Ascension of the Lord
Fr. Joseph Levine; May 16, 2021
Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3,6-9; Eph 4:1-13; Mk 16:15-20
What must it have been like for the Apostles after the Lord had been taken from their sight, after the angels had departed, and they looked at each other?
They had lost him once before, when he had died on the Cross, but this was different.
When Jesus had died on the Cross, all their hopes were dashed and they were left in utter desolation and abandonment, not yet understanding that he would rise from the dead.
When Jesus departed for heaven, after spending 40 days proving to them that he had risen from the dead, teaching and instructing them about the kingdom of God and the mission of the Church, they no longer doubted the reality, but it must have seemed in a way like waking from a dream. For three years of Jesus’ earthly life and for 40 days of his resurrected life, they had lived in daily contact with God in an extraordinary fashion.
Whether it was seeing a man like them give sight to the blind, calm the storm, multiply the loaves and fish to feed a large crowd, or raise the dead, or whether it was spending time in presence of a living man whom they had seen crucified, dead, and buried, what they had experienced was not the stuff of ordinary life. They had experienced, in a most extraordinary way, the light of God breaking into a world darkened by sin and its consequences.
Now, they were by themselves; there were just eleven of them, soon to be twelve with the addition of St. Matthias who was added to replace Judas. Jesus was no longer visibly present. Now, they would need to bear witness to the stupendous reality that they had heard with their ears, seen with their eyes, looked upon and touched with their hands, the reality of life, true life, eternal life, the life of God given to man. (cf. 1 Jn 1:1-2)
Jesus had been taken from their sight, but he promised not to abandon them, but to send them the Holy Spirit to give them the power to fulfill their mission of bearing witness. He had also left them with his hidden presence in the Holy Eucharist.
That was all 2,000 years ago. Today, what is left of Jesus’ work? What now is left of the Apostles’ mission?
In a word, the visible Church and the saints in heaven.
From twelve Apostles, the Church has, in fact, grown in extension from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. There has also been interior growth in the soul. Those who received the message of the Apostles, have believed in Jesus Christ, who have lived by that faith, in the measure they have done so, have also grown up into the unity of faith, the knowledge of the Son of God, attained to mature manhood, and in them the likeness of Jesus Christ has been reproduced. From the preaching of the Apostles the Church has grown in extension numerically and geographically, but within the Church there has also been the experience of growth into the limitless depths of the interior realm of grace. The life of grace has reached its fulfillment in the saints in heaven.
After 2,000 years, the Church is still here, with Christ, at the right hand of the Father, reigning over her. Miracles do indeed continue even to this day, but after the miracles of the early days of the Church, the Church herself has remained as the great sign, confirming the truth of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus Christ.
What really is still here?
Today, the visible body of the Church, structured with dioceses and parishes, is extended throughout the world; that visible body proclaims essentially the same teaching as she always has, a teaching that is summed up today in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; the Church also has a roster of saints from every time since the beginning, in every place she has been present, from all walks of life, levels of education, and social classes; there are no doubt saints living among us today; she celebrates the same seven sacraments she received from Christ; she is ruled by the same hierarchy of bishops beneath the Pope, that reaches back to the time of the Apostles.
This is all a reality today; if we could only let that reality penetrate our consciousness for what it is, we would recognize the true miracle. Nevertheless, the reality is obscured because at every level the visible body of the Catholic Church is challenged.
Outside the visible body of the Catholic Church there exists others with a claim to the name of Christian, from the various Orthodox Churches, which are closest in faith and structure to the Catholic Church, to sects with beliefs so bizarre that the use of the mere name of Christ is about all we have in common.
Within the body of the Church, the traditional doctrine of faith and morals is widely challenged and rejected; just recently in Germany, in 100 Catholic churches, priests blessed same-sex unions, in direct defiance of the Vatican and the constant teaching of the Church, but with the approval of many bishops. The sacrilege was celebrated by many Catholics throughout the world. Nevertheless, the teaching is clear and is the same as it has always been.
Very often, instead of saints, we have witnessed sexual and financial scandals in the hierarchy. Indeed, there have been priests (and others) who were esteemed as living saints, who have later been discovered to be frauds. Yet, the reality of holiness has not changed.
The sacraments themselves, including the Holy Eucharist, have been widely abused and profaned by irreverent and sacrilegious celebrations. Apparently, a great many Catholics no longer believe that the Holy Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Yet, there are still those who celebrate the sacraments with faith and devotion.
