Tuesday, May 03, 2016

King of Heaven and Earth: Ascension Day!

Ascension Day, unfortunately, is not observed in a uniform manner across the United States.  Catholics in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, New York, and New England will observe it on Thursday, May 5; the rest of the country observes it this Sunday, May 8. 

The First Reading and Psalm for this Solemnity are always Acts 1:1-11 and Psalm 47.   In Year C has the option to employ Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23 instead of Eph 4:17-23 as the Second Reading (both are discussed below), and proclaims Luke 24:46-53 as the Gospel.

This is an unusual Lord’s Day, in which the “action” of the Feast Day actually takes place in the First Reading.  We typically think of all the narratives of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels, overlooking that Acts records at least two important narratives about the activity of the Resurrected Lord (Acts 1:1-11; also 9:1-8).

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 the 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.

While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,

suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.

They said, “Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?

This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

Like most English translations, the one used in Mass does not adequately translate the Greek word sunalizomenos in verse 4.  Above it is rendered “while meeting with them,” but literally it is “while taking salt with them,” which is a Greek idiom meaning “sharing a meal.”  This is the usual meaning of sunalizomenos; the only justification I have seen in the lexicons (e.g. BAGD) for rendering it “spending time with” rather than “eating with” is that “eating with” supposedly doesn’t make sense in the context of Acts 1:4.  On the contrary, I suggest it makes a lot of sense, and is in fact theologically significant in light of Luke 22:16,18, which seem to suggest that Jesus will not eat or drink again until the Kingdom comes.  The fact that he is eating and drinking with them here, is an indication of the arrival of the Kingdom (see also Acts 10:41).

The disciples ask, “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?”  Jesus’ response is sometimes taken as a rebuff of the apostles, or a ducking of their question, implying perhaps that what they ask for will only take place in the eschaton.  However, as Scott Hahn has pointed out, it is possible to take the Lord’s response as answering not when but how.  It is the witness (martyria) of the Apostles from “Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, to the ends of the earth” (i.e. the Gentiles)—concentric circles of the ancient Kingdom of David (David’s city, tribe, nation, and vassals, respectively)—that will bring about the new Israel, the Kingdom of God, which is manifest visibly in the world as the Church.  By spreading the Gospel and serving as leaders of the early Church, the apostles fulfill the promise of Jesus made at the last supper that they would “sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Lk 22:30).

In much of American Christianity, there is the view that we are to expect Jesus to come back and reign over a Jewish kingdom in Israel in the end times—even perhaps to rebuild the stone Temple and restore animal sacrifice.  For this reason, some American Christians treat the modern State of Israel as a quasi-sacred entity that deserves our carte blanche political support.

The Catholic tradition has not and does not endorse this view, and it would seem to represent a retrograde action in salvation history.  Why would we want to return to a Temple of stone when we have the Temple of Christ’s body, which has now transformed our bodies into his Temple?  Have we not learned the lesson that God does not dwell in Temples made by human hands?  Mutatis mutandis, the same points would apply to a political kingdom the size of New Jersey in the Near East.  How would that satisfy, now that the Spirit has been poured into our hearts and reigns in us throughout the world, now that we who are made meek in the Spirit have inherited the earth? (Matt 5:5)

It is often said that Acts is the story of the Church, which is not wrong.  But from beginning (Acts 1:4) to the end (Acts 28:31) Acts is about the kingdom, of which the visible Church is the earthly manifestation.

The Responsorial Psalm is the powerful Psalm 47, whose original historical context must have been a dramatic liturgical procession, perhaps the bringing of the Ark into the sanctuary after battle, or perhaps even an enthronement festival in which the ascension of the Son of David to his throne was seen as mystical representation of the enthronement of YHWH in heaven.  (If so, it would not be the only place in the psalms where the Son of David is “confused” with God himself—see Psalm 45:6 [Hebrew])

R. God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.
All you peoples, clap your hands,
shout to God with cries of gladness,
For the LORD, the Most High, the awesome,
is the great king over all the earth.
R. God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.
God mounts his throne amid shouts of joy;
the LORD, amid trumpet blasts.
Sing praise to God, sing praise;
sing praise to our king, sing praise.
R. God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.
For king of all the earth is God;
sing hymns of praise.
God reigns over the nations,
God sits upon his holy throne.
R. God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.

