By Deacon Keith Fournier
(c) Third Millennium, LLC
This is the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ. We join the Apostles and begin a concentrated time of prayer in preparation for the Feast of Pentecost, which the Christian tradition heralds as the "birthday" of the Church. Both of these Feasts, Ascension and Pentecost, have great importance for us in this pivotal time in human history, the Third Christian Millennium. Yet, both of these Feasts are often either misunderstood or seen as something from the distant past with little relevance for today. In fact, they are profoundly relevant and vitally important for our age. They provide a framework for understanding the Christian life and mission.
Let me begin with an excerpt from a sermon that the great western Church Father Augustine gave on the Feast of the Ascension:
"Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth.
For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies. Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. He showed this when he cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? and when he said: I was hungry and you gave me food.
Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope and love that unite us to him? While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.
He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.
These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for he is our head and we are his body. No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: he is the Son of Man by his union with us, and we by our union with him are the sons of God. So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.
Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head."
The insights contained in this passage from Augustine are more than just piety. For those who choose to embrace them, they are about a new reality that is revealed and rooted in the Ascension of Jesus Christ. When we went down into that Font of Baptism we were incorporated into Jesus Christ. Therefore, (also in the words of that great Saint Augustine speaking on behalf of the Lord), "Where the Head is, there is the Body, where I am, there is my Church, we too are one; the Church is in me and I in her and we two are your Beloved and your Lover."
In other words, we have ascended with the Lord!
What? How can we be where Jesus is now? The answer is simple, yet complex - because we now live in Him and He lives in us and this is most fully realized in the ecclesial communion that is called the Church.
Through His life, death and resurrection, all that separated us from God has been definitively dealt with and we have been redeemed, re-created anew in Him. We have also been literally incorporated into a communion of love with God the Father, in the Son and through the Holy Spirit. That communion of love is lived in the Church.Yes, we must "see" all of this with the eyes of faith, but faith is, in the words of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, "the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things to come."
This event that we call the Ascension does not mark the end of Jesus' relationship with the Church that He came to found, but actually the beginning of a new way of His relating to, through, with and in that Church - for the world that He came to save. This Church is the new Israel, a new people now re-created in Him and sent into the world on mission. He continues His presence on earth, until He comes again, in and through this Church, which is His Body.
We are now members of His Body. Through us, Love Incarnate still walks through time. The Christian faith is fundamentally about living and proclaiming this new relationship in Christ with the Father, through the Holy Spirit; in Christ with one another; and in Christ with the world that still awaits its full redemption. Through Baptism we have been incorporated into Christ and live "in Him" for the world that He still loves. He carries on His mission of love through those of us who live our lives in Him. This relationship of love is actually intended to change our entire reality. It makes us "new creations" and reorients our purpose, our whole way of being and our whole way of living.
The Ascension of Jesus Christ is not about an end, in the sense of a final act. Nor is it some kind of "intermission", to be concluded upon His Bodily return, which will most certainly occur. Rather, it is about a new beginning, a new way of being, now. We who are sent into the world as His Body continue His redemptive mission through being His "witnesses." The Greek word for witness is "martyrion". It literally means that every Christian is called, in a sense, to be a "martyr". Not many will literally shed their blood for that witness, but many have throughout two millennia, and, as we progress into this new missionary age, we do not know what is yet to come. However, all of us who bear the name "Christian" are called to what the tradition has referred to popularly as the "white martyrdom" of a daily life of sacrificial love, of "holiness".
The Apostle Paul wrote to the early Christians in Galatia "No longer do I live but Christ lives in me and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God..." That way of living now in Christ is meant to become our daily reality as well. Christians are to live differently because we live now "in" Jesus Christ. On May 17, Pope Benedict, speaking to the faithful in Brazil, called them to "...live in the Church". This is becoming a common phrase in his allocutions and reveals a wonderful ecclesiology and anthropology
We live in Jesus by living in His Body. In that Body, His Church we are joined to Him and in Him we are joined with one another. We are to love differently, because we love "in" Jesus Christ. We are to "be" human differently, because we actually continue His life on this earth for those who encounter us.
We have also ascended with Him. We are called to live on earth the very realities of heaven. That is the foundation of this Feast. To be Christian is to live our lives now in, for and with Jesus Christ. This is an ongoing invitation to a new way of "being" on the earth, living in the Church, for the world. This way of viewing the Ascension can also give us insight into the interior meaning of the great Feast of Pentecost, which we will soon celebrate. The very "breath" of God has been breathed into this Church - and into each one of us - in order to capacitate us to be made "new" in Christ, transformed in Him and thus to carry forward in time the ongoing work of redemption.
Just as the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus Bodily in the Jordan to begin His public ministry, it descends on Him Bodily, in the Church, to continue the work of redemption.That work will not be complete until the One who ascended returns and hands the re-created cosmos back to the Father. After all, that is "the plan", the "mystery" now revealed in Jesus Christ. Let me conclude with the words of the great Apostle and mystic Paul, who reflects for the Christians in Ephesus, and for us, on this plan:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved. In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth." Ephesians 1:3-7
Deacon Keith Fournier holds degrees from Franciscan University of Steubenville (B.A., Theology and Philosophy), the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University (M.T.S., Theology) the University of Pittsburgh School of Law (J.D.) and is currently a Ph.D. student in Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of hundreds of articles on issues of faith and culture and the spiritual life and eight books. His latest book is entitled, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life".
Third Millennium, LLC
http://www.catholic.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 804 562-9942
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