04 June 2011

Ascension Sunday

First Reading, Acts 1:1-11
Saint Luke is the author of the Acts of the Apostles; and so, when he begins this book with the words, "In the first book," he is referring to the Gospel of Luke. Theophilus is probably someone that Luke knew personally but the name "Theophilus" means, "friend of God" or "one who loves God" which may indicate someone of honor or who was held in high esteem. Such a title, however, could be given to any devout person which may very well indicate Luke's intention of having this book read by all the faithful. In Luke's Gospel, he "dealt with all that Jesus did and taught." And at the conclusion of his Gospel he mentions our Savior's Ascension (cf. Luke 24:51) which means that the Ascension of our Lord in the Acts of the Apostles is not breaking news. Theophilus and the rest of Luke's readers are already aware of this phenomenal event. Saint Luke concludes the first sentence of this Reading with the words "He [Jesus] was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom He had chosen." It's a rather strange statement and no one knows with any certainty what he meant. The most accepted explanation among scholars is that Christ formed the Church and He set up a governing authority to run His Church; and the decisions that would be made by the governing authority would be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the apostles, the governing authority of Christ's Church, were somehow, by means that only God can explain, given the grace and experience of the Holy Spirit's guidance upon them even before our Redeemer's departure. Regrettably, some English translations avoid the difficulty of this verse by suggesting that our Lord's instructions to the apostles through the Holy Spirit followed His Ascension. While that may be more intelligible, it is, however, unfaithful to the Greek text. Our Lord's appearance to a relatively small amount of people after His Resurrection has always raised red flags among skeptics. It's moments like these that great credence must be given to the Catholic teaching that Scripture and Tradition are the rule of faith – and not Scripture alone. For example, there's no mention in Scripture of Jesus ever appearing to His Blessed Mother. To entertain such a thought as being true would be ridiculous. There is, however, a tradition in the Church which states that Jesus not only appeared to her, but she was first on the list. Perhaps the Evangelists were protecting her, plus any written testimony involving her about her own Son's miraculous Resurrection would likely rouse even more suspicion for the skeptics. Scripturally, Jesus did not make His Resurrected Presence known to the masses although Saint Paul does record that Jesus was seen by more than five hundred brethren at once (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:6). One could only speculate on the reason(s) why Jesus chose not to make His Presence known to larger crowds; and speculate, many scholars have done throughout the centuries. The third sentence of this Reading begins with the words: "While meeting with them." The exact meaning of the Greek words is a bit hazy. Our liturgical text's translation is more in common with the classical or Hellenistic Greek; but when Saint Jerome was translating the Scriptural texts into Latin he chose the Latin word "convescens" which indicates that Jesus was "eating" with His apostles. This very different rendering of the Greek actually predates Saint Jerome in the West and may go back as far as the second century. This interpretation made its way to the East in the third century and is present in the writings of Epiphanius, Chrysostom, Theodoret, Oecumenius and Theophylactus. The baptism with the Holy Spirit of which our Lord speaks is a reference to Pentecost. The spiritual life is a tremendous battle even to those who walked, ate and were taught by Jesus; and the question to our Savior about restoring the kingdom to Israel clearly shows a belief in the expectation of a temporal kingdom. It also is indicative of humanity's comfort zone with the physical life – trusting more in what can be perceived with the physical senses. In our own weakness perhaps we can find comfort at the expense of the apostles who were not always on the same page as Jesus but, nevertheless, loved infinitely by Him. Jesus gives the apostles their spiritual mission of being His witnesses. Interestingly, the Greek word "martus" is used which does mean "witness" but analogically it also means "martyr" which most of the apostles literally were. Certainly our Lord's call to be witnesses "to the ends of the earth" is not strictly limited to the apostles. The Church is very aware of this which is why she calls every Catholic to the mission of evangelization. When Jesus began His Ascension, eventually a cloud took Him from the sight of the apostles. Here we are today with our physical eyes still looking at the cloud – the veil of bread and wine which hides our Lord's true appearance. Saint Cyril of Alexandria, in his second letter to the Corinthians, writes about how those who possess the Spirit are rich in hope of the resurrection. He even goes on to write that possessing the Spirit means being immune from the corruption of the flesh. That sounds like a bold statement but what he is really talking about is not being confined to the physical world with all its corruption and its obstacles. In a homily by Pope Saint Leo the Great he says so beautifully that the day of Christ's Ascension is when our poor human nature was raised up beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very Throne of God the Father (cf. Sermo II de Ascensione). The Holy Spirit instructs us in the Letter to the Hebrews to lay aside every weight and sin surrounding us and run patiently to the fight proposed to us but always keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2). What this Scripture text and these saintly men of God cited previously are speaking of is a deep spirituality -- and one that every Christian ought to pursue. How sad it is that Catholics can go through life and never pierce through the cloud – never are able to experience an intimate union with Jesus even after many years of receiving Him in the Eucharist. If only showing up for Mass on Sunday within itself constituted a deep, transforming prayer life -- but it doesn't. If only showing up at Mass just in the nick of time or even late without any preparation time spent at the Master's Feet would be sufficient to have an intense encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist – but it isn't. If only a passionate love affair meant that only one Person needs to be truly in love and make all the sacrifices – but it doesn't. Being in love and desiring a close union with our Savior means trying to pass through the cloud and follow Him daily. It was deep prayer, silence, and a strong devotion to Saint Joseph that kept Blessed Andre Bessette in Eucharistic Adoration for hours upon hours and he would sometimes need to be retrieved by his brothers in order to fulfill his daily duties with his religious community. Obviously Blessed Andre was able to see beyond the cloud or the veil of bread and truly know what it means to love and experience Divine Love. Saint Leo, in the aforementioned homily, said that the visible Presence of our Redeemer has passed over into the sacraments. Indeed, but surely it is not the desire of our Lord to never again be perceived or experienced in an invigorating manner. Our spiritual selves are called upon to gaze at the God we cannot physically see. This requires passing through the cloud, pushing aside the clutter and all that weighs heavily upon us. Saint Augustine said: "Hodie Dominus noster Iesus Christus ascendit in cælum; ascendat cum illo cor nostrum" -- "Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with Him" (Sermo de Ascensione Domini). If our hearts are to ascend beyond the cloud to an intimate meeting with Jesus in the liturgy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, offered this gem when he wrote: "Only within the breathing space of Adoration can the Eucharistic celebration indeed be alive. . . Communion and Adoration do not stand side by side, or even in opposition, but are indivisibly one." When the gaze is heavenward, the soul will ascend toward heavenly things. For Jesus said that He will draw all things to Himself (cf. John 12:32).

