When we enter a Catholic church, we sense something special. Our genuflections may be half-hearted but signify something of importance. Even if the tabernacle is not before us, we know there will be a Blessed Sacrament chapel somewhere.
By what logic does the Almighty and Eternal God come to us with such consistent availability. A few words from Saint Thomas Aquinas are helpful “God, wishing to enable us to share in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that, by becoming a human being, he might make men and women gods”. God’s overflowing love, like irrepressible tears, cannot be held back. Against such generosity our own efforts look shabby and inadequate. Yet the torrent of love keeps flowing. This should encourage us. “Holy communion is not a reward for good boys and girls but food for the needy”. Who among us is not needy?
“To make men and women gods; divine!” One of the Fathers of the Church taught that, when we receive the body and blood of Christ, we slowly become what we receive. What we receive is divine food; the body and blood of the Lord. We are constantly told: “certain foods harm us; other foods make us healthy”. We must add: “divine food divinises us; receiving the body and blood of the Lord conforms our life to that of Christ”. This is what the phrase from Hebrews is talking about. ”The blood of Christ,” which we receive from the chalice, “can purify our inner self from dead actions”.
The history of salvation, from Abraham and Moses to today, via the Old Testament, the life death and resurrection of Christ and 2000 years of Christianity, is the story of God trying to get closer and closer to human beings; to become more intimate with men and women. Could God get closer than in the Eucharist?
El Greco depicts the resurrection, the ascension and glorification of Christ all in one. The thin, stretched body of Christ rises like a rocket heavenwards. The guards shrink in terror. Christ’s body stretches heavenwards, straining towards its spiritual future, not rejecting what is human but seeking its spiritual completion. Christ becomes what we will become.
For John, likewise, ascension and glorification at the Father’s right hand are integral to the resurrection mystery. In John Jesus seems to reign from the cross. Also, the moment Judas leaves the Last Supper, John comments “now is the Son of Man glorified”. From this moment onwards victory is assured, if not fully savoured on our part.
Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, today’s first reading, paints a picture for us. Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus was “lifted up” by God to heaven and a cloud, symbolising the presence of God, took him from their sight. Luke has spaced out the mysteries of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and glorification. We watch and understand.
Is there a contradiction between these different presentations? Not really. One view is more theological; going to the essence of what ascension means. The other is more catechetical; trying to explain spiritual realities in ways we can grasp. Thus the ascension becomes another of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to strengthen the faith of the disciples.
The letter to the Hebrews offers a third way to understand the Ascension. Hebrews compares Jesus’ Ascension into heaven with the Jewish high priest’s entry once-a-year into the Holy of Holies. Just as the high priest took the blood of calves and sheep and entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the Ark of the Covenant with the blood, so Jesus through his sacrificial death has entered heaven and taken his seat at God’s right hand.
Three points to ponder
(1) My human body defines me and is God’s gift. Christ, human like us, has ascended to heaven bodily. He has placed “our human nature, which he had united to himself” at the Father’s right hand. Christ’s ascension assures that our human bodies will one day follow and reach their full and glorious heavenly potential.
(2) Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost. Jesus, no longer among us in human form, missions the Holy Spirit to be with his Church and with each of us individually. Next Sunday’s feast will be enhanced in our community when the bishop receives 17 students into full communion with the Church.
(3) With the help of the Holy Spirit our mission is to tell the world about the Good News of Jesus Christ!
A week before the Second World War ended in Europe, my uncle Frank was killed, trying to rescue a friend from a burning tank. His friend survived. My uncle died. I was only 4 at the time. When, in later years, my mother talked about her brother, she did so with great sadness but also with much pride. Frank had truly given his life for his friend. A military honour recognised this.
Jesus’ basic commandment (his manifesto message/ his non-negotiable red line) is that “we love one another”. The supreme example of “loving one another” is to lay down one’s life for a friend. This is what Jesus did for us. “Are we ready to do the same; for our brothers and sisters?”
Where did Jesus get the strength to do this? Well, he was God, wasn’t he”. He was, indeed but it is instructive to notice how John’s Gospel puts it. Jesus’ strength came from two sources: (1) that he kept his Father’s commandments and (2) that he remained in his Father’s love.
Keeping his Father’s commandments involved doing the Father’s will. This meant taking on our human nature; preaching the Good News and accepting the consequences: namely death on a cross. But doing God’s will meant he remained in his Father’s love. That is, he never loses the intimate and profound relationship he enjoys with his Father.
As Jesus enjoyed such an intimate relationship with his Father, so he invites each one of us to enjoy an intimate and profound relationship with him. For us this will mean loving one another and doing God’s will, his Father’s will.
Talk of God’s will often seems too big a call to young people. What if one gets it wrong so early in life? Don’t worry. It is more a question of attitude/ desire than performance. As a car’s sat-nav redirects itself, when we take a wrong turning, Jesus can take care of direction changes. After all, Jesus makes a point of reminding us that we, like his disciples, are not servants but his friends.