Sunday, May 24, 2009

Year B Feast of the Ascension

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps. 47:2-3.6-9; Eph. 1:17-23; Mark 16:15-20

Fr. Peter Schineller once asked a theology student of his, a religious sister, what she would say if she were to preach on the feast of Ascension. She immediately replied, "The Ascension is God’s act of faith in us." Indeed, this is a masterful summary of the Ascension of our resurrected and living Lord. To verify the sister’s claim we need look no further than our Gospel today, wherein Jesus tells the disciples, "Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). In obedience to this command, "they went forth and preached everywhere" and as a result of their steadfastness, "the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs" (Mark 16:20).

In order to accomplish this great commission, the ascending Jesus tells them that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit descends on them. Only then will they be his "witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The fact that we are gathered here in Salt Lake City, Utah for Sunday worship, celebrating and commemorating the Ascension some 2,000 years later is the verification of the success of their mission.

May is a month when we venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary in an especially devout way. We do this by holding May crownings, by keeping fresh flowers by all her statues and shrines, and by seeking her intercession more fervently. We seek her intercession by praying to her, especially through our devotion to the rosary. The mysteries of the rosary we focus on in a particular way this year, due to the fact that Pentecost, which marks the end of fifty days of Easter, falls on the very last day of May, are the glorious mysteries, depicted so beautifully in stained glass on the East side of the cathedral. I urge you to contemplate each window as we briefly explore these mysteries together.

The first of the Glorious mysteries is the resurrection, the fruit of which is faith. Indeed, as Christians the resurrection of the Son of God is the cornerstone of our faith. As St. Paul, whose powerful and dynamic apostolate we are commemorating this year, wrote to the Corinthians, who were floating philosophical theories, which continue to proliferate down to our own day, about Jesus’ rising from the dead: "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins…If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all" (1 Cor. 15:17-19). Our own beloved and benevolent patroness, St. Mary Magdalene, was the first witness of this cosmos-shattering event, making her apostula apostoloroum, the apostle to the apostles. Faith is to believe the testimony of a witness. As the People of St. Mary Magdalene, marking one hundred years in this lovely cathedral dedicated to her, we are called to continue giving witness to our new life in Christ right here and right now. As the apostle wrote to the Romans: "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom. 10:13). He goes on to ask, “how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent" (Rom. 10:14-15a)? We are an apostolic church, thus we teach and practice what is handed down from the apostles and by our reception the truth are sent forth as witnesses.

The second Glorious mystery of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Ascension. The fruit of this mystery is hope. Hope is the flower of faith. Hoping is different from wishing or dreaming. To conflate hope and optimism is to tragically reduce this theological virtue. To be optimistic means to remain positive about the future despite being uncertain about the outcome. Hence, optimism is often unreasonable. By contrast, to be hopeful is to be certain about the future precisely because we know the outcome. This knowledge is rooted in reality, in the fact of Christ’s resurrection from the dead; because Christ has been raised from the dead our last enemy has been defeated. One day this past month I wrote to a friend that while I am always hopeful, on that particular day I was feeling strangely optimistic. He replied: "Stick with hope. Optimism is almost always a fool's substitute." Nonetheless, I think a positive outlook arises from one who places his/her hope in Christ and can be maintained even when things do not work out exactly as we might want them to, confident that God is at work even in and through our disappointments and discouragements.

The third Glorious mystery of the rosary is the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Virgin Mary and the other disciples at Pentecost. The fruit of this mystery is the love of God for us, the reassurance that he is always with us in every circumstance of our lives. Pentecost is the Greek name given the Jewish festival of Shavu'ot, the Festival of Weeks. This is the second of the three major Jewish festivals, Passover and Sukkot being the others. Shavu’ot is the celebration of God’s giving the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Next weekend, on Pentecost, Bishop Wester will administer the sacrament of confirmation here in the cathedral, anointing the confirmandi with the oil of sacred chrism, thus conferring on them "a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit like that of Pentecost" (Compendium of the Catechism par. 268). This outpouring will impress "on their souls an indelible character" and produce growth in the grace they first received in baptism, giving them "a special strength to witness" to Jesus Christ, "“the way and the truth and the life"” (ibid; John 14:6). By conferring the Holy Spirit on us, God carves his law, which is the law of love, on our hearts.

The final two Glorious mysteries have to do with Mary herself. The fourth mystery points us to her bodily Assumption into heaven, prompting us to pray for the grace of a happy death, which directs us back to the Ascension, to hope that is our certainty about what Christ has done for us. Finally, we come to the fifth of the Glorious mysteries, Mary’s coronation as Queen of heaven, the fruit of which is trust in her intercession. I believe what St. Therese, our beloved Little Flower, wrote about Mary: "She is more Mother than Queen."

If the Ascension is God’s act of faith in us, then he equips us to carry out the mission to which he calls us. Like the first disciples, we, too, are witnesses of these things because Jesus Christ lives and because he sends his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is Christ’s resurrection presence among us. Jesus also gives us his mother to be our mother and so we pray: Veni Sancti Spiritus, veni per Mariam. Come Holy Spirit, come through Mary.

I challenge everyone here today to invoke the help of the Blessed Virgin every day during this last week of Easter by praying a five decades of the rosary and meditating on the Glorious mysteries with an intention for all those in our parish who will complete their Christian initiation on Pentecost, for our parish during this, our centennial year, in light of our emphasis on parish stewardship, to discern your witness, role and responsibility among the people of St. Mary Magdalene, a people who exist only to testify that Christus Resurrexit quia Deus caritas est! Christ is risen because God is love!

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