Second Reading, Ephesians 1:17-23
Saint James elaborates on the fruits of wisdom: "The wisdom that is from above, first indeed is chaste, then peaceable, modest, easy to be persuaded, consenting to the good, full of mercy and good fruits, without judging, without dissimulation" (James 3:17). Anyone having such qualities surely possesses a most blessed knowledge of the Lord. The eyes of the heart portion of this Reading points to something similar to what was covered in the First Reading: exercising the spiritual life and coming to the knowledge of the glory that awaits us by keeping our gaze fixed on the prize and being in awe of the greatness of Almighty God. This is a deep absorption in prayer which many of the saints have attested leads to a wonderful closeness with our Lord. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that "by prayer every baptized person works for the coming of the Kingdom" (CCC 2632). This can be a difficult Reading to follow because much is covered in a lengthy sentence. Think of it as a blessing -- something you would bow your head to as these words are being prayed over you. It's mind boggling that in this vast universe each and every one of us is crucial. Jesus in His humility willed that He would be incomplete without His mystical Body. Humanity has been raised up higher than all of God's earthly creation to be participants in Christ's work of redemption.

Gospel, Matthew 28:16-20
"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me." Theologians have been banging their heads against the wall for centuries over this statement and heresy has also reared its ugly head because of it. If Christ is God and equal to the Father, why would "all power in heaven and on earth" have to be given to Him presumably from the Father? We humans are inquisitive creatures and are more comfortable with having all the answers instead of being shrouded in mystery. The Trinity, however, is a mystery and thus there is no foreseen definitive answer to that question. Certainly we could consider Christ's Human Nature and suggest that Jesus as Man received this power. While that answer may be at least partially true, it would never satisfy every theologian or heretical mind the Church has faced in her history on this issue. Jesus commissions the apostles and their successors by virtue of this power to teach and "make disciples of all nations". And how do we know that Jesus also commissioned the successors to the apostles? It is because our Savior promised to be with them "until the end of the age". In the Latin Vulgate are the words: "usque ad consummationem sæculi" -- "even to the consummation of the world." The Greek text translates as: "until the conclusion of the eon." Astronomically, an eon is one billion years. Jesus, however, most likely meant the more generic definition -- an indefinitely long period of time. The text, therefore, clearly shows that "I am with you always, until the end of the age" extends far beyond the natural lives of the apostles, thus their successors are included. The second sentence of this Gospel reads: "When they saw Him, they worshiped, but they doubted." That's not a bad verse to reflect upon either at Mass after the Consecration or at Eucharistic Adoration. It certainly delineates what is a very real aspect of the human struggle with the Blessed Sacrament on the battlefield of prayer.