To Be With Jesus

The Ascension of the Lord

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Last week I was privileged to be able to preach the homily at the Mass where seven young children from our parish received their first Holy Communion. In that homily I expressed wonder at the fact that the Almighty God would choose to become something as humble as food for us to consume. I shared the story of asking my eight-year-old daughter (one of the first communicants) why she thought God would do that. Her reply was profound in its simplicity — “So he can be close to us.”

Now, as we celebrate the Ascension of Christ into heaven, we may very well ask, “If Jesus wants to be close to us, why did he leave?

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Gospel For Today – Ascension

SOLEMNITY OF THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD


Christianity is a religion of Incarnation.  We believe in a God who put on human flesh and was born into the world of a woman.  Our God fed at His mother’s breast, had messy diapers, and all the rest that is part of human infancy.  Our God grew into a man and learned the carpenter’s trade; a craft which involves taking elements of creation and transforming them into useful and even beautiful objects for the benefit of mankind.

Jesus’ public ministry also used elements of physical creation for God’s glory.  His first miracle was turning water into wine.  He used dirt and His own saliva to make mud to heal a blind man.  He instructed His followers to eat His flesh and drink His blood.  He met His death in a very real way on a very real wooden cross.  And His resurrection was just as much a physical reality as His death.  In the post-resurrection accounts of Christ He is seen eating and drinking.  St. Thomas was able to place his fingers into the wounds on Jesus’ body.
Our religion is a very physical religion.  And today we celebrate the physical ascension of Jesus into heaven, human body and all.  The Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, came to earth to unite the divine nature with human nature and now He takes that human nature up to heaven with Him, where it remains part of the Godhead for all eternity.  Where He goes we hope to follow.  In the meantime, however, the Incarnation does not end.
Jesus established a physical Church to continue His presence on earth.  The Church is led by a physical hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons who minister to the faithful.  Jesus established physical sacraments as means of conveying His grace through words, water, bread and wine, holy oils and laying on of hands.  The Church ministers to us and the sacraments strengthen us for two purposes.  One is so that we may have sure hope of following Jesus into heaven and seeing God ourselves face to face in the Beatific Vision.  The other is so that we, the faithful, may continue to be Christ’s presence here on earth for others.  The Church is called the “body of Christ” (Eph 4:12) not only as a metaphor but as a description of reality.  The Church is made up of those who have been baptized into Christ, so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us (to paraphrase Paul from Gal 2:20).
The last words Jesus speaks to the Apostles before His ascension are these:  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Our gospel reading today has Jesus instructing us, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).  We have our marching orders.  Our job as members of Christ’s body is to bring Christ with us wherever we go.  Jesus tells us that this means “to the ends of the earth” and “the whole world.”  There is not a race, nation, tribe or people to whom Christ does not desire to dwell among.  We are to bring Him there.  This means far-flung lands, yes, but it also means our own neighborhoods and homes, classrooms and offices.  
In today’s gospel Jesus tells us to “go into the world.”  He sends us, just as we are sent at the end of Mass by the deacon or priest.  It is interesting to note that the word apostle means “messenger” or “one who is sent.”  We have been sent by Christ.  We have a mission to be His apostles.
Even more interesting is the instruction He gives us in our first reading from Acts to be His witnesses.  It is from the Greek word for “witness” that we get our word martyr.  Being a witness for Christ involves sacrifice. For many in the early Church this meant giving up your life as a witness to the faith.  For an increasing amount of Christians in the world today it means the same thing.  But even for those of us who do not face death for our belief in Jesus, we can still expect to clash often with the world around us as we strive to be true to our Christian calling.  That clash can even be against our own comforts and desires that stand in the way of our calling.  Either way, if your Christian faith does not make you feel at least a little challenged each day, how effective a witness are you being?
This is our job description as Christians.  We are sent into the world to be His witnesses.  We are called to be apostles and martyrs.  So why are we standing here looking at the sky?  We have our orders.  Let’s get to work.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
  
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

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Gospel For Today: The Ascension

THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD (A)

One of the many metaphors used to describe the Catholic Church is the “Body of Christ.”  I particularly like this because it reminds us of the very human element of the Church.  The Church, like us, has both a visible and an invisible aspect.  Just like a human body is incomplete without a soul, the Body of Christ is not complete without a spirit – the Holy Spirit that would descend upon the Apostles at Pentecost, the “birthday” of the Church, which we will celebrate next week.

