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ASCENSION OF THE LORD – May 28, 2017

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 1:1-11
A reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 1:17-23
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 28:16-20

There are two misconceptions regarding the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord.  One is taken up, up, and away.  The other is the assumption that the event we celebrate is one of a completion, an event that is over and to be recalled in our celebrations of faith.  Both ideas serve to distance us from what we are supposed to experience and come to believe in this holy day. 

We have grown used to thinking of Heaven as being a place way up there, perhaps among the stars, but definitely out of reach.  There are thrones in Heaven from which God looks down on us from the ethereal regions.  It is definitely other there.  Jesus proclaimed another reality revealed in his Incarnation.  Two realms, the Divine and human, are joined forever when the Word becomes Flesh.  Today’s Gospel concludes with Jesus announcing his abiding presence among us.  Behold I am with you always, until the end of the age.  His with you does not mean a presence from afar.  With you means an intimacy that we only rarely come close to imagining.  Where Jesus is, so too are the Father and the Spirit.  Where God is, Heaven is.  If we focus on the remoteness of Heaven and, therefore of God, it is transcendence upon which we focus.  That serves to keep God and all things holy at a distance.  And adoration is our primary response in faith.

The image of Jesus ascending and the clouds closing in to cut him off from our view is poetic and not part of This Sunday’s pericope from Matthew.  Basilica ceilings have glorious replicas that fill us with wonder and awe.  Well they should. There are two dimensions to this faith-life to which we are called.  Jesus beyond the clouds points to the God of transcendence.  Jesus, speaking of being with us, points to immanence.  My felt need is to focus on the latter.  Again, it has to do with the wonder of intimacy that inspires me.  The image of the clouds shielding the resurrected Jesus from our sight is important.  His presence will no longer be a physical one.  Luke made that quite clear in the account of the experience of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus.  Jesus showed them that fellow journeyers might not recognize their Companion, even if their hearts burn in the presence.  Jesus showed them that his presence would be sacramental, one to be recognized in the Breaking of the Bread.

Our celebration of Sunday Eucharist always renews the Emmaus experience.  The sharing of the Meal makes possible an intimacy with God and the whole Body of Christ that is represented by that group of celebrators who stand with us around the Table.  Together we share the One Bread and the One Cup.  The image that John uses at the beginning of his Gospel is important.  The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.  Jesus is among us as one who serves, revealing a God who wants to serve.  This is not a god who wants to be served.

In John’s Gospel the icon is there.  Jesus washes the feet of the disciples.  He does not lie back and wait for the disciples to wash his.  It is about service, about living in relationship, and about living the love we have learned through example.  As I have done to you so ought you do for one another.  The transformation of the World began.

We do not find God primarily in church.  We do not find Jesus primarily there either.  We celebrate there the Presence we found elsewhere.  In the church of splendor many of the seekers do not feel the presence.  That is precisely why the Bishop of Rome urges reform and the putting off of splendor and the becoming of a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  In too many ages the Church has exemplified splendor and the Transcendent God giving the poor something to hope for at least in Heaven.  Pope Francis washes feet, kissing them as he dries them.  If the Church becomes poorer those seekers will find and experience that for which they search.

Many saints journaled about their experience of recognizing Jesus in the most unlikely subjects.  Strange how often those subjects are poor or imprisoned, lepers or outcasts.  The downtrodden seem to be the clearest transmitters of the reality.  Francis kissed the leper.  Bernard cut his cloak in half and gave half to the beggar.  Catherine of Sienna and Theresa of Avila had their encounters, too.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that when she ministered to the dying destitute she ministered to Christ in his passion.  The lesson is clear.  At least it will become so if we are willing to deal with the implications.  Then the clouds will part for us and we will be empowered to see that Heaven begins in the here and now.  Our God is immanent.

Which brings me to the second observation.  The Ascension of the Lord is not a once-and-for-all action completed over 2000 years ago for us to celebrate these many centuries later.  Jesus ascends in an action that transcends time and is therefore timeless.  That is true of all that Jesus does.  His dying and rising are ongoing.  So, too, are his resurrection and ascension.  In our sacramental celebrations we enter into them.  Jesus doesn’t suffer all over again and then die on our altars.  The whole Mystery is celebrated there.  Our Communion is with the whole Mystery and meant to be lived.

The challenge for us as individuals and as Church remains the same as it has been from the very beginning.  First, we must recognize the wonderful thing that happens to us in Baptism when we are given a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of (Jesus Christ).  This knowledge of Jesus Christ is one of union with Jesus Christ.  Remember what Jesus said to Philip who asked Jesus to show them the Father?  Philip, those who see me see the Father.  The challenge for the baptized is to recognize that they are the Body of Christ and, with a couple of word changes, Christ’s words ought to come forth from their lips to all they meet.  Is there any greater challenge than to see as your task to live so that all those who see you see Jesus?  It is almost as great as the challenge to see Jesus in those little ones in need of service.

