Homily: The Ascension

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The Ascension of the Lord (Year C)
Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
Heb 9:24-28; 10:19-23
Luke 24:46-53


Today’s Feast Day of the Ascension celebrates that part of the infinite mystery of Christ by which he victoriously returns, in his resurrected and transfigured flesh, to the right hand of God the Father, to rule all Creation as king, and to sanctify all Creation as high priest. The overwhelming, brilliant glory of Christ that was briefly seen in the mystery of the Transfiguration, is now forever fulfilled in the mystery of the Ascension. The Son of God took on our human flesh, which is now and forever held within the eternal glory of God himself, the Holy Trinity. Divinity shared in our humanity, so that humanity might share in His divinity.


Our gospel reading gives us the last verses of the gospel of Luke, which tell of Jesus meeting with his disciples after resurrection, giving them the confidence that all that Jesus had said of himself being the Messiah and the Son of God, and being killed on the cross and rising on the third day, was true. Jesus was victorious in his defeat over death, and now the good news was to be spread throughout all the nations by his joyful disciples, the Church—the good news of the invitation to repentance and the forgiveness of sins through Christ. But their mission wasn’t to start just yet—not until they are empowered by the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them at Pentecost. After giving them the joy of his resurrection, the mission of his Church, and the promise of his Holy Spirit, Jesus led them out of the city, raised his hands in blessing upon them, and parted from them in his Ascension. Back at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, we saw the priest Zechariah ministering in the temple, when the angel told him of the coming of his son, John the Baptist. But Zechariah didn’t believe the angel, and he was struck mute. When he came out of the temple, the people expected to receive the priestly blessing from him, but they could not. The time of the old priestly blessings has ended. Now, at the end of the Gospel of Luke, the world once again receives the priestly blessing —not from the old covenant priesthood, but from the new covenant’s high priest Jesus Christ, as he goes up to the heavenly temple.

In the opening verses of the Gospel of Luke, he says that he has collected and re-examined all the available eye-witness accounts regarding Jesus, and is writing his gospel for a person he calls Theophilus, which may be a person’s name, or could just be a generic name to apply to any Christian reader, since it means “friend of God.” And the writing is with the intention to help Theophilus to be strengthened in his faith in Jesus Christ, and the miraculous accounts that are circulating about him.

Now, as our first reading today, we have the very first verses of the Acts of the Apostles, which begins, “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…” and then continues on with the rest of our reading of the Ascension, and then on with the rest of the story. So the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles go together. The beginning of Acts is like the first scene of a TV episode, that begins, “Previously…”, and recaps the end of the previous episode, before continuing on with the new material.

As we celebrate the Ascension, some people may get confused by that language, “ascended up into Heaven.” Does that mean that Jesus goes up into the outer space? Does he keep going past Pluto somewhere? What does that mean? St. Paul describes a mystical vision in which he was taken up into “the third heaven.” In the ancient Jewish understanding of the world, the first heaven was the air, the domain of clouds and birds. The second heaven was the furthest that we could see, the firmament of the blue sky and stars, like a dome over the world. And then, there was the third heaven, kind of a spiritual realm in which God and the angels dwell. So the visible heaven is a kind of sacramental symbol for the invisible spiritual realm in which the Lord dwells: “The heaven of heavens.” So Jesus being lifted up, and then hidden by a cloud, is revealing that he is now passing into the invisible realm where the Father dwells. That’s what this day is celebrating.


For our second reading, we had the option to read from either the Letter to the Ephesians or the Hebrews. This section from Hebrews is a detailed reflection on the mystery of Jesus’ Ascension in the New Testament. It says that “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.” Christ isn’t offering himself over and over like an eternally repeating cycle. He offered himself once, for all time. His crucified and resurrected life is itself the perpetual offering of himself to the Father on our behalf. He is in the true Temple, of which the Jerusalem temple was an icon, a sacramental image of the hidden reality, based on the Tent of Meeting, which Moses built from instructions God had given him. Our modern churches, with a sanctuary, tabernacle, bread of presence, lampstand, and altar, are a copy of a copy of a copy. But what is the true, heavenly temple? We know from John’s book of Revelation that the heavenly city doesn’t have a temple. John says, “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” The heavenly Temple is an image of divine love: the love between the Father and the Son; and now, after the Ascension, with the Son in human flesh, it is the eternal love between Divinity and Humanity. Between the eternal Bridegroom and Bride.


Fr. Jean Corbon, in his beautiful book on the liturgy, “Wellspring of Worship,” describes the Ascension as ongoing until the end of time, because the Ascension is the arrival of the Body of Christ into the presence of the Father, and the Body of Christ is all the members of the Church. The members of the Body continue the Ascension, as each one follows Christ, the head of the body, through death, and up into the heavenly banquet of the Father joyfully welcoming home His Son, returning from his mission of rescuing humanity, His Bride, his People, from death, and bringing them into communion with God. It is the supper of the Lamb, the wedding feast of the Lamb and the Bride, united in the Holy Spirit.

We have a taste of that here and now. That’s what the sacrament of Communion is! If our own bodies are holy because of their union with our human souls, how much more so the body of Christ, that is united to divinity, the source of life, itself!? Now this flesh is transfigured in the Paschal mystery of Christ, and, in the Ascension, shares in the Holy Trinity itself, and we unite ourselves with this divine flesh that is the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament of communion. What did Jesus say in the Bread of Life Discourse? Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him…” Then he says, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?

