Those who are an intimate part of our lives dwell in our minds and hearts. They color the way we live our lives every day. When they are sick and suffering they are in the forefront of our thoughts and concerns. Their burdens become our burden. When they are celebrating achievements or special events, we are joyful with them and for them. When they are confused we look to help work out their problems and concerns and at the same time assure them of our love. It is exactly this kind of presence that Jesus promises to us in today’s Gospel when He promises to bring the Father and dwell within us. Are we aware of this presence? Do we want this presence?
During the Easter Season almost every day the first reading at Mass has been from the Acts of the Apostles. This book of the Bible is the account of the first generation of the Church after Jesus rose and ascended into heaven. They faced many challenges among themselves and from outside forces. What is very clear as we read from the Acts of the Apostles is that all who came to believe in Jesus knew that He was dwelling within them and they were dwelling within Him. One very clear example is from Acts 5:17-29:
“Then the high priest rose up and all his companions, that is, the party of the Sadducees, and, filled with jealousy, laid hands upon the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night, the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, ‘Go and take your place in the temple area, and tell the people everything about this life.’ When they heard this, they went to the temple early in the morning and taught. When the high priest and his companions arrived, they convened the Sanhedrin, the full senate of the Israelites, and sent to the jail to have them brought in. But the court officers who went did not find them in the prison, so they came back and reported, ‘We found the jail securely locked and the guards stationed outside the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.’ When they heard this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss about them, as to what this would come to. Then someone came in and reported to them, ‘The men whom you put in prison are in the temple area and are teaching the people.’ Then the captain and the court officers went and brought them in, but without force, because they were afraid of being stoned by the people. When they had brought them in and made them stand before the Sanhedrin, the high priest questioned them, ‘We gave you strict orders [did we not?] to stop teaching in that name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.’ But Peter and the apostles said in reply, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’
With a little time, the Apostles (and us) can finally figured it out…the need for God in our lives. And, not a god we make up out of our own minds…but…God, Who wants us to have a real…intimate…actual relationship with us (but on His terms…not ours). Our challenge as American Catholics is not to be so influenced by the media, political candidates, and political parties…but to allow the vision of Jesus who dwells within us to illumine the way to the truth for ourselves and for our nation. Our society over and over again dismisses God and sound moral doctrine in the name of convenience and freedom. To be part of that mind set is to walk down the path with your head looking straight up and not where your feet are going. Of course any path like this leads to confusion and destruction (and misleads our young people about what it means to dwell in: Jesus…the Father…or to recognize Jesus and the Father dwelling in us). Take a hint from the Gospel and the angel in Acts this week: “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Get busy as Jesus told you: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
Holy Scripture tells us that the Lord Jesus returned to the glory of his Father forty days after his Resurrection, and for that reason, the Church traditionally celebrates the Ascension on the Thursday after the 6th Sunday of Easter — forty days after Easter Sunday. In recent years, however, the liturgical commemoration of the Ascension has been transferred in many places from the proper Thursday to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, and that is why we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ today.
This mystery of faith does not mean that the Lord was merely taken from our sight to continue in space and time as we know them while simply being in another place; rather, Christ the Lord in His Ascension transcended the created universe altogether, including the created realities of time and space. But in transcending the created universe, the Lord Jesus did not abandon His Church or leave us comfortless. Even as Christ gave us the Great Commission to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth and celebrate the sacraments for the salvation of souls, He also promised to send the Holy Spirit of truth to be our teacher, guide, and consoler, and the coming of the Spirit was accomplished and manifested 50 days after Christ’s Resurrection, a mystery which we will celebrate next week on the great Solemnity of Pentecost. Christ’s Ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are the very conditions for the possibility of this time of the Church in which we are called to share in the sublime work of bringing the whole human race to know, love and serve the living God, and in Word and Sacrament, the Savior remains with us to sustain us in that mission.
In describing the final moments of the Lord Jesus with the Apostles, St. Matthew candidly admits that even forty days after the Resurrection, confusion remains: “And when they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” These doubts, however, were resolved by the solemn revelation of the divine nature and glory of the Son of Man: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” And twenty centuries later we are still laboring to fulfill the Great Commission, which begins with comprehending the majesty of this sacred mystery of faith. In the Roman Missal, the first Preface of the Ascension speaks to us of the sacred mystery of Christ’s Ascension in these words:
“It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God. For the Lord Jesus, the King of Glory, Conqueror of sin and death, ascended to the highest heavens, as the Angels gazed in wonder. Mediator between God and man, Judge of the world and Lord of hosts, He ascended, not to distance Himself from our lowly state, but that we, His members, might be confident of following where He, our Head and Founder, has gone before.”
The Amish (a community formed in the 17th century by a schism within the Mennonite movement in Switzerland) are famous for their radical separation from the world: they will not use modern technology, they dress differently from their neighbors, they cease formal schooling after the 8th grade, they refuse to serve in the armed forces, they will not participate in Social Security or purchase medical insurance, and so forth. These behaviors are regarded as odd by most people, and with good reason: Such a way of life is not required by the Gospel, and in many ways it is contrary to the Gospel. And that is why Catholics cannot live like the Amish.
We do not dress differently than our neighbors. We do not fear technology or the benefits of modern science. We do not separate ourselves in politics, commerce, military service, or civic responsibility from those who do not share our faith. And we do not do these things because to do so would make it impossible for us to fulfill the Great Commission as we hear in this week’s Gospel: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (cf. Mark 16) We are called to be salt and light in the world, not to hide behind a barricade for fear that we will be polluted.
The impulse to flee from “the world” is, of course, also a part of Christianity, if by “the world” we mean that part of the created order (starting inside of us) which is in rebellion against God. For this reason, religious life has been with us since Christian antiquity, and all Christians need a deep formation for genuine holiness of life. But that is not the same as the Amish refusal to live in the world, something that Catholics cannot accept as compatible with Christian discipleship.
One of the worst classes I took in theology was Patristic. It is a class seminarians and theologians commonly complain about. It is a combination – theology, history and Church literature class. It isn’t that the information you learn is hard. The importance of the class is found in how the early Christians lived and understood their faith as the apostles, themselves, taught. The Letter to Diognetus is an example (written in the 2nd century):
“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life…With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven…to speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body.”
Are we living as the “soul of the world”?