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By: Deacon Keith A Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC

_______________________________

"Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni," which means Teacher. Jesus said to her, "Stop holding on to me, 10 for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, 'I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" The Gospel of St John, Chapter 20: 16, 17

"And he said to them, "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. You are witnesses of these things. And (behold) I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high." Then he led them (out) as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven. They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God." The Gospel of St Luke 24: 47-53

"In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for "the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the holy Spirit." When they had gathered together they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" He answered them, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight." The beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 1:1-9

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In many of our Churches we just celebrated the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ. The Scriptural passages set forth at the beginning of this reflection were among the many that we have heard proclaimed from pulpits throughout the world. We have also been encouraged to 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 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. They are also intended to become signposts, pointing those who bear the name "Christian" on a path toward faithfulness and fruitfulness in our challenge to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ into a new missionary age.

In this reflection, I want to share some thoughts regarding the deeper meaning of the Ascension. Next Week, I will address Pentecost.

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 unites 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 too have ascended!

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.

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.

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.

We are now members of His Body. Through us, Love 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. We are to love differently, because we love "in" Jesus Christ. We are to "be" differently, because we actually continue His life on this earth for those who encounter us.

Wow! What a mission. Remember, our lives may be the only "gospel" others ever "hear".

Well, on this Feast of the Ascension, lets ask the question "How are we doing?" The Feast presents an opportunity to assess the relationship between our profession of faith and our daily life.

St. Paul wrote to the early Christians in Corinth in his second letter, and encouraged them to take just such an examination: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? --unless, of course, you fail the test. I hope you will discover that we have not failed"

How are we doing? Are we "walking the talk?"

This kind of frank examination is good for the soul. It should also put the right "fear of the Lord" into every one of us. Let me reflect upon one area that I believe many need to assess, how we treat one another. Jesus NEVER used anyone. He loved them. Yet, even in some of our "movements" and "ministries" we use one another. Oh, I know, we make it sound so "pious". But, it is not. It is sin. Sin is about making the wrong choice, the wrong exercise or abuse of our freedom. Persons are gifts to be received and not tools or instruments to be used, even if we make those goals sound so "religious".

Philosophers speak of "ontology" as the essence of being. That which makes something what it is. In that sense, there is an "ontology" to the meaning of the Ascension. We have also ascended with Him and thus, we are now called to live on earth the very realities of heaven. That is the foundation of this Feast. We cannot go back to "same old, same old" now that He has ascended.

We Christians live our lives now in, for and with Jesus Christ. This is an ongoing invitation to a new way of "being" on the earth.

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.

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.

In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the one who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, so that we might exist for the praise of his glory, we who first hoped in Christ. In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God's possession, to the praise of his glory." Ephesians 1:3-14

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Deacon Keith Fournier is a married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, who also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Church with approval. He is a human rights lawyer and a graduate of the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He the founder and Thomas More Fellow of the Common Good Movement and was a co-founder of Your Catholic Voice..

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