Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Easter

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The two readings we have in today’s Liturgy of the Word are a bit of a coincidence.  We have been reading, these Easter days, sequentially from the Acts of the Apostles in the first reading, and for the Gospel from John.  Today we see both central characters wrapping up their life’s work and taking leave of those they have ministered to and with.

 

In our first reading, St. Paul takes leave of the Church at Ephesus.  He recalls that he has been diligent in preaching the Truth to them, and clearly feels that he has lived his vocation as best he could.  He takes leave of them, knowing he will not see them again, but confident that his preaching and example, if carefully followed, would lead them to the Lord.  He could not be held responsible for any of them finding they had lost the way.

 

In the Gospel, Jesus prepares to take leave of his apostles and disciples, and is offering a prayer to his Father.  He prays that his death would glorify the Father – which of course it would! – and prays for those he will leave behind.  He too knows that his preaching and example would lead them where he was soon to go.  He in a sense gives them back to the Father, since their lives had been reclaimed by his ministry.

 

We all have people for whom we are responsible.  They may be children, spouses, students, coworkers, neighbors.  Some people have been put in our lives for the express purpose of their formation in the Gospel.  We are expected to preach the Truth to them, in word and most especially in example.  When we have done that to the best of our ability, we know that when the day comes to take leave of them, they will have all the tools to live a life of faith and find their way to God.

 

And so today we pray for those for whom we are responsible.  We cannot live their lives for them; all we can do is to teach them as best we can and provide the best example possible.  We pray for them, knowing that God can bring to fruition whatever it is that we have planted.

 

Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

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ascension-iconCan you imagine what was going through the disicples’ minds as they stood there watching the Ascension of the Lord?  Think about all that they’ve been through.  Three years following this Jesus whose words were compelling and whose miracles were amazing and whose way of life was uplifting.  But still, there was something about him that they just never seemed to get.  He had no problem claiming to be the Christ, the Anointed One, and so their strong cultural definition of the Messiah was something they projected onto Jesus, but time after time it just never fit.  Then he gets arrested, tried in a farce of a proceeding, put to death like a common criminal and buried for three days.  After that, he is no longer in the tomb, but has risen from the dead and appeared to them many times.  Now they’re gathered forty days later, and he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They breathlessly ask the question that has always been on their minds, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  They still don’t get it.

 

And so Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit again, and ascends into the sky.  Can you imagine it?  It’s like a roller coaster of emotions for them.  Their heads had to be spinning, they had to be completely lost as to what to do now.  First he was dead and buried, then he came back, and now he’s gone again.  What on earth are they to do now?  Well, the two mysterious men dressed in white garments have all the advice they’re going to get: “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.”

 

Which only leaves a whole lot more questions, and their basic questions still unanswered.  When will he return?  When will he restore the kingdom?  What is it the Holy Spirit is going to do for them?  Well, soon enough they find out, of course, and we’ll talk about that next week.  For now, it’s enough for us to see what this feast of the Ascension means for us.  I think it makes three points that we must be ready to fold into our faith life.

 

First, Christ promises us that he will be with us always.  And that’s just what Jesus says to the disciples – and to us! – in the very last words of the very last verse of the very last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  With that, of course, he ascends out of their sight, and so that must have been a confusing promise for the disciples to hear – at least right now.  But this is such an essential point of faith for us to get.  Just as the first disciples continued to know Christ’s presence in their gathering, in their worshipping, and in their serving, so we continue to know Christ’s presence in those same ways. 

 

We believe that Christ is present whenever we gather in his name.  He said as much to us in another place: “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20)  We reverence the presence of Christ in one another and can feel him present among us as we pray.  The song we have sung this year – “You’re the only Jesus” – celebrates that we may well be the person who introduces someone else to Christ, that they will come to know Christ as they come to experience our love and care for them.  Christ is present when we gather.

 

We believe that Christ is present when we worship.  The Word of God, as it is proclaimed in the Church, is not just a nice story or an interesting precept for life.  We believe that God is present in the very proclaiming of the Word itself.  And so at times we may hear the Scriptures and experience a stirring in our heart that leads us to a new way of thinking or acting.  This is because Christ is present – in a sacramental way – in the proclamation of the Word.  And the Sacraments themselves make Christ present when we celebrate them in worship, and we experience that in a special way when we celebrate the Eucharist and receive the body and blood of our Lord in Communion.  We have celebrated that in a special way this weekend with our children who have received First Eucharist.  But we celebrate that every time we gather for Mass, whether it be our First Eucharist or our 3,492nd Eucharist!  Christ is present to us when we worship.

 

We believe that Christ is present when we serve.  Deep down, we know that the really great things we do are never the result of our own efforts alone.  It’s the Holy Spirit who has prompted us to act or serve or move or speak in certain way.  That same Spirit gives us strength and talent and ability and energy we would never know on our own.  When we serve authentically, aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit, we know that Christ is present.  So it’s not us feeding the hungry, it’s Christ.  It’s not us proclaiming the Word, it’s Christ.  It’s not us leading a religious education class, it’s Christ.  It’s not us doing any of this, it’s always Christ, whose hands and feet and lips we have become by the virtue of our baptism.  Christ is present when we serve in his name.