So the Church, like us, has both a spiritual and a material aspect to her.  And that material component is made up of bishops, priests, deacons and most of all of lay people – people like me and you, saints and sinners alike.  And just as we often say of ourselves, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41), the Spirit of the Church is unfailing and ever-pure, while the “flesh” of the Church — you and I — struggles and stumbles along the way.  We see this even in the Scriptures.  Today we hear the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel.  The scene opens with Jesus and the Apostles ascending Mt. Olivet in Galilee, where they worship Him.  The gospel says, “they worshiped, but they doubted.”  
These are the men who had spent the last three years travelling with Jesus, ministering to and with Him, witnessing His miracles, learning from His teachings.  These are the men who saw their Lord arrested, condemned, tortured and crucified.  They buried Him.  They mourned.  And then they rejoiced as they became witnesses to the Resurrection.  Some, like Thomas, refused to believe it at first.  But as the Resurrection of Christ proved to be true, you know their hearts must have nearly burst with thanksgiving and excitement.  But despite all they had been through with Christ, they doubted.  Isn’t this just like us?  Despite our desire for faith, despite our desire to trust God, does not doubt sometimes find its way into our hearts?  How could it not, if even the apostles who saw Christ face to face and witnessed personally the Resurrection were subject to doubt?
If our faith were in a purely human Church, that doubt would be warranted.  If our faith were in a religion crafted by men then we would be justified in our doubt.  But Jesus reminds us in His words to the apostles that the Church is more than that; that our faith is warranted, and so our doubts can be put to rest.
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me,” Christ assured them.  Some translations say, “all authority” (RSV:CE).  The concept of authority is essential in understanding the continuing role of the Church in the world.  The Jewish people recognized rightly that God has ultimate authority over the universe.  He is the author of all creation and so all authority is rightly His.  
We see many times throughout the Gospels Jesus claiming and demonstrating that He shares in this authority of the Father.  His many healing miracles, His forgiveness of sins, His raising Lazarus from the dead — all these things are demonstrations of Christ’s divine authority.  And we see many times Jesus passing this authority on to the Apostles.  For example, when He gives Peter the keys to the kingdom (Mt. 16:19), a symbol of authority of the steward’s office; or when Jesus breathes on the apostles and tells them, “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (Jn 20:23), a transmission of Christ’s authority to forgive sins which is expressed in Mt 9:6 (and parallel passages in Mark and Luke).  
Here in today’s gospel, Christ again grants this divine authority to the Church.  This time, we find in Christ’s words a summation of the entire work of the Church — a mission statement, if you like.  He tells them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  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.”
This is known as the Great Commission.  It outlines the threefold mission of the Church.
  1. To evangelize all nations. This means more than winning individual souls for Christ (though it does mean that).  It also means winning over entire cultures.  Every area of our lives – social, economic, political, etc. – should be brought into conformity with the Gospel.  Our faith refuses to be compartmentalized into something we just do on Sundays, or practice in the privacy of our own homes.
  2. To administer the sacraments.  Baptism is the gateway to the sacramental life.  It is the first step along the path of sanctification (being made holy) that we undergo by participating in the sacramental life of the Church.  Christ established seven sacraments for the purpose of transmitting His grace in a very concrete way to the faithful for all time.  The Church is charged with carrying out this sacramental mission and sanctifying the faithful.
  3. Teaching what Christ taught.  It is not the mission of the Church to create new teaching, or change old teachings.  It is the mission of the Church to teach what Christ taught.  In this way the Church is like a curator, preserving and passing on the truths of the faith to each new generation.  
This threefold mission of the Church is impossible without divine assistance.  As I stated above, the visible Church on earth is made up of human beings who are weak and fallible.  But God knows this.  He wills to use our weakness to show us His strength.  This is why Christ reminds us today that the Church carries out her mission not on her own corruptible human authority, but on His omnipotent divine authority.  
Moreover, Christ assures us that He continues to be with and to guide the Church.  It is no accident that today, when we celebrate the Ascension of Christ into heaven, that we also recall His promise “to be with [us] always, to the end of the age.”   In His human form He was present to the Apostles and those disciples physically present to them, in that particular place and time.  Now, seated in glory at the right hand of the Father in eternity, He is made present to all peoples, in all places and times, through the ongoing ministry of the Church.  He is present through the workings of the Spirit which continues to guide and animate the Church, as He has done since that first Pentecost.  And Just as God descended to earth to share in our humanity, we hope to rise with Him into heaven so that we may share His divinity.  Where He goes, we hope to follow.  
All of us, I am sure, can at times in our lives identify with the disciples at the beginning of today’s gospel, who worshiped yet doubted.  In those moments we only need to remind ourselves that our faith is not in mere men, but in the Christ who continues to be with His Church to this day.  It is within the bosom of the Catholic Church that we find the fulfillment of the great commission.  It is within the bosom of the Catholic Church that find the graces of Christ’s divine authority and life.  And it is within the bosom of the Catholic Church that we find the real hope of our own glorification and resurrection. 
So let us pray today that we may always remain faithful to Christ and to His Church, established for our good, so that we may one day follow Him into glory.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
  
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

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