THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD – May 24, 2020

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

Dear Friends in Christ,

My heart stirs each time I read the opening verse of the Acts of the Apostles.  In my first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up.  Theophilus.  Acts, as was Luke’s Gospel, is addressed to Theophilus.  Who is he?  There are various theories – that he was a Roman on the way to conversion, a catechumen, perhaps.  Or was he a wealthy Christian who paid for the publication of the Gospel and would do the same for Acts.  No one knows for sure.  We can take comfort in another and stronger theory.  The name Theophilus comes from two words, theos, the word for God, and philio, that means to love.  God lover.  Perhaps Acts is addressed to one person who loved God; but better, I think, Luke and Acts are written to you and me, and to every other person who seeks and strives to love God.  The books support that that love that comes to us in Jesus.

This weekend we celebrate the Feast of the Lord’s Ascension into Heaven.  The Easter Season will conclude next Sunday with the Feast of Pentecost.  In reality it will not be a conclusion at all.  Nothing in our faith ever concludes.  Everything is present and ever beginning.  In a sense, a cycle is completed with the Ascension, a cycle that began when, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the Incarnation is proclaimed, the Word descending from Heaven to take on flesh and be born a baby in Bethlehem.  Luke’s Gospel deals with all that Jesus did and taught, the signs that indicated to those who believe who and what Jesus is, Messiah and Lord.  Acts opens with the completion of the cycle, that is, with Jesus going back up to heaven to the Father’s right hand in glory.  This is not an ending, a final scene or chapter.  It is a beginning.

Those in attendance think it is over and the work completed.  Any moment now the kingdom will be restored to Israel.  The foreign rule of the Romans will be driven out – maybe tomorrow.  That is what they think.  That is what they hope for.  Their thinking and hoping shows how much they have to learn and how far they have to go.  They are mired in the here and now with its temporal rewards.  They have yet to begin to see what God’s Kingdom is about and the part they must play in bringing about that reign.  They have to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit who will give them power to act in Jesus’ name – whatever that will mean.  They will understand when the Spirit comes.

Paul anticipates that understanding and reality in the second reading from his Letter to the Ephesians.  It is all about living what Jesus accomplishes in his dying and rising.  May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.  Just when they (we) might have been tempted to think that Christ’s call is one that entails temporal power and glory, to say nothing of a grand share of the wealth this world has to offer, Paul says that the call is to live as Jesus lived and to do what Jesus did.  It is all about humility – that is, seeing one’s self as s/he is before God and seeing everyone else in that same light.  It is about gentleness, patience, and supporting one another through love.  Remember the words?  A new commandment I give you.  Love one another as I have loved you.  And, in another place,  Greater love than this no one has than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.  That is what it means to love as Jesus loves.

What we have in this passage is a brilliant outline of Church, the ideal we, as members, are called to live.  When others look at the Church this is what they should see, a community that is one body in Christ, sharing one Baptism, one faith, experiencing one Lord who is God and Father of us all.  That unity is celebrated in the One Bread that is shared and the One Cup that is poured out.  The Second Vatican Council proclaimed that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the action of the Church.  The table fellowship that is practiced proclaims that all are welcome here.  The scandal will be division and excommunication.  The clarion call will be to all: Taste and see that the Lord is good.  Taste.  See.  Stay and believe.  Take up the challenge to live the reality until all have been nourished and are alive in Christ.

All are called to serve the needs of the rest.  Vatican Council II put before the church the reality of The Priesthood of the Baptized.  It is a priesthood that is practiced through service.  Those who are baptized gather with the Ordained Priesthood around the One Table to co-celebrate the Mysteries and then be sent to be priests in the world at large.  Not everyone has the same gift or gifts.  But in this one community that is Church, all gifts come from God.  It is the responsibility of the Church to support those gifts and thereby help each other and the world experience the One Christ.  The Spirit will empower those who submit to the Spirit’s empowering to practice in such a way that the world will see the Church’s constant exercising of the fundamental option for the poor.  The poor have primacy of place in the Assembly.  Those with the most power and authority in the Assembly must be the servants of the poor.  They are called to be the poorest of the poor.

Pope Francis, from the moment he stepped onto the balcony as the Bishop of Rome, has been urging the Church to embrace this calling.  He put aside all the trappings of grandeur that had dressed previous popes.  He lives in a humble street level apartment.  He walks among the poor and invites them to break bread with him.  His word to the bishops as shepherds is that they should shepherd in the midst of the sheep, even smell like the sheep.  This challenge has been rejected by some of the ordained and of the laity.  We should not be surprised that there are are those who reject the call to service of the poor.  The apostles struggled with Jesus’ teaching and from time to time rebuked him when he spoke of his impending death following his rejection because he welcomed sinners and ate with them.

The Priesthood of the Baptized.  A challenge for the Church today, especially for some of the hierarchy and clergy, will be to recognize the vocations inspired in the baptized by the Spirit.  The gifts of the Spirit are called charisms.  The vocations come form Christ in the Spirit.  The Church must celebrate and endorse them.  The same is true of the lack of some of the gifts or charisms.  Edict cannot give a charism.  Banning will not kill a charism.  There is talk of married men being called to the priesthood.  Celibacy is a charism, a gift of the Spirit with no essential link to priesthood.  Talk must be engaged regarding the call of women to the diaconate.  The vocation of diaconate is a vocation to witness and be of service in the marketplace.  In the early church women exercised this charism.  Thought must be given to reestablishing the order.  We do, after all, believe that God is the giver of the gifts.

During this time of pandemic and imposed isolation, it has been inspiring to witness the pouring out of self in service by First Responders, the Doctors and Nurses, and the whole medical staff.  But it has been inspiring also to witness the service of people of every age as they reach out to their neighbors.  So many are making masks.  So many are grocery shopping.  So many are being present to loved ones in care facilities, even though windows separate them.  COVID-19 may be isolating us.  But service is reuniting us, helping us to recognize that we are all one in Christ, sisters and brothers in the Lord.  A new age of Church may be dawning.  New charisms are in evidence.  We will think about that next week as we celebrate Pentecost.

And so we come to the commissioning that concludes this week’s Gospel as Jesus ascends to the Father.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  It is to be a proclamation that is done primarily in action, expressed in the pouring out of self in service.  It is a duty that will continue until the end of the age.  Believers will preach and act and the Lord will work with them and through them and confirm the word through signs.

Many long for the day when this pandemic is over and we will be able to gather in sacred spaces to celebrate Eucharist and the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.  In the mean time, we should pay attention to the Church that is emerging through the action of the Spirit.  As I said, we will talk about that next week when we talk about Pentecost.  Now there was an event!  Nothing was the same after that fire.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus 

1 comment so far

  1. Pat Rentmeester on

    Great Homily Father Jeffrey! I always thought I might see married priests
    allowed before I die but I’m not so sure about that one, and more women involved too. And like you I do think more people are helping others during this pandemic. Looking forward to Pentecost next week, that was one of
    my favorites! Thanks for your inspiring homlies!


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