If the faithful, the Body of Christ in the world today, obeyed the commandment to love one another as I have loved you, the world would be transformed in the experience of the reign of God.  As long as it takes, Jesus will continue his ascension.  The task will not be completed until time has run its course and all things are caught up in Mystery.

This is not likely to happen while you are on your knees.  This unfolding will happen when you are in the trenches, so to speak, doing the work, identifying with those to whom you minister, experiencing their poverty, supporting their waning hope, reminding them that they are God’s beloved.  And we haven’t even talked about the need for this love to be universal.  The challenge is to recognize that all people are related as sisters and brothers in this one God who creates all and loves all who are created in god’s image and likeness.

Perhaps we will talk more about this on another day.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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Sixth Sunday of Easter – A – May 21, 2017

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 8:5-8, 14-17
A reading from the first Letter of Saint Peter 3:15-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 14:15-21

In the Book of Revelation, God withers the people saying, I would you were hot or cold; but because you are lukewarm I will begin to spit you out of my mouth.  I am sure you have heard the saying.  You might wonder what the Lord means.  To whom do the words apply?  Surely not us!  In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s of the last century a question seemed to be posted nearly everywhere.  If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  The two statements are closely related.  We might add a third for flavoring: Actions speak louder than words!

It would not take a careful reading of the Church’s history to reveal eras during which the love Christ commanded us to live was absent.  Do you think the Gospel called for the burning of heretics?  Are Christians supposed to shun?  How often has the message gone forth regarding those who should not present themselves for Holy Communion?  First and foremost remember, to live as disciples of Christ, the first order of our lives must be to love as Christ loves and as we are loved.  Pope Francis proclaimed that message loudly and clearly during his recent visit to Egypt, adapting it so that it could resonate with those who are not Christian as well.

We are near the conclusion of the Easter Season and are closing in on Pentecost.  Our Neophytes have had these weeks to experience the reality of their new life in Christ.  The rest of the Church has had the time to see the fruits of their period of penance during Lent, and the renewal of their baptismal promises around the Font in the celebration of Easter.  For both groups, enough time has gone by to begin to experience the humdrumness of the routine of daily living the faith.  How are the lives lived now different from the lives lived before the encounter at the Font?

Peter, in this week’s second reading, speaks words of comfort and support to Christians under siege.  They are on trial and facing death for being Christian.  Their witness and their mode of living have been deemed unacceptable by the civic authorities.  The Christians no longer hope in Caesar.  Their hope is in Christ’s Resurrection.  The jaws of the lions loom.  Peter urges them to act with gentleness and reverence so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.  Apparently these Christians were not lukewarm in their faith response.  They are on fire with the Spirit living in them.  Their actions speak loudly.  The risen Body of Christ living in the hearts of the Baptized continues to scandalize.  What we must not forget is that we are listening to the Living Word.  Peter is speaking to us now.  May we accept the challenge and seek so to live that the lavish works of charity seen to be ordinary in our lives scandalizes people.

We might be tempted to forget that Jesus gave scandal.  We might be tempted to soft pedal the charges related in the Gospels.  This man welcomes sinners and shares table with them.  In our minds’ eyes those sinners can become sanitized and not really be sinners.  We see them as plaster-of-Paris saints fit for depiction on Barkley Street holy cards.  Surely they are not really prostitutes, tax collectors and other generic sinners.  We can accept that Jesus was comfortable among the poor.  We are consoled that he approached lepers and touched them.  Surely that’s what the Gospel text means by sinners.  Do you think so?  I don’t.

Sinners are sinners.  They were in Jesus’ day, too.  Some were prostitutes.  Some of them were tax collectors – which translates into being in cahoots with Roman suppression and being extorters of their neighbors.  Some of them were thieves.  You name the vice that repels you and more than likely you could find a representative in Jesus’ company.  He was comfortable with them.  Then add the off scouring of society and you will have a digest of Jesus’ table fellows.  Jesus ministers to them unconditionally.  He loves them for who they are.  There is no indication that all of them changed their ways and became disciples.

What is my point?  The danger I see in our times is Catholics being too antiseptic in the practice of the faith.  Our Assemblies can be too homogenous.  It is fine to be in choir stalls and to have splendidly florid liturgies.  That makes no one uncomfortable.  In the Assembly, what evidence of diversity is there?  Are disabled people able to make their way through the Worship Space?  Are they welcomed to serve as Lectors, and Greeters, and Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers?  Would sinners feel welcome?  Would minorities feel welcome?  What about gays and transgenders?  Does the Liturgy evoke the full, active, and conscious participation of the Assembly?  Does the Assembly rush forth, renewed by the Meal they have shared, to be themselves broken and shared until all have been fed.  Are they on fire?