The Church sees this Psalm fulfilled, of course, in the Ascension of the Christ and his session “at the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33).  This the heavenly fulfillment of the ancient royal processions when Solomon or some other Davidic King entered Jerusalem in victorious pomp to resume their reign.


The standard Second Reading (Eph 1:17-23) continues to focus on the royal authority given to Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David and Son of God:

Brothers and sisters:
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation
resulting in knowledge of him.
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
what are the riches of glory
in his inheritance among the holy ones,
and what is the surpassing greatness of his power
for us who believe,
in accord with the exercise of his great might:
which he worked in Christ,
raising him from the dead
and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,
far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion,
and every name that is named
not only in this age but also in the one to come.
And he put all things beneath his feet
and gave him as head over all things to the church,
which is his body,
the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.

The “principalities, authorities, powers, and dominions” and “names that are named” referred to above indicate spiritual powers, i.e. angels and demons.  Christ has been placed over the entire spiritual hierarchy.  St. Paul says, “he put everything under his feet,” applying Psalm 8:6 to Jesus and providing one of the earliest witnesses to the messianic reading of this important Psalm.  It is Christ’s session above the spiritual hierarchy that gives the co-seated Church (Eph 2:6) power over the demonic realm, exercised quite dramatically in the rite of exorcism (read this) but no less powerfully in the Sacraments, especially (in my view) the Sacrament of Confession, which has great power for spiritual deliverance (discussed here).  Christians are not meant to be pawns of the devil; the devil cannot “make me do it.”  We are to be victorious by wielding the sword of the Spirit of the Risen One. 

The optional Second Reading for Year C is Heb 9:24-28; 10:19-23:

Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands,
a copy of the true one, but heaven itself,
that he might now appear before God on our behalf.
Not that he might offer himself repeatedly,
as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary
with blood that is not his own;
if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly
from the foundation of the world.
But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages
to take away sin by his sacrifice.
Just as it is appointed that men and women die once,
and after this the judgment, so also Christ,
offered once to take away the sins of many,
will appear a second time, not to take away sin
but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.

While the other readings emphasize Jesus’ role as king, Hebrews adds to this also his role as priest.  “Jesus, royal priest in the order of Melchizedek,” is essentially the theme of this unique Epistle.

Hebrews makes the point that the Tabernacle built by Moses was always only a “copy” of a heavenly pattern shown to Moses on Sinai.  How much more the Temple Solomon built in Jerusalem, which was a “copy” in stone of the original Tabernacle.  A copy of a copy!  Jesus does not perform a symbolic act of salvation in an imitative place of worship, but enters into the true sanctuary, heaven itself, to offer his life as atonement for our sin. 

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since through the blood of Jesus
we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary
by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil,
that is, his flesh,
and since we have a great priest over the house of God,
let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust,
with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience
and our bodies washed in pure water.
Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope,
for he who made the promise is trustworthy.

Christ has opened to us the way to God “through his flesh,” that is, through the sacrifice of his flesh on the cross. However, the path to God continues to be “through his flesh,” that is, the Eucharist.  The Eucharist is the “veil” of “flesh” mentioned above, through which we enter into the presence of God with “hearts sprinkled” and “bodies washed” through Baptism.  The Eucharist is a “veil,” because it disguises the real presence of the Body of Christ.  It as much hides as much as it reveals the Body, just as the veil on the Holy of Holies of old both clearly marked the location of the sacred chamber, yet also hid it in darkness.