 

Jesus promised to be with us always, and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit among us, we find him present in our gathering, in our worshipping, and in our serving.  Jesus is with us in our ordinary and extraordinary moments.  Jesus is present in us just as surely as is the breath of life.  And today he promises that that presence will never end, that he will be with us to the end of time.

 

The second application of the Ascension to our lives is that Jesus has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us.  Now, clearly he wasn’t returning to heaven to put a fresh coat of paint on the walls or polish the gold-covered streets.  He goes to heaven to pave the way, because we had lost the way, affected as we all are by original sin and by the sins of our life.  Since we did not know the way, he prepares it for us, opening the door, so to speak, and greeting us.  So we believers who have forged a relationsh
ip with our Lord can now look to him to see how to get to that heavenly reward.  All we have to do is follow, and we will find ourselves in that place God intended for us from the beginning. 

 

And the third application of this feast in our lives is that the Christian Mission has been entrusted to our hands.  Christ has ascended into heaven, he has returned to the Father.  So on this feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we can be like the disciples, standing there staring blankly into the heavens, or we can start to live our lives with the expectation of the Lord’s return, as the disciples were told by the two men dressed in white.  Now it’s time for us to take up the Cross, to preach the Word in our words and actions, and to witness to the joy of Christ’s presence among us.  If people are ever going to come to know Christ, if they are ever going to be challenged to grow in their faith, if they are ever going to know that there is something greater than themselves, well most likely they’re going to come to know all of that in us.  We have to be transparent in our preaching and our living so that people won’t be caught up on us, but will come through us to see Jesus, to see the Father, to experience the Spirit.  We are the ones commanded to “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…”  As Cardinal George is fond of saying, the Church does not have a mission … the mission has a Church, and we the Church have to take up that mission and run with it.  It is entrusted to us now.

 

And so today, in the words of the Psalmist, God mounts his throne to shouts of joy.  We are joyous in living our life as Christians, assured of God’s abiding presence until the end of time, looking forward to our heavenly reward, and living the mission for all to see.  A blare of trumpets for the Lord!

 

Feast of Ss. Philip and James, Apostles

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Today is the feast of St. Philip and the man we call “St. James the Lesser” because he is not the St. James that we know as a relative of Jesus and the traditional author of the book of James. Unfortunately, all that we know about this St. James is that Jesus chose him as an apostle. St. Philip we know a bit more about. We hear of him in the Gospel story of the feeding of the multitudes because he is the one who tells Jesus “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” In today’s Gospel we see him again as an apostle who is slow to believe. “Show us the Father,” he says, “and that will be enough for us.”

So this, I think, is the feast for all of us disciples who don’t put ourselves in the limelight.  Maybe we’re slow to believe, or aren’t really sure how to accomplish the mighty deeds God requires of us.  Maybe we’re pretty unknown in discipleship circles.  And maybe that’s good enough for us.  Today’s feast says that’s okay.  It says that we will become great believers in God’s time, led by our Savior.  It says that we might need a little convincing that we can do the work God asks us to do, but that filled with the Holy Spirit, all things can be accomplished.  It says that we don’t have to be on the front page of the book to live our faith with conviction.

Today is the feast of apostles who are called to make God’s love known despite their imperfections or apparent lack of ability.  It is a feast for all of us who know that we are called by God and led by the Spirit to do great things in Christ. To Philip and James and all the rest of the Apostles, Jesus said then, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.” Jesus says that to us today, too, all of us disciples who are slow to believe and understand. “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do.” 

St. Athanasius, bishop and doctor of the Church

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Persecution was something very common in the early Church.  We see the beginnings of the persecution of St. Paul in our first reading.  Some Jews were starting to make trouble for Paul because he was challenging their way of worship and their way of life.  Living the Gospel is intensely challenging, and most people aren’t really looking for any kind of challenge.

St. Athanasius, whose feast we celebrate today, was himself the victim of persecution.  As the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, he was vocal in his opposition to the heresy of Arianism.  Arianism taught that Christ was not fully devine, in his human nature, and that he was not one with the Father.  It was difficult for Athanasius to combat this belief because Arius was himself from Alexandria and had some vocal and powerful friends.  Athanasius was exiled five times for his defense of the Divinity of Christ and his opposition to Arianism. 

St. Paul and St. Athanasius embody what Jesus was getting at in the Gospel today.  “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices…” Jesus says.  And both Paul and Athanasius lived that.  But they both knew that their mourning would be much worse if they turned their back on the truth, if they turned their back on Christ.  They are the patrons of all who have to suffer – whether it be a little discomfort or social position, or whether it be at the cost of their lives – for the sake of the Gospel.  All of those glorious martyrs will know the joy that Jesus promises today:  “But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.”