This December will mark the 52nd anniversary of the closing of Vatican Council II.  Some of us can remember the days of excitement that followed the closing as the renewal began to be felt.  There was upheaval as always happens amidst birth pangs.  Something new and wonderful was being brought forth.  The new Church was being born.  Think of Archbishop Oscar Romero who left the serenity of the Bishop’s manor to go into the streets to stand as shepherd in the midst of the poor and call for justice for the people of El Salvador.  Call to mind Dom Helder Camara whose witness to absolute solidarity with the poor became a precursor to the controversial Liberation Theology linked to Archbishop Romero.  Even though he was an Archbishop, he lived in poverty among the poor.  Camara said: When I give food to the poor they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have to food they call me a Communist.  At the time of the Viet Nam War he wrote The Cycle of Violence in which he challenged the young people to break the cycle of violence to which previous generations have become addicted.  Archbishop Romero and Com Camara are the spiritual ancestors of the present Bishop of Rome.  You recognize their themes in Pope Francis’s preaching and service to the poor.

In those tumultuous years following the Council there were sit-ins and demonstrations on college campuses.  Students were shot to death at Kent State.  There were demonstrations in the streets of Chicago during a Democratic Convention.  Have you heard of the Berrigan brothers?  Look them up and be inspired even as some were scandalized by their actions.  They spent time in prison because of their protests against the war.

No one would want to relive the years that spawned the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and of John and Robert Kennedy.  But the violence of those times should not lull us into complacency in our own time.  There are still the poor who are hungry.  There are still homeless people, refugees among them, who live without shelter.  There is no shortage of injustices that cry out to heaven for vengeance.  Will a more obviously shepherding episcopacy emerge in these times?  Will the faithful scandalize by their outpouring of self in service of even the undesirables?

If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  That is what the Neophytes must ask themselves.  That is what we seasoned Catholics must ask ourselves.  Jesus says to us in this Sunday’s Gospel: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  Which ones?  There are only two, really.  Love God with your whole being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Stated in another way: Love one another as I have loved you.  Add to that: Love your enemy.  Do good to those who hate you.  That love must be practical.  It is in the act of loving that we come to love Jesus and in turn come to know that we are loved by the Father and loved by Jesus who lives in us.

Let’s see what happens on Pentecost.  Imagine the wind that could blow then, and the fire.

Sincerely,

Didymus

FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – A – May 14, 2017

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 6; 1-7
A reading from the first Letter of Saint Peter 2:4-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 14:1-12

Did you notice that this Sunday is called the Fifth Sunday of Easter?  That is, not the fifth Sunday after Easter.  It is important for us to remember what is supposed to be happening during these weeks.  We might miss the point since we have been in the Easter Season nearly as long as we were in Lent.  We live in the dawning reality and implications of the moment that changed everything forever.

Sad but true, we might see lent as more fitting than Easter to be a season.  During Lent we focus on the Cross and on fasting, praying and alms giving.  Holy Week comes and we make the Passion and Death journey.  We witness defeat.  We looked on and saw Jesus betrayed, rejected and broken.  Except for three, even the disciples fled in sadness and left Jesus to die on the Cross.  They had hoped Jesus would be the one to set Israel free.

We do not live in the past.  The mysteries of Jesus’ dying and rising are timeless.  Through the proclamation of the Liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday we recognize their continuation in the events of our times and our entry into them.  There is not much in contemporary culture to encourage the recognition that there is one human family, each person created in the image and likeness of God, loved by God, destined to live in that love for all eternity.

Today’s gospel, if you will, is the proclamation of the primacy of self.  What are the goals today’s children are taught to set for them selves?  To be number one.  To be powerful.  To be wealthy.  There is little sense of social conscience, that we have a responsibility to seek justice for the poor and the down trodden.  Wars rage and millions flee seeking refuge.  Saber rattling increases with every newscast.  As I write this, one state in our Union in three days has executed three men.  There is violence in our streets with innocents being gunned down in drive-by shootings.  A man murdered his infant daughter on camera.

Many have walked away from the Church.  The message being proclaimed is not resonating with the masses.  If there were more evidence of the bishops, clergy and faithful living the social Gospel there just might be full churches on Sundays besides Easter.  It should be clear that the Catholic Church is present in those marches proclaiming that Black Lives Matter.

Faith in Christ has been found wanting because some of those who witnessed to it professionally have been found wanting.  There are scars physical and emotional that attest to a tyranny.  Pope Francis preaches a poor church serving the needs of the poor.  Some in the Church do not want to hear that message.  Who wants to smell like the sheep?  Serve in the midst of the sheep?  How many aspire to be feet washers of Muslims, and Jews, and convicted Mafia members?

