Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Spirit levels our gaze

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3.6-9; Heb 9:24-28.10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53

There are a lot of terms we throw about without being much concerned as to whether or not most people grasp them. In my experience, one such term is "Paschal mystery." Sometimes those of us who use it give some context by saying something like, "the Paschal mystery of Christ's death and resurrection." When we consider the Paschal mystery, in which, being anointed as priests at our baptism, we are called to participate daily, it is multi-faceted: Christ's birth, life, passion and death, resurrection, ascension, and will culminate with his glorious return.

In this regard what always strikes me about the account of Jesus' ascension in the Acts of the Apostles is what the angel says to the apostles as stare at Jesus ascending, which I am sure was quite a spectacle to behold: "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? 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). Indeed, for some still today, being a Christian consists of something like standing there gazing heavenward. Just as the angel exhorted the apostles, we are to level our gaze and live the circumstances we face daily in the light of the Paschal mystery "as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ."

In Acts, the angel tells the apostles, "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 1:11b). This is the best reason of all not to stand around gawking. In the end, we will not "go to heaven;" heaven will come to us:
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]" (Rev 21:2-3)
The idea that we will "go to heaven," up there somewhere in the sky, is perhaps one of the worst distortions of revelation from which the Church suffers. To think this is to miss the whole point of creation and redemption, to miss the point of the Incarnation. With the coming of Christ the insurgency has begun and will continue until God's reign is fully established upon the earth. This is why, as a Christian, I must make God's kingdom a present reality, not just a nice idea that has little or nothing to do with me.

Jesus promised to clothe his followers "with power from on high" (Luke 24:49). This, of course, refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit in a new and powerful way. After all, it's not as though the Spirit has ever been absent from the world. After Christ's ascension the Holy Spirit becomes the way Christ himself remains present in us and through us. It is the Holy Spirit who effects the sacraments. The celebration of the sacraments are those places and times where Christ comes to meet us in an empowering way. The grace with which are imbued by the sacraments make Christ present in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Grace is nothing other than God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- sharing divine life with us. This life, which is constituted by love, is not given us only for ourselves, which is way it is not our task to stand, mouth agape, staring at heaven, but to level our gaze and share God's love with everyone we meet in one or another. Witness always trumps discourse.

Christ's Ascension, Rembrandt, 1636


As the Lord himself indicated in our Gospel reading: "Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46-47). As Pope Francis indicated in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium:
Today, as the Church seeks to experience a profound missionary renewal, there is a kind of preaching which falls to each of us as a daily responsibility. It has to do with bringing the Gospel to the people we meet, whether they be our neighbours or complete strangers. This is the informal preaching which takes place in the middle of a conversation, something along the lines of what a missionary does when visiting a home. Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others, and this can happen unexpectedly and in any place: on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey (par 127)
It is easily argued that the centerpiece of Francis' papacy is leveling our gaze in order foster what he calls "a culture of encounter." This means not just ceasing, but steadfastly refusing, to not only stop seeing the other as a threat, but see her/him as a blessing. It is precisely in the other that we encounter the risen Christ, not up there in the clouds. This is not merely a challenge, but a provocation, that is, something for our vocation, our calling, which we received in baptism, had strengthened in confirmation, and is renewed at the end of each Mass when are dismissed, that is, sent forth to "proclaim the Gospel of the Lord," or to glorify the Lord by our living lives of self-sacrificial love.

My friends, "Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy" (Heb 10:23). Or, as the last petition of Morning Prayer for the Solemnity of the Lord's Ascension pleads:

Today you promised the Spirit to your apostles, to make them your witnesses to the ends of the earth,
  - by the power of the Spirit strengthen our own witness

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