Sunday, June 8, 2014

Ascension - We are all Witnesses

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As we celebrate this Feast of the Ascension, I want to reflect on the readings because they are just so powerful and amazing and insightful. I guess, for some reason, it never struck me about this first part of Acts. In the first book, Luke is telling us that in the whole Gospel of Luke, the whole Gospel is all about Jesus here on earth, all the miracles he performed, all the healings that he performed, everything from his birth, death, all the way to the resurrection. And that ends the Gospel of Luke and the life of Jesus here on Earth. And then we begin with the Gospel of Acts.

So the very first line of the Gospel of Acts is, “In the first book, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instruction by the Holy Spirit to the Apostles whom he had chosen. So for these last 40 days of Easter, we have been celebrating the resurrection. And just after Jesus’ resurrection for 40 days, he appeared to his disciples and he formed them and he shaped them and taught them and he prepared them and he revealed himself to them, and he prepared them for this moment when he would ascend and leave them.

It happened that he gathered them all together on the mountain. When he gathered his disciples together around him, he, once more, went on to explain himself further that he was not to be here like a ruler of the world. He was here to bring heaven and earth together. He was here to be the ultimate final consummation. As he is saying this, his disciples are looking at him, and all of a sudden he is wrapped in a cloud and he is taken up to heaven. Then two angels appear, and then said to men, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking up at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from heaven will come down from heaven in the very same way he was taken up.”
And then we hear in the Gospel, the disciples, when the ascension is happening, Jesus comes before them, and they saw him, but they doubted. There was still a little bit of doubt in the disciples. So Jesus, even with their doubt, he says to them, before he ascends, the last thing he says to them is, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me, and I am giving it to you. So go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And the moment before he ascends into heaven, he says, “Behold! I am with you always, even until the end of the ages.” So he gives this great commission, but also this promise that he will be with us always.

So what does the ascension mean to us? Well, the whole idea when we celebrate the Sacraments. . .so every day we come to mass, and these are a couple subtle things you might not notice or realize, but the priest always comes in the back with the servers, and before the priest enters the sanctuary, he genuflects before the tabernacle because he is entering into this holy ground, and then he ascends, he climbs the steps up to the altar. And the altar is supposed to be like the highest point of the church. So the altar is all the way up at the top. It is symbolic of the mountain. So that when the priest comes to the altar of God and stands before the people, there is a moment when the gifts of bread and wine are brought forward and heaven and earth meet, they come together.

So as the gifts of bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood, heaven and earth come together and they meet. So for a moment the priest ascends, he comes to the altar of God, he takes the gifts of bread and wine, transforms them into the body and blood of Christ, and shortly after that he descends. So you will notice the priest and all the Eucharistic ministers come down, and it is a very powerful moment because all of a sudden now God is coming to you. And then as each and every one of you comes forward to receive the body and blood of Christ, you receive him in you. Heaven and earth are joined right in your body, right in your soul, heaven and earth together. And so there is both the ascension and the descension. We experience both of them at mass. We also experience that with Pentecost when Jesus sends his holy spirit onto the earth.

So what happens when we do this, experience this ascension and descension and the receiving of Jesus into us? Well, we hear in the second reading, “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.” What happens when you come here Sunday after Sunday after Sunday? You grow in knowledge of him. You grow in wisdom of him. You grow in experience of him. Jesus actually, this whole time that you are here, this whole time that we experience the ascension of heaven and earth coming together, Jesus is forming you. He is shaping you to be his disciples. You are called now to be his disciples.
See, so as the Gospel of Luke ended and as Jesus’ time here on earth ended, and he was crucified, died and rose from the dead and when he finally ascended, he would no longer be here in this world in the physical sense. But he is in the physical sense in you because we celebrate. The mere reality that when Jesus. . .he didn’t leave us behind. When Jesus ascended, he took each and every one of us with us. He is the head, as we heard in the opening prayer, the body. We all experience this ascension into heaven.

The last symbol I’m going to talk about that we use in the Eucharist sometimes is incense. So today I am just going to use it for the offertory. The whole notion of incense is the altar and the gifts of the bread and wine are going to be wrapped in this cloud of smoke. And it is symbolic of the ascension. Right here, today, we experience what it is like to be in Jesus’ presence. Heaven and earth combine. The clouds of heaven are joined right here on earth, and even the people will be incensed and you will enter into that cloud. You enter into this wonderful life of the resurrection.

At the very end of all of these great and wonderful mysteries, Jesus says to his disciples, “Be my witnesses. Go out to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Behold! I will be with you always.” So I just want to ask you this question: When you come here to mass and when you go out, do you consider yourself a disciple? Do you consider yourself on of the disciples of Jesus? Some people, I think, just come to mass because they feel like they have to or they need to do it to get to heaven, or whatever. But we come to mass to be formed as disciples. He is forming you to be his disciples, so that when you go out into the world you will evangelize and you will be his witnesses.

So do you consider yourself a disciple? The truth is, you are. That’s why you are here. He’s called you here to form you and to shape you and to go out into the world and to be his witness. So I just invite you to do that this week, to consider some way that you can witness to the wonderful mysteries that you experience here. Maybe you are nervous about that, maybe you’re anxious about that. But Jesus gives us the final message before his ascension: “Behold! I am with you always, even until the end of the age.”

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