Now remember what happened on this Easter Sunday.  All around the world churches filled to over flowing for Sunday Mass and other religious services.  Many parishes witnessed the Baptism of neophytes joining the ranks.  Perhaps Easter remains the day people gather, hoping against hope.  And the Good News must be proclaimed clearly so that those nearly broken ones, caught up in the wave of scandal and defeat can be renewed in Spirit and be reminded of who they are in Christ and the hope that is theirs in Him.

Pope Francis clearly proclaims a primacy of place for the poor.  The hierarchy is being challenged to live more simply.  Crowds seem to hang on his every word.  A Rabbi is among his closest friends.  He has meaningful conversations with a newspaper editor who is an atheist.  Many resonate with the Bishop of Rome’s message and some are returning to the Church.

Easter is a Feast of 50 days.  The message proclaimed is that Christ has triumphed over everything humankind fears.  Death no longer has power over us.  The little ones in Christ are the beloveds of God.  Throngs are strengthened and rejoice in the Word, just as they did in light of the first Easter.

Hear what is happening in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  The Twelve are busy about proclaiming the Good News.  Many listen and respond and are baptized.  The numbers grow.  As they do some essential services don’t happen.  Some needy ones are being neglected.  So, some good and faithful ones become official servants of the poor, thereby allowing the Twelve to be faithful to their charisms as preachers and teachers.  That is how the Order of Deacons came about.  What we are witnessing is the realization of mutual responsibility for each other among the faithful.  The Priesthood of the Baptized emerges.

Forgive me if I keep referring to Pope Francis, but his witness inspires me.  He stands and serves among people shocked by what is happening in Ukraine, and Iraq, and Syria.  People struggle to reconcile church bells and alleluias with the A>IDS epidemic and starvation and malaria and sleeping sickness and human trafficking all ravaging Africa and others parts of our world.  How can the triumph being celebrated be reconciled with the horrors unless they are identified with the Cross?  Reason for hope is found in our sharing in Christ’s triumph over sin, suffering and death.  Imagine what can happen when the faithful accept again that they share in that triumph and therefore can inspire hope in those who falter.

We are supposed to understand that if we follow Christ in Resurrection, suffering ought not surprise us.  Yes, the battle is done.  Yes, the triumph is won.  But we must remember that Christ’s Victory remains a work in progress that will continue to the end of time.  “Behold I am with you always, until the end of time.”

Those people who entered the Font during the Easter Vigil emerged from the waters gleaming with oil and were dressed in white, signs of their identification with Christ.  Their sins are washed away.  They have new life in Christ.  What happens when they are confronted with the reality of sin that has survived in their lives, when they have to deal with the fact that their struggle must still go on?  They must press on for their participation in the Victory that lies before them.  And so must we who with them are the Body of Christ, the Church.

If we recognize Christ in his rising, we must be open to Christ’s help to see all reality in a new light.  Then sometimes what seems like victory to others will be recognized as defeat.  What seems like triumph will be seen as failure.  We struggle on to say no to sin, to the temptations subtle and otherwise to lord it over others, and to see ourselves as superior to others.  In Christ’s Victory we are called to be servants of the servants of God.

That is what Saint Peter reminds us of in today’s second reading.  Christ is the living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God.  So are we in Christ.  Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  Those words resonate and should remind us of the call of the Second Vatican Council in which it was declared that the Church is the People of God.  The faithful are called to full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy.  We share in the Priesthood of the Baptized.  As Peter says: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of (Christ’s) own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Do you believe that?  Can you live in that reality?  Do you feel the support of your local parish to live that priesthood?

In the Gospel we hear Jesus speaking to the disciples during the Last Supper of his impending death.  They cannot begin to comprehend what he means that even though he dies he will be with them forever.  He is returning to the Father who sent him, there to prepare a place for them.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.  Our journey of faith leads to that eternal union.  There is one way to accomplish that goal.  We must know Christ and imitate him in word and action.  I am the way and the truth and the life…. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.

Do you see why it takes a time to celebrate the reality of Easter and to drink in the implications?  Each time we gather to celebrate Eucharist it is to give thanks to God through the renewing of Christ’s dying and rising.  We see Christ broken and poured out for all.  We experience his Resurrection as we take and eat and take and drink.  Then we are sent to do what Jesus continues to do through his living stones.  As the faithful we go out to love others as we are loved.  That includes our enemies, by the way, again as Jesus taught.  It is all about love.  But this is not a love that prompts us to take anything to our selves.  This is love that empowers us to empty ourselves in service.  We go out to wash feet the way Jesus did.  In the midst of all that seems to spell the defeat of Christianity, we live in the triumph of the Cross as we emerge the new creation begotten in Baptism.  Just as the numbers of faithful grew so rapidly in that first Easter Light, I will wager that if the faithful heed Pope Francis’s invitation and become recommitted to imitation of Christ, the numbers will flourish again.

It may take a while.  But I believe it will happen.  Do you?

Sincerely,

Didymus