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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