Posts Tagged ‘witnessing’

Homily for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, Year A 2014

May 25, 2014

Homily for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, Year A  2014

The Feast of the Ascension is one of the five major feasts of the Church year. It occurs in two Gospels and, more fully, in the Acts of the Apostles that we read today. Comments about its celebration exist from the 4th Century.  However, It has always presented some theological problems for me. I used to wonder, even as a child, that if bodies were taken up to heaven, as we profess that Jesus’ was and Mary’s was, certainly, then heaven must be a place. Yet, I was being taught that heaven was a state of being. So how could a body exist there? Did it need to eat and drink? Heavy questions for a child!

As I grew older, this became even more of a problem as I learned that the Biblical and medieval view of the three-tiered universe obviously didn’t exist as described. To me, it remains a mystery, one that I haven’t been able to figure out, but it is part of our Creed, so the most I can do is look for clues in the Gospels and Acts which help me understand its meaning for us today.

The Ascension joins together the work Jesus did on earth and his work as exalted high priest in heaven. Redemption has happened and Christ returns to the Father and we have been redeemed. The Gospel of John particularly uses the imagery of the lifting up on the cross and Jesus being lifted up to heavenly glory after sending the Spirit to remain with us. John has Jesus tell us that he is going away to prepare a place for us, and that it is good that he does – for if he goes away, he can send the Spirit to us. As we know he does this 10 days later on the feast we celebrate next Sunday – Pentecost.

The bookend readings of Acts and Matthew today are both important. The Acts we read today is the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. Luke tells that he is writing to a person, Theophilus, though it may not be a person since that name Theophilus means ‘lover of God’, and it could be a word that describes any new Christian.  The first book he mentions is his Gospel, the Gospel of Luke, and Luke says he wrote that to tell the reader all that Jesus did from his birth to his ascension, and what instructions he had given to his disciples to carry on. Luke tells us that he wanted the Apostles to remain in Jerusalem where they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit. 

The Apostles, despite everything that happened, still did not understand that the Messiah was not going to be a political leader who would restore Israel to self-government. When Jesus spoke of the ‘kingdom’, that was still the kingdom they were thinking he must have meant. It had been ingrained in Jewish thought that the Messiah, the Savior, would be the conquerer, so the Apostles ask Jesus if this is the time that he will restore the kingdom to Israel. Note, however, that Jesus doesn’t correct them, and in fact implies that Israel will become free again, by simply saying that the Father has all that in control and nobody knows when it will happen. The implication is that it will happen because that is one of the truths of the Old Testament, part of the original covenant God made with Israel and we know God keeps his end of the bargain.

But Jesus adds to that that the Spirit will give them a new power and through that power they would be able to witness him to the ends of the earth. Matthew’s Gospel today expands on this very theme. The 11 apostles go up to a mountain that Jesus has asked them to climb, and there he appeared to them. Most knelt and worshipped him but some were still doubtful apparently. Jesus tells them – his last words, and the last words of the Gospel of Matthew – “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  So the first part of this final speech of Jesus in Matthew is really saying the same thing as Luke in Acts. The disciples were to go out and witness – that is teach what Jesus had taught and commanded us to do.

The very last line of Matthew deserves special attention though, and the second reason why we are to be joyful about Jesus leaving us – “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” How can Jesus both leave us and be with us? 

One way, of course, is in the Eucharist – that special gift that he gave us. This is our Catholic belief in the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine. But there are other ways he is present as well. The Constitution on the Liturgy in Vatican II puts it succinctly and beautifully: 

“Christ is always present to His Church, especially in liturgical actions. He is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass in the person of the priest; ‘He is the same one, now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the Cross [citing the Council of Trent].’ But He is most greatly present under the Eucharistic species. He is present by His power in the Sacraments, so that when anyone baptizes, Christ Himself baptizes. He is present in His word, for He speaks when the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, finally, when the Church prays and sings the Psalms, He who promised ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst'”(Matthew 18:20)

At this point Jesus was lifted up – this could be metaphorical or Biblical reference (note our Psalm today – “God has gone up with a shout”) – but more important, a cloud took him out of their sight. In other words he disappeared into a cloud. The disciples gaze up perhaps to see where he went, perhaps to worship, when angels tell them to stop staring, get to work and that Jesus will come back again someday in the same cloudy way.

The story has meaning despite whether we can understand its mystery or not. We know that Christ is always with us, will return someday the same way he left, will send and now has sent the Spirit to us so that God and He can be within us, and that he will give us power to follow his word and teach others to do the same. That is our Christian hope, our Christian faith, and our Christian joy! As St. Paul puts it today: “[God] seated him at his right hand in heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” and we, the Church, are now his physical body – he resides in us as well.

When we leave the walls of this church this Sunday, we need to recognize that we carry Christ within us, and that we are witnesses, signs, to all the world of that twofold Christian command to love God and love each other. How do we achieve that, how do we integrate that into our daily lives, how do we become Christ for others in our daily journey to the kingdom? 

That is the Good News that challenges each and every day of our lives, and that I leave you to ponder today and all this week.

Bishop Ron Stephens 

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

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