*Feast of the Ascension
“He ascended into heaven.” A pretty simple phrase in our Creed, is it not? Yet, what does it really mean? In days gone by, when people literally thought of heaven as “up there” beyond the clouds, above the dome of the sky, people had a very literal image in mind when they professed this part of the creed: the risen Jesus ascended “up to the heavens.” But what about now, in a world where we know there is no place “out there” that is beyond the sky which is heaven?
Our faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus causes problems both for a person who interprets the Scriptures too literally and for the modern scientific mind which thinks the Scriptures are false if some of the stories of faith defy scientific explanation. Literalists think that resurrection is about the same earthly body coming back to life, almost like a reanimated corpse. Unfortunately, we have way too many movies that give people visual images of resuscitated corpses. That is not what we mean by resurrection! Our stories of faith talk about Jesus’ resurrected body as a transformed body, both able to be continuous with all that has happened to him (the wounds are still there) and yet different (not recognized until he speaks a name, a word, a greeting of peace). Faith in the Ascension of Jesus into heaven keeps us from such a literalist view of the resurrection. The image of Jesus “ascending to the Father” invites us to think of Jesus—and therefore everything he experienced in his historical life—as fully alive in God. His material, molecular body is neither in a grave here on earth nor located in some specific place in the universe. The risen Jesus becomes present in time and space whenever we, his people, speak and act in a way that is a true continuation of his mission and ministry. He is not at our beck and call. We are at his. But, wonder of wonders, he has chosen to trust us to be faithful to that mission, so that he can become present here and now.
At the same time, our faith is a faith in a bodily resurrection. Why insist on this? Would it not be enough to say that the risen Jesus is now alive in God for all eternity? That the risen Lord can in spirit unite with our spirit and lead us to the same new life? Why insist on a “bodily resurrection”? Here is where scientific-types lose patience with faith-based statements and think such statements are nonsensical because they do not lend themselves to scientific explanation. Yet, this is precisely where the most profound understanding of life is at stake. His resurrected reality is physical (if we trust the Scriptures, which I do) in that he is not separated from the rest of the physical universe. In Jesus, the incarnate Word of God is born into the flesh and is now raised to new life by the power of God. God not only wills and loves the universe into existence at every moment, but God is within the universe, physically connected to every time, every space, past, present, and future. While respecting the freedom inherent in creation and in us who recognize that freedom, because of the resurrection of Jesus, God can become, in the words of St. Paul “all in all” ( 1 Corinthians 15:28).
Our faith in a bodily resurrection of Jesus and the hope of such resurrection for us, is a faith that resurrected life shares in the ongoing history of the universe. Is the universe—created, physical, “bodily” reality—simply an external shell that is of no ultimate consequence? Do our experiences of love and loss, creativity and sacrifice have any ultimate value, or do they simply go with us to the grave? Does it really matter whether human history transforms life into a civilization of love, finding a way to live in harmony with one another and ultimately all creation? The heart of our faith, Easter faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, cries out “Yes, it matters! In fact, unless we work for the transformation of the world, our faith is misguided.” Salvation is not about saving disembodied souls and ignoring everything else, even though Catholic thought has often drifted in that direction a bit too far, due to the influence of Platonic philosophy. Full salvation always includes a concern for the “body” and thus for all physical, created reality. The reality of Jesus’ resurrection safeguards that essential truth.
So, in summary: faith in the Ascension of Jesus is not a scientific explanation of the location of Jesus’ body. It is a faith-based statement that keeps us focused on the need to seek God’s Spirit, if we are to experience the presence and reality of the risen Lord. The risen Jesus is in some sense absent from us, unless we open ourselves to God’s Spirit, living in that Spirit, putting into practice the gifts of that Spirit. Apart from the Spirit of God we will experience an absence of the risen Lord. Full faith will always unite Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit. That is the meaning of Jesus’ “paschal mystery.” We must be willing to connect to the whole reality not just a part of it. This is the pattern of life lived at its deepest, most profound, most reconciled and healing level. Life is to be lived as God’s gift to us. It will include crosses, suffering, and sacrifice. It will not escape death. But we live in trust. We live, knowing that God gets the final word, not death, and that all we live for is never lost. Specifically, on this feast of the Ascension we live, humbly knowing that though all our efforts will fall short, everything we do in our historical life is important. We live (continued on page 4)praying persistently for the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives so that our lives can truly make present the reality of the “risen and ascended” Jesus.
*Preparing for the Teaching Masses on Corpus Christi
About sixty years ago the Second Vatican Council proclaimed the cornerstone principle for celebrations of the Eucharist and the other Sacraments: The Church “earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #14]. All the changes that followed flow from this key principle: Mass in English (or the vernacular of each community); the altar moved out from the wall, so that a visible sense of gathering around an altar can take place; baptismal fonts that are integral to the liturgical environment and ideally able to immerse adults when they are baptized; Communion under both forms with Extraordinary Ministers of Communion; lay readers of the Word; processions with the gifts; greeting of peace; on and on. Yet, sixty years after the changes were put into a new Roman Missal to guide all of our liturgical celebrations, we still struggle as a Church to fully participate in the Eucharist.
Take a moment to reflect. Is there any difference between receiving Communion from the bread and wine consecrated at the Mass we are participating in versus receiving Communion from the consecrated bread reserved in the tabernacle? After all, in both cases we are receiving the gift of Jesus’ Body and Blood, are we not? [Answer: There is a difference!] Another question to ponder: do we celebrate Eucharist so that the risen Jesus might become present to us in a special way? So we can be fed by him in Communion or so we can become Eucharist for others? A third question: Is the Eucharist different depending on who is gathering as a community for the celebration? Is it different if I/we are there or not? [Answers: Yes to all of them.]
A “Teaching Mass” is a way to help us experience more deeply what it means to be fully, consciously, and actively participating in the Eucharist. During such a Mass the meaning of the main elements of the Mass will be explored. It is a full celebration of the Eucharist, but one in which the participants will be asked to be more consciously involved in the flow of the Mass. I will celebrate all the Masses on the Feast of Corpus Christi, June 10/11 in the style of a “Teaching Mass.”
Most of us are very aware of the basic two-fold structure of the Eucharist (Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist). In times past, so much emphasis was given to the consecration of the bread and wine during the Liturgy of the Eucharist that the Liturgy of the Word became almost secondary. One of the great gifts of the reform of the Mass after the Second Vatican Council was the recovery of the necessity and importance of the Liturgy of the Word. Without it, there is no true Eucharist. In fact, the Council declared that “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body” [Constitution on Divine Revelation, #21]. The words “always venerated” are true from a doctrinal point of view, though a bit of a stretch in terms of actual practice. Nevertheless, with those words the Church is able to highlight that the real presence of the risen Jesus comes to us, not just within the gift of the consecrated bread and wine, but as well within the gift of his living Word. More next time.