Ascending With the Lord
By Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
Today, we in the Western Church celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ. We also begin a concentrated time of prayer in preparation for the Feast of Pentecost, which the Christian tradition honors as the "birthday" of the Church. The great events in the Life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the early Church, form the continuing calendar for our experience of the living Faith; if we dig deep and learn to live them in our real, daily lives.
Both of these Feasts have importance for us in this prophetic 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 also provide a framework for understanding the Christian life and mission. They are signposts, pointing those who bear the name "Christian" on a path toward faithfulness and fruitfulness in our vocation to continue the redemptive mission and presence of Jesus Christ in this new missionary age.
In a wonderful homily preached on this great Feast, the great western Church Father Augustine proclaimed:
"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 piety. For those who choose to embrace them, they are about a new reality revealed and rooted in the Ascension of Jesus Christ; a reality that is meant to change our lives in the here and now. When we went down into that Font of Baptism we were incorporated into the very Body of 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 also ascended!
What? How can we be where Jesus is now? The answer is simple, yet complex - because we 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. We have been redeemed, re-created anew in Him. We have been incorporated into a communion of love with God the Father, in the Son and through the Holy Spirit. Yet, we must choose daily to "see" all of this with the eyes of faith, which 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."
More than an emotional feeling, faith is a lens through which we are enabled to view reality differently now because we are Christians.
This event that we call the Ascension does not mark the end of Jesus' relationship with the Church that He came to found, but 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. This new people, His Body on earth, live in a communion with the Trinity and have been sent on mission. He continues His presence on earth through this Church. 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 now 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 is meant 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, in the here and now.
We are His "witnesses." The Greek word for "witness" is "martyrion". Every Christian is called, in this sense, to be a "martyr". Not many will literally shed their blood for that witness, but man, many of our brothers and sisters have throughout two millennia, and, as we progress in this new missionary age, we do not know what is yet to come. Yet, all 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..."
This way of living 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 since He has taken up His residence within us. The Church makes Jesus Christ present in this very needy world.
So, on this Feast of the Ascension, we should ask ourselves a question: "How are we doing?" The Feast presents an opportunity to assess the relationship between our profession of faith and the lived witness of 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?
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 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 celebrate today and is intended to become the foundation for our lives. We cannot go back to "same old, same old" now that He has ascended.
This way of viewing the Ascension also gives 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.
I conclude with the words of the great Apostle and mystic Paul, who reflected 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
Let us live our lives now as though we too have ascended, because we have, in Him
Deacon Keith Fournier is a married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia who also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy with permission. He is a graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He is currently a PHD student at Catholic University. The author of eight books, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life" is available in book stores.Online
Third Millennium, LLC
https://www.catholic.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580
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