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7th Sunday of Easter (28.05.17)
PRESENT .. BUT IN A DIFFERENT WAY
“Know that I am with you always to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28.20) This final sentence from St. Matthew’s Gospel also concludes our Gospel for Ascension Sunday. There are many ways of ‘being present’. There is the physical, verbal or photo-generated presence. There is a way of ‘being present’ through mementos that can be substantial like a building or small like a ring, a set of rosary beads or a something written. The absence of a physical presence attracts us to tactile objects as a source of comfort. In the strict sense of the word tactile, there is nothing to physically connect us to the Resurrected Jesus and yet he fulfils his promise.
The Ascension of Jesus is an apt moment to refresh our understanding of the Church’s teaching on Jesus’ dual natures, a God and as Man.
When, in the fullness of time, God the Son became Incarnate as Man in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, he simultaneously continued as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The Church teaches this as the unique mystery of the One Person, Jesus Christ, possessing two natures, the nature of God and the nature of Man. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains it in these words:
“479 At the time appointed by God, the only Son of the Father, the eternal Word, that is, the Word and substantial Image of the Father, became incarnate; without losing his divine nature he has assumed human nature.”
“481 Jesus Christ possesses two natures, one divine and the other human, not confused, but united in the one person of God's Son.”
“482 Christ, being true God and true man, has a human intellect and will, perfectly attuned and subject to his divine intellect and divine will, which he has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit.”
For want of a better expression, there is a type of duality to be associated with Jesus’ Ascension. The Incarnate Son of God-made-Man, now Resurrected and Ascended, is humanly present with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Prior to the Incarnation, Jesus’ humanity was real but potential in that it had not taken shape and form on earth. The previously potential human person of God-made-Man becomes the actual human person fused with the Divine in the mystery that the Church describes as Jesus having two natures in one person.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Church at Colossae, writes in reference to Jesus:
“He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the Church; He is the beginning and firstborn from among the dead, so that in all things he may have pre-eminence. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him …” (1:17-19)
Jesus’ dying confirms his humanity, but the sting of his dying could not touch his Divine Nature. In his dying on the Cross, Jesus did away with the everlasting character of death so as to make death a thing of time, not of eternity. (Pope St. Leo the Great ‘The Cross of Christ’) His Resurrection and Ascension confirm his Divinity. The nature of Man and the nature of God are equally present in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. So Jesus in Ascending to the Father and the Holy Spirit raises a truly human being to a closeness with God that allows humans to address God as ‘Father’ because God has adopted us as his daughters and sons in Jesus who is our Brother. Jesus is the natural Son of God. Humans are the adopted children of God.
The previously visible, audible and touchable Jesus, God-made-Man, is no longer physically present in this world. Yet he remains present in his Word and in the Eucharist. At liturgical gatherings of Christ’s Body on earth, the community of the Baptised, his Word is proclaimed. Each proclamation ends with the Acclamation: ‘The Word of the Lord” which invites the response: “Thanks be to God.” Or, in the case of the Gospel: “The Gospel of the Lord” with the response, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” The community acclaims Jesus as present and nourishing them with his Word.
The importance of the Ministry of Reading is so often not appreciated. People are called upon to proclaim God’s living Word to the community without any preparation! Inevitably this can lead to uninspiring responses from the assembled community. Compare the vibrancy of the liturgical responses that are heard in local churches with, for example the responses experienced at Lourdes and Fatima with international pilgrims speaking various languages but with hearts alive and full. Yet, whether it is in a local church or an international pilgrimage centre, it is the living God speaking to us and through us!
At the Consecration of the bread and wine, the celebrant, speaking in the Person of Christ, holds up the blessed bread and wine: “Take this all of you and eat it … drink from it: This is My Body given up for you … My Blood … poured out for you and for many so that sins may be forgiven.”
The emphatic ‘This is …” underlines the on-going presence among us of the Ascended One.
At the time of Holy Communion, the celebrant repeats the emphatic statement: “This is the Lamb of God ….” The intended recipients respond: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof….”
With these words the Baptised Body of Christ on earth proclaim their faith in the coming among them and within them of their Resurrected and Ascended Lord.
For the Baptised believer this is fulfilment of the words of the prophet Isaiah who lived eight centuries before the birth of Christ: “For since the world began, no ear has heard and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!” (64:4)
St. Paul, a former persecutor of Christians who became a convert Pharisee never met Christ on earth, yet he reiterated Isaiah’s words to his embryonic Church community in Corinth adding: “But God has revealed it to us by the Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God …” (1 Cor 2:8)
Rather than pondering what the eleven Apostles saw at the Ascension, we might be better employed preparing for next Sunday’s celebration of ‘Corpus Christi’ – the Body of Christ. We could profitably reflect on the dialogue in which we participate as Communicants – “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter …” In our hearts do we sufficiently believe the words our lips utter? Do we believe that this is the real presence of Christ come within us, the Christ of Bethlehem, Calvary, the Resurrection and the Ascension?
Matthew’s Gospel for the Ascension (28:16-20) addressed to the Eleven is intended for all the Baptised who, by that Sacrament, share in the Priesthood of Christ:
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And know, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
St. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthian community, lays it on the line in chapter 4:2-13
“God in his mercy has given us this work to do, and so we do not become discouraged. We put aside all secret and shameful deeds; we do not act with deceit, nor do we falsify the word of God. In the full light of truth we live in God's sight and try to commend ourselves to everyone's good conscience.
Yet we who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots, in order to show that the supreme power belongs to God, not to us. We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many enemies, but we are never without a friend; and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed. At all times we carry in our mortal bodies the death of Jesus, so that his life also may be seen in our bodies. Throughout our lives we are always in danger of death for Jesus' sake, in order that his life may be seen in this mortal body of ours. This means that death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
The scripture says, “I spoke because I believed.” In the same spirit of faith we also speak because we believe.”
Like the Apostles, we must face the very real and dispiriting events of our times, the circumstances that cannot and should not be ignored.
As a person of wisdom said: ‘Hope begins just after we have reached our limit’.