Monday, May 21, 2007

Year C, Solemnity of the Ascension

After giving this homily at the early Mass yesterday, I received a very gracious compliment from one of our many steadfast parishioners, who said to me: "Thank you for reminding us that Catholics don't do the rapture." All I can say is, Amen!

On another note, not toot my own horn too much (having a blog is sufficient to that task!), the portion of this homily I am most happy with is the part on Confirmation. Just as the Holy Spirit is the least discernible Person of the Blessed Trinity, Confirmation is the least understood and the most misunderstood of the seven Sacraments. I have been preparing six Catholic adults for Confirmation this past month. So, my mind has been engaged in thinking about this most wonderful gift from our loving God and Father. In my opinion, the reason that Confirmation has lost much of its sacral character in the minds of many Catholics is its being ripped from its proper order (i.e., after Baptism and prior to First Communion) and placed, literally, out on a flimsy limb by itself. I am happy that here at the Cathedral we confirm at the same Mass (Penetcost) at which children receive their First Communion. Yes, we have a several weeks worth of classes for the parents of these children.

Instead of reading, you can listen to and watch the homily, the entire Mass if you want (I'd listen just for the choir personally), courtesy of our diocesan newspaper, The Intermountain Catholic, which is one of the best diocesan papers going, just link to Broadcast of Mass from the Cathedral On Demand. I'll warn you, it is not one of my best deliveries and I am not all that dynamic to begin with.

Readings: Act 1,1-11; Ps 47,2-3.6-9; Eph 1,17-23; Lk 24,46-53

“Men of Galilee why are you standing there looking at the sky,” asks the one of the men arrayed in white in our first reading. “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1,11). On this Ascension Sunday we venerate Christ’s Glorious Ascension into heaven forty days after his resurrection, during which time he appeared to the apostles speaking to them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1,3).

As indicated in our reading from Acts, Christ's Ascension is closely tied to his return in glory. Both of these are dogmas of our Catholic faith, as we cite them both in the Credo. While it may be easy to set aside our hyper-rationalistic view of the world in order to believe in our Lord's Ascension some two millennia ago, it is difficult for many of us to do so in order to grasp his return. At the outset it is important to note that when the apostles gathered around the Lord, "they asked him, 'Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?'" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority" (Acts 1,6-7). Hence, as to the day and hour of the Lord’s return, no one knows, "not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (Matt 24,36).

Undoubtedly, part of our problem is the end-time mania to which our society is so prone, especially when this mania, driven by un-Catholic and even anti-Catholic explanations of the end times, spill over into popular culture. Among these is the multi-volume Left Behind series, which "is nothing more than a simple-minded fictional rendition of a bizarre eschatology called Dispensational Premillenarianism" (Amy Wellborn, Left Behind: Anti-Catholic, non-Scriptural and Rotten Writing, Of Course it's a Hit!).These books are the most recent catalyst for much of the speculation regarding this mystery about which our Lord himself claimed no knowledge. However, we must not act as if our Catholic faith tells us nothing about these matters. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that since his Ascension, "Christ's coming in glory has been imminent" (CCC, 673). It is true that the first few generations of Christians lived in expectation that Christ would return shortly. We see this expectation expressed most particularly in certain passages from a few of St. Paul’s letters, most explicitly at the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, when writes the Aramaic word maranatha, which most exegetes believe means, "Come, O, Lord" (1 Cor 16,22). Closely linked to this is a passage at the end of the book of Revelation, which reads, "Come Lord Jesus," written in Greek (Rev 22,20). Evidence also suggests that maranatha was used as a greeting between the earliest Christians.

The Catechism also affirms that prior to "Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers" (CCC,675). As we observed a few weeks ago when considering the white-robed multitude of Revelation who survived the time of great distress, in this veil of tears, one would be hard-pressed to think of a time that Christ’s Church was not dealing with some kind of peril, either internal or external. In other words, such pronouncements, like those of our Lord himself when addressing this matter, are deliberately vague and ambiguous.

This deliberate vagueness is verified by the admonition given to the apostles as they watch Christ ascending into heaven. The point is that we are not to spend a lot time, effort, and energy speculating about, fearing, and, like disciples of Cassandra, being prophets of doom. Rather, like the story told about St. Francis of Assisi who, while working in the vegetable garden, was asked what he would do if the Lord were come right then, to which he replied: "I’d just keep working," we, too, are called to keep living in the manner of disciples of the Risen One, each of us cultivating the small portion of the Lord’s vineyard with which we have been entrusted and inviting others to join us in this opus Dei, this work of God. This is made even clearer in our Gospel today. Jesus, as he is ascending says that he suffered, died, and rose on the third day so "that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (Lk 24,47). Beyond that, later in this Gospel passage and in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit is promised for the accomplishment of this work, this mission, which is entrusted to us, who have come to believe as a result of the labors of those who were "witnesses of these things" (Lk 24,48). Besides, the end of time for each one of us is our death.

According to Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jesus’ "disappearance from the world [began] with his Passion and [ended] with his Ascension." After he was laid in the tomb only those possessed of "the Spirit of Christ" were able to see him. By contrast, the Lord’s coming to us "starts on Easter morning, where he meets one disciple after another; continues throughout the Forty Days and is brought to its fulfillment at Pentecost, when he pours out his Spirit over the Church and thus fills her with his own innermost being." Therefore his presence does not change into his absence; "what changes," according to Balthasar, "is the mode of his presence" (You Crown the Year with Your Goodness).

The "Holy Spirit is the mode of Jesus’ resurrection presence to the world." The word Spirit, exegete Luke Timothy Johnson reminds us, "does not suggest a weak, derivative, vestigial sort of existence, as it might in [our] post-enlightenment world in which spirit and spiritual tend to connote 'ideal' rather than 'real,' mental rather than physical. In the symbolic world of the New Testament, the opposite is the case: the realm of the Spirit is regarded as more real and powerful and 'substantial' than the world of materiality" (Living Jesus, pgs 15-16). In no way is Jesus made more really and substantially present by the Holy Spirit than in the sacraments; in the bread and wine that become, by the power of the Spirit, Christ’s Body and Blood; in the waters of Baptism, in which we are washed clean, buried and reborn to resurrected life; in the Sacred Chrism with which we are anointed and, through which anointing, like the apostles during the Church’s first Pentecost, we are sealed with the Spirit of Christ that empowers us to make Him present in the world, through this anointing we are confirmed in our baptismal identity as sons and daughters of God; in the hands extended in blessing, accompanied by the words, "I absolve you of your sins;" in Christian marriage, when lived in fidelity, that is "the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church" (CCC, 1617). Like the men of Galilee, it is the task of the Church, of God’s priestly people, consecrated by Baptism, anointed in Confirmation, healed and renewed in Penance, and nourished by the Eucharist, to make Christ present to the world, to be co-workers with God in his work of restoring creation, disturbed by sin, to its original order.

Therefore, on this Ascension Sunday, "Let us give thanks to God the Father, to God the Son, to God the Holy Spirit from whom, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, we receive all the blessings of heaven," the first of which is this Eucharist we are gathered here to celebrate and share. Therefore, let us be firm in our "desire to attain the fullness of charity, in the conviction that holiness is not only possible but also necessary for every person in his or her own state of life, so as to reveal to the world the true face of Christ, our friend" (PP Benedictus XVI, homily at the canonization of Frei Galvão) whose return we await in joyful hope. Maranatha!

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