Further, increasingly bishops are at odds with one another; they are contradicting each other, in fact, and even occasionally directly criticizing their brother bishops. Nevertheless, the teaching of the Church is clear, because the teaching of the Church is what it has always been, whether a bishop believes it or not.
Frankly, the situation in the Church today is pretty ugly. Yet, in some ways at least, this in nothing new. The Church has been through great trials in the past.
There was a time in the 4th century in which almost every bishop in the Catholic Church had been bullied by the Roman Emperor into effectively accepting an Arian creed denied that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God, begotten before the creation of the world, consubstantial to the Father, through whom all things were made. The few faithful bishops, like St. Athanasius and St. Hilary, were in exile.
There was the 10th century, when the papacy had become a corrupt plaything, a prize in the midst of the petty power struggles between the noble families of Rome; about the only saving grace was that instead of the instantaneous communications of our present day, complete with live video, Rome was pretty much cut off from communication with the rest of Christendom.
There was the great western schism, which lasted from 1378 to 1417, in which the Church was divided by two claimants to the Papacy, one in Rome and one in Avignon, each with their different following, with saints ending up on both sides of the division. For a time even there was a third claimant to the papacy.
The Church has also survived the confusion of the Protestant Revolution of the 16th century and the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era from 1789 to 1815.
The Church has passed through all these trials, outliving the Roman Empire, the kingdoms of Christendom, the Islamic Empires, and the ancient Chinese Empire. She has witnessed the rise of the modern nations; now she may be on the point of witnessing their fall.
From his seat at the right hand of the Father, Christ reigns in his Church, but his glory has not yet been made manifest. That will only take place when he comes in judgment. Christ’s Ascension is also the promise of his return.
We heard in the 1st reading that the Apostles asked Jesus if he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel, he said it was not for them to know. The Catechism of the Catholic Church alludes to this moment:
“Before his Ascension Christ affirmed that the hour had not yet come for the glorious establishment of the messianic kingdom awaited by Israel which, according to the prophets, was to bring all men the definitive order of justice, love and peace. According to the Lord, the present time is the time of the Spirit and of witness, but also a time still marked by ‘distress’ and the trial of evil which does not spare the Church and ushers in the struggles of the last days. It is a time of waiting and watching.” (CCC 672)
The time since Christ’s Ascension has been a time of ‘distress’, a trial of evil that does not spare the Church, a time of watching and waiting, all leading to the great trial of ‘the last days’.
From time to time, God will make an extraordinary display of his power, but for the most part he puts us to the test. It is as though to say, “You have received the message; you have received the sacraments; you have received the gift of the Holy Spirit; you know what you must do; will you be faithful? Will you be faithful even when I am not visibly present? Will you be faithful even when I am not making a display of my power? Will you be faithful even when I seem to be absent? Will you show your love for me by way of fidelity in the midst of trial?”
That is always the basic ‘test’ we are faced with in this life, but now we could well be on the edge of the great trial of the ‘last days’. Indeed, now we can see in the world a great struggle emerging.
On one side we see the attempt to establish a truly global empire, such has never existed before, an empire that will be built without God, and empire that will try to wrest control of the world from God, an empire that will try to put man in the place of God. That is taking place before our eyes. It could well be the kingdom of the Antichrist that is taking shape.
On the other side? The Church? She seems weak and divided. Many in the Church, high ranking even, seem already to be on board with this new empire, this ‘new world order’, this ‘great reset’.
The prophet Amos had once been given a vision of divine judgment threatening Israel and he pleaded with God: Lord God, I beseech thee! How can Jacob stand? He is so small! (Amos 7:2,5) We could well ask the question seeing the weakness of the Church and the might of the world today.
Yet, the mission of the Church is ever the same: Proclaim the Gospel. You will be my witnesses. We must bear witness not just to the ends of the earth, but even to the end of time. We must bear witness to Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come to judge the living and the dead. We must bear witness to the heavenly reality that should rule human life on earth, beginning with our own. We must bear witness to the promise of eternal life. We must bear witness in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, who still lives in the Church and still sustains her. We must bear witness to the reality of God’s grace, which is the work of the Holy Spirit. We must bear witness first of all by letting Jesus Christ transform our lives through the work of his Holy Spirit. We must bear witness by watching and waiting in prayer, faithful to the end.
If we live in the grace of God, the one who lives in us is stronger than the evil spirit that is at work in the world; eternity is stronger than time.
“Let grace come; let this world pass away.” (Didache 10:6)