The command “let us approach with a sincere heart and absolute trust,” may also be a liturgical instruction to approach the Eucharistic table.  In any event, it describes the dispositions that we should have as we approach.  A “sincere heart”—this means a conscience clear of any mortal (i.e. serious and intentional) sin.  “Absolute trust” describes the spirit of faith with which we receive the Eucharist.  Without these two dispositions, receiving communion does us no good.  While the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ are always truly present in the Eucharist, without a clear conscience (=state of grace) and firm faith, we will not experience any subjective benefit of Christ’s presence in us.  There is a lot of confusion about this in Church right now.  While it is true that the Eucharist is not a reward for perfect behavior, and can be medicine for the spiritually weak or sick, it is also true that the Eucharist is not medicine for those in mortal sin.  It will not “cure” mortal sin, and in fact worsens rather than betters the condition of such sinners who commune, because, among other things, it adds the sin of sacrilege to any other sins the person has already committed.  Thus, it is for their spiritual good that bishops and priests will sometimes forbid people who have committed deliberate, serious, public sin from access to the Eucharist.  It would actually be a sin against charity deliberately to offer communion to a person who is known to be unrepentant for a mortal sin, because the Eucharistic minister is cooperating with a sacrilege and harming the spiritual condition of the prospective communicant.

God forbid any of us should be involved in such a situation, either as the Eucharistic minister or the one illicitly presenting oneself for communion.  Let us take care to make regular use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation to maintain a “clear conscience,” and let us strengthen our faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, so that our communions with strengthen us and assist us to grow in holiness.

The Gospel is Luke 24:46-53:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Thus it is written that the Christ 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 last few verses of this reading seem to be an abbreviated account of the ascension that concludes the Gospel of Luke.  It describes in brief strokes the same event recorded in greater detail in the first reading.

The first several verses (vv. 44-49) describe Jesus appearing to the apostles on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, and bestowing the Spirit on them.  Verse 49, translated: “behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you,” is in the Greek present tense.  Translated quite literally, the verse reads, “Look, I send the promise of my father upon you.”  This is often thought to be a reference to the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, but again, the verb is present, not future.  Plausibly, these words of the Lord were uttered while he “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).  In my view, Luke 24:44-49 is an independent account of the same meeting in the upper room with the Apostles and bestowal of the Spirit recorded in John 20:19-23.

Between vv. 49 and 50 above, we have to presume the passage of the forty days the Lord spent with the Apostles.  The evangelists, due to the demands of recounting the whole life of the Lord in a book short enough to be read in a reasonable amount of time, sometimes “telescope” the sequence of events, so that the passage of time in the narrative seems to be much shorter than was the case historically.

This passage of Luke focuses on the essential message of the Gospel: 
“repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, must be preached to all the nations.”  Just as the forgiveness of sins is linked to the gift of the Spirit in John 20:19-23, so it is here.  The Good News is that sins can be forgiven!  But today, people are offended at the idea that may have sinned.  For that reason it is hard to lead them to repentance: “What have I to apologize for?  I’ve just been who I am! Who are you to judge?”  But without repentance, there is no forgiveness of sin.  In this Year of Mercy, it is helpful to remember that repentance is the precondition of mercy, and there is no reception of mercy when a person remains unrepentant. In my view, Pope Francis is brilliant to lead with the theme of mercy in his evangelistic leadership.  Who can be offended by “mercy”?  And yet, to preach a merciful God also implies that we are in need of mercy, that is, that we are guilty.  Thus, in an indirect way, Pope Francis is indicting this entire generation as one that is in particular need of the mercy of God. 

Yet, it is only the Holy Spirit who can convict the heart of person concerning their sin, so in the remaining days before Pentecost let’s pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will lead us, our family, our loved ones, and friends to acknowledge our sins, turn from them, and begin to live a life of holiness.  My good friend Fr. Dave Pivonka, TOR, is leading an internet prayer initiative to lead people deeper into relationship with the Holy Spirit this Easter Season: click here. Let me also recommend this wonderful book by St. John of Avila.

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