named Theophilis, and starts out by saying that in the “first book”, meaning the Gospel of Luke, is about what Jesus did and taught. The implication is that the work of Jesus is not done. More of the story remains to be told, and the rest of that story in the Book of Acts is about the beginning of the church, how the risen Jesus continues His work in the world through the church.
Although the human body of Jesus is no longer with us, we experience Jesus in very tangible forms in today’s world. We have to get away from the notion that the literal, physical presence of Jesus is tied only to His person as it was on earth when He was here among us as, one of us. Here at Mass, Jesus is physically here in at least four places, in the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist, in our prayers, in the scripture readings, and when we pass the Peace to one another.
How Jesus is physically present in the Eucharist is something we’ll get into that further on the Feast of Corpus Christi, three weeks from today. But Jesus is also present in the Liturgy of the Word, in our scripture lessons. The most important reading at each Mass is the Gospel of the day. That is why we make a big deal of it. Eventually when we get a church with more space, we will have a Gospel Procession, maybe with incense. The Gospel reading concerns the presence of Jesus. His presence in the Gospels tells the story of His passion, death, and resurrection, but the Presence of Jesus remains among us in the message He gave to us. The Old Testament readings function as a backward echo, a prefigurement of the events to come as the history and proclamations of the people of Israel laid the prophetic foundations for the eventual presence of Jesus and His message. Have you noticed that very often, the Old Testament Lesson has one or more of the same themes found in the Gospel of the Day? As the Gospel of John says, “the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus.” Jesus is the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. Suffice to say the entire Old Testament points towards Jesus as Messiah by way of becoming prophet, priest and king. The New Testament Lesson, usually taken from among the epistles, is about how the presence of Jesus was felt among the first few generation of His followers, which eventually led to the Gospels, and many of the Epistles originated before the Gospels. The Epistles give us an insight into the characteristics of the continuing presence of Jesus among us. Good examples of that, are the descriptions of the importance of love in the fourth chapter of First Epistle of John, and the characteristics of love set out in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. The function of the homily is to make the presence of Jesus in the word real to the church community, or at least, that’s what I try to do.
Jesus is also part of the prayers we offer at Mass. The Opening Prayer, the Prayer Over the Gifts, and the Prayer After Communion, are addressed to God the Father, but typically end with, “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” or something similar. Jesus is also present as we pray in the Intercessions for the church and the world, for our own needs and those of others. With Jesus, prayer is truly mutual. We pray to Jesus and Jesus prays for us. Jesus, by word and action, is constantly present in our prayers. Jesus is our mediator. Jesus is our advocate.
When we pass the peace, Jesus is with us. The prayer before the peace is addressed to Jesus, and begins by quoting Jesus, as he gave His peace to the eleven remaining apostles following His resurrection. The peace of Jesus was a gift to them, and it is a gift to us. The presence of Jesus in the form of His peace is invited among us, and remains with us as we exchange the Peace with each other. When we give each other the peace of Jesus, we feel the physical presence of Jesus, as we hug or shake hands, because Jesus is in all of us, as we are in Jesus. We feel the tangible presence of Jesus in ourselves, and we feel it in each other.
The peace of Jesus is also present in our lives when we leave here. When things in your life aren’t going very well, just contemplating the presence of Jesus gives us peace. When we are feeling down, we tell ourselves, Jesus loves us, even if no one else does. It is feeling that love of Jesus that gets us through rough times. The idea of the peace of Jesus also invites us to consider what relations between people would be like if everyone thought first of attaining peace among themselves rather than competition with, or domination of, others.
Jesus is also present as we meet each other after Mass at coffee-hour for mutual friendship. Last week’s Gospel told us how Jesus invited His disciples to be his friends. That is what we are called to do in a church community in our relationships with our fellow church members. In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus called his disciples to a greater level of trust and mutual caring beyond that of mere servants or acquaintances. Trust and mutual caring are the traits that distinguish a church community from a secular one, to be at peace with each other, to care about one another, and to trust one another. Yet, the church is often infested with the same diseases that sicken interpersonal relations in the world around it, that is, the desires of persons or groups of persons to dominate others, rather than cooperate to achieve mutual goals. In church as elsewhere, people pursue status for the sake of status, rather than see status as a means to achieve the greater goal of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven described in the Gospel of Jesus.
In rising to Heaven, Jesus joined the realms of Heaven and earth as one, being in Heaven as well as still here among us. The Ascension represents the transformation of Jesus from the locality of an earthly ministry, to a universal presence. Jesus reigns as King, remaining active in our world and in our lives. He is a King aware of our struggles, and is there with a sympathetic ear for your prayers, and ready to respond with all the authority of heaven, giving you hope for a future with righteousness and love, without injustice and suffering.
Remember that Jesus remains present among us when we leave here and interact with the outside world. If I walk outside and look up in the sky, I am not going to see an image of Jesus, the person, but if I look around me at human persons, I am going to see the person of Jesus in each one of them, although I admit it’s a major challenge in many situations as we interact with people who don’t do what we want them to do.
We continue to experience the power and presence of Jesus, because even as Jesus was leaving the disciples, Jesus saw the future, rather than the past. The disciples asked Jesus if He was going to restore the Kingdom of Israel. Jesus did not give them a direct answer. He responded that the future would be a mystery, known only to God the Father, and that the age of the Holy Spirit was now upon the Apostles, and that the program going forward, was for them to be witnesses for Jesus, that, is to give testimony, to tell the truth about Jesus in Jerusalem, and everywhere else. Jesus did not want us to use his Ascension as an excuse to sit around doing nothing waiting for His second coming. No! Jesus commanded the disciples to go into the world and proclaim the Gospel to all creatures, and to baptize, and that’s exactly what the apostles did, and what the mission of the church continues to be. But that mission goes far beyond evangelization as we know it. We are called to make the world around us holy, by living as Christians, by demonstrating compassion in our relationship with others, by working for a just world, where love and peace reign. AMEN.