Sunday, May 12, 2013

Love: The Irresistible Desire

The poet, Robert Frost, writes: "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 Ascension Thursday itself speak abundantly of desire.

Jesus’ being lifted up from the earth is the hinge between St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry and his account of the spread of the Church, as a result, by Jesus’ followers. Where is Jesus? 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 and ascended Jesus reveals God and is present in the life of humanity, including the Church, in his desire to be united with us always.

Because of the Ascension, Jesus, though absent, is 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 gather all humanity at the culmination of human history: the definitive beginning of the fullness of God’s reign.

Until then, as Luke hints through his comment by the “two men in white robes” (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 and ascended Lord?" We have ministry to do, not on our own initiative or for our own self-accomplishment, but ministry empowered by and for the Spirit of the risen Christ within us, among us, calling us to faithfully bring his saving presence among 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." Rather than longing to "go to heaven", our desire should be to make “heaven”, i.e., the divine Presence, visible 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, who is Infinite Reality, Infinite Being, utterly empties Godself by giving Itself away in love in the act of creation. God’s generosity is boundless, and we are the generosity of God. You and I are who we have always been in God’s knowledge, even before God created us. 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 such that 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. Blessed Julian of Norwich prayed: “God give me yourself for you are enough to me, and I can ask nothing that is less that can be full honor to you. And if I ask anything that is less, ever shall I be in want: for only in you have I all.” (Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 5)

This is the path of our continuing union with the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit, made possible by Jesus' Ascension. The distance between God and humanity is fully and finally spanned in Christ! In Christ’s giving us the Holy Spirit, Christ collapses the distance between us and himself. 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 and 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 and ascended Christ pervades all that is created, though you and I must wait to see him face to face.
  • In the Spirit, matter is collapsed in that the presence of the risen and ascended Christ is perceptible 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.” 

Today’s Gospel passage (John 17:20-26) prepares us for the feast of Pentecost next week, for this new way of God’s being with us, i.e., 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 gain a deeper maturity.  The season of Pentecost, the long “green” season, will be a time for us to grow into 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: 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 continues: “...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 and ascended Christ to the people I encounter each day? 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 (Acts 16:16-34), 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”. The second reading, from the Book of Revelation (22:12-14; 16-17; 20-21), depicts the risen/ascended Jesus and the Spirit inviting 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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