Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday After the Ascension: Jesus' Desire & Ours

Famous comedian Jack Benny once quipped: “Give me my golf clubs, fresh air, and a beautiful woman, and you can keep my golf clubs and the fresh air.” It perhaps expresses humorously what the poet, Robert Frost, said more seriously: “Love is the irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.” The biblical texts for this Sunday after the Ascension of our Lord, and for the feast of the Ascension itself, celebrated just this past Thursday, speak abundantly of desire.

The event of Jesus’ Ascension is the hinge between St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry in his Gospel, and his account of the spread of the Church by Jesus’ followers after he ascended to his Father in the Acts of the Apostles. Where is Jesus? Because of the Ascension, the risen Jesus dwells in “heaven”: i.e., in the immediate presence of God. The Father's “right hand” signifies the power with which the risen/ascended Jesus reveals God and is present in the life of humanity, including the Church, in his desire to be one with us always.

Because of the Ascension, Jesus is both absent, yet present. His presence is embodied in the Holy Spirit, Christ’s gift to us. We desire and, one day, will share his full and unmediated presence, face to face. Jesus, longing to bring us home, will come again to us at the culmination of human history, which is also the definitive beginning the fullness of God’s reign.

Until then, as Luke hints through his comment by the “two men in white robes” in Acts 1:10, you and I have work to do: “...why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you... will come [again] in the same way...” Our constant question must not be, "Where is Jesus?" but "Where are we in relation to, in our desire for, the risen/ascended Lord?" We have ministry to do, not on our own initiative or for our own selfish interests, but empowered by and for the Spirit of the risen Christ within us, among us, calling us to faithfully witness to his saving presence in all of humankind.

The prayer which Jesus taught us expresses this well: "Father...may your reign come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven." Our longing should not be to "go to heaven", but to make “heaven”, i.e., the divine Presence, a reality on earth through faithful witness to the Good News of Jesus’ words and deeds. Our aim is to collapse the distance between “heaven” and earth through the Holy Spirit, sent in order that Jesus' reign may be experienced. The story of Jesus is inescapably interwoven with the story of humankind, including the Church. And this is possible because of the Ascension.

If we’re willing to stretch our imagination and human language as far as we can, Philip Culbertson reminds us, we’ll begin to grapple with the “new physics" of the Ascension. He says that the possibility of other transcendent dimensions is no longer the stuff of science fiction, but of legitimate scientific theory. What if we considered “heaven” as a dimension that can touch the dimension of our present experience rather than a place far, far away? In fact, this is how the early church regarded the Ascension.

In one of the ancient Divine Office readings, Pope St. Leo I, in his Sermon 1 on the Ascension comments:
...[I]t was a great and unspeakable cause for rejoicing, when in the sight of a holy multitude, human nature ascended above the dignity of all celestial creatures...not to have any degree of loftiness set as a limit...short of the right hand of the eternal Father, where it would be associated with [the Father’s] royal glory, to whose nature it was united in the Son. Since, then, Christ’s ascension is our own exaltation, and where the glory of the head has gone before, there also is the hope of the body summoned. Let us, dearly beloved, rejoice... For today, not only have we been confirmed in the possession of Paradise, but in Christ we have...gained...far more...For those...cast down from the happiness of their first estate, these have the Son of God made to be one body with himself, and placed at the right hand of the Father...

The Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus span the gap between us and God. In Jesus, the Word made-flesh, God, Infinite Reality, Infinite Being, utterly empties Itself by giving Itself away in love in the act of creation. God’s generosity is infinite, and we are the generosity of God. You and I are who we were in God’s knowledge before we were ever created by God. God’s non-distinction from all things is their own reality, and so that reality is our very ordinariness. Our human nature is oned with that of Jesus through the Spirit of Love: Paul says that "in Christ we have access to the Father through the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:18). From time to time, you and I experience unexpected “quickening moments”, “stirrings of love”, “fleeting flashes”. These are subtle recognitions of the holiness of our life as it is. Such moments are revelatory, i.e., in them God makes Godself known to us, awakens us to God already within our being: our God-given Godly nature. God awakens us to see that, in the very ordinariness of who we are, we already possess all that’s necessary to live in habitual consciousness of God giving Godself away. And having once glimpsed God, we know that only God will do in our life. We desire a more lasting, daily deepening awareness of this life, and the effect of this is cumulative, i.e., we desire more and more to follow the path leading to even deeper experiences of oneness with God.

This is the path of our continuing union with the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit, a continuing union made possible by Jesus' Ascension. The distance between God and humanity is fully and finally spanned in Christ! In Christ’s gift to us of the Holy Spirit, the distance between us and Christ is collapsed. This collapsing and transcending impacts our entire experience in the realms of time, space, and matter:

- In the Spirit, time is collapsed in that, in our oneness with the risen/ascended Christ, we already access eternal life, although we can only fully experience it beyond this life.

- In the Spirit, space is collapsed in that the presence of the risen/ascended Christ is available everywhere, though we must await the time when we will see him face to face.

In the Spirit, matter is collapsed in that the presence of the risen/ascended Christ is experienced in every aspect of our ordinariness here and now: in nature around us; in our times of intimacy; in solitude; in music, poetry and art; in the experience of birth; in observing children; in helping others; in the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist; and finally, in experiencing death itself, our own or others’. Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the 20th century’s noted spiritual theologians, puts it this way: “We are the language God uses to speak us. How could we possibly not understand ourselves in this language? Bathed in the light of God, we step into our own clarity.

That brings us to today’s Gospel (John 17:20-26) which is preparing us for Pentecost next week, for this new way of God’s being with us, the Holy Spirit. Judith Viorst speaks of “necessary losses”, i.e., those things which we have to lose or let go of, so as to move ahead to a deeper maturity. The season of Pentecost, the long “green” season, is a time for us to grow into a deeper spiritual maturity, in our desire for an ever-growing oneness with God in Christ. In a sense it’s the unique season of desire, of longing and thirsting for the Fountain of Life and Love. Philip Culbertson says this: “As [the theme of] water flows throughout the Bible ([e.g.,]‘By the rivers of Babylon,’ ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams,’ ‘I am the Living Water’) so the river of desire flows through the words of the... Jesus [of John’s Gospel], reminding us why we thirst, and for what we truly thirst.

Notice the key words Jesus uses in the Gospel passage: being one, glory, know, love. Notice, too, his opening line: “I ask not only on behalf of these, [i.e., his disciples] but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word...” Jesus is praying here for you and me! Listen to his desire as he then goes on: “...that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us...The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given [us] because you loved [us] before the foundation of the world.

The Gospel makes clear what Jesus’ desire is. What about our desire? Am I willing to risk becoming the presence of the risen/ascended Christ to others? Am I willing, like Jesus, to make God known by breaking the bread of God’s word open for others; to embody God’s love, even in my own weak, everyday, human ordinariness; to consider all others as “friend” and, even if only symbolically, to be willing to humbly “lay down my life” for her or him?

Paul and Silas, in the first reading, in their desire to make Christ known, invited the jailer and his household to “Believe on the Lord Jesus...”, and, says Luke, “They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” They believed and they “rejoiced”. In the Book of Revelation passage (22:12-14; 16-17; 20-21) the risen/ascended Jesus and the Spirit invite each of us who desire the water of life to “Come”, so that “the grace [the presence] of the Lord Jesus [may] be with all the saints” -- with all of our brother and sisters -- through us.

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