Jesus connects the Ascension with the Eucharist. We are what we eat; we become like what we eat. When we worthily receive the Sacrament of Communion, we are united to heaven, to the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. We are transformed by our sacramental share in the joyful banquet feast of heaven. How? By the Holy Spirit, the grace that unites the bread and wine the priest offers on the altar into Christ’s sacrament of his body and blood at the Last Supper, which is then offered as the perfect sacrifice of himself by his cross and resurrection, that we might have life with the Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit. That’s what we celebrate in the Ascension: our own participation in the shalom of the Holy Trinity. And then our mission is to spread the good news of the invitation into this mystery, and the necessity of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. But before we begin that mission, first we need to join the Apostles as they prayerfully prepare for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

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Homily: Shalom…Peace

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The Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Acts 15:1-2, 22-29
Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23
John 14:23-29


We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.” – Thomas Merton

Our gospel reading is one of the most significant revelations of God as the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is implicit and hinted at all throughout scripture, even back in Genesis. When we create something, our creation reveals our own self. And the divine writing of the Holy Scriptures is no exception. That’s the point of the Scriptures: God’s revelation of Himself for our salvation—not just as the subject of the writing, but the very writing itself; the Word of God is God.

One of the great mysteries—the central mystery—of the Christian Faith is the Holy Trinity. And of course, our parish is dedicated to the honor of this central mystery. It is the mystery of who God is. Therefore, it is the mystery of existence; the mystery of the nature of everything, and the mystery of what we are called to choose to participate in, by the divine gift of our free will.

One of the aspects of divine nature is that of perfect peace, the Hebrew word, “Shalom.” Ancient languages have a relatively small vocabulary, but the words are deep in meaning. Modern languages like English have tens of thousands of words, which are particular and narrow in their scope. What thoughts come to you with the words, “peace, greeting, happiness, generosity, patience, love, wholeness, forgiveness, unity, contentment”? This cluster of words are all aspects of the Hebrew word, “Shalom,” which is simply translated, “peace.” God is this peace; He is happy, he is love, he is joyful, he is rest, he is perfect. He wants for nothing outside of himself. And he created us to have His divine peace, for all eternity. When you hear this word in the Mass, especially after the Lord’s Prayer, I want you to remember all these thoughts and feelings that are intended by that word.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus says to his Apostles, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” Jesus in his divine nature never loses the perfect peace of the Holy Trinity. But in his human nature, he experiences the lack of peace that is our limitedness, our unrelenting desire for something (for unity with something) that is not within us. In the mystery of the Ascension of the incarnation of the Son back into the Trinity, which we celebrate in the Feast of Ascension Thursday, the Holy Day of Obligation this week, this existential question in our human nature is answered by our union into divine nature.

Peace is not just absence of worry or anxiety, or absence of conflict with others. That’s the world’s peace, and it’s superficial and unstable. But God offers us an existential peace; a true peace. We as humanity cannot attain this peace of our own, but we can get moments of it. It is not within our reach, and unable to be maintained in our turbulent existence. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once compared humans to Bulldog Ants. If a Bulldog Ant is split in half, the front and rear segments will enter into a savage fight. The head will bite the tail, while the tail will sting the head. That is the way we are. Always at war with ourselves. Jesus said to his disciples, “I’m not just giving you peace; I’m giving you my peace, that comes from being perfectly open and united to divine being.” One of my favorite words of scripture, especially in times of anxiety, come from Psalm 48: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, concerns what is often called “The Council of Jerusalem,” the first Church Council. It was called because disagreement was growing within the Church, between gentile Christians and conservative Jewish Christians over the question of whether gentiles needed to convert to Judaism in order to become Christian. The scriptures didn’t give clear instruction on this question. Jesus hadn’t given clear instruction on this question. So Paul and Barnabas led a group from Antioch to Jerusalem, where Peter and James and the other Apostles and presbyters were, to settle the matter. Our reading today skips over the Council and picks up with the conclusion of the Council being given to the church in Antioch. It says, “Since we have heard that some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind” So those who were teaching on their own supposed authority did not actually have any Apostolic authority or mission. And the effect of their unsanctioned teaching was to disturb the church’s peace and confuse the faithful. “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us” Church teaching is not a matter of the church deciding what to teach. It is the discernment of what God is guiding the Church to teach, by the apostolic charism of the magisterium, the teaching authority of the church.

The second reading, from the Revelation, gives us a mystical view of tensions between the church and the secular world. It would bring great peace to the hearts of the suffering Christians to know that their sufferings were part of bringing the beautiful heavenly church, the New Jerusalem, the city of God, to earth.

Jesus says, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” This image is that of the Temple. When Moses built the Tent of Meeting, and when Solomon built the great Jerusalem Temple, the glory of the Lord filled the place with His presence, often in the form of a great cloud of glory, the Spirit of Divine Presence. We are invited into this union with God by the Sacrament of Baptism: for ourselves be the living temples of God. We often think of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, but it is the unity of the Holy Trinity: the Father and the Son make their dwelling within us, too. So long as we avoid deadly sin, by which we would shut down our side of our communion with God. But even then, God never ceases to invite us back to reconcile with Him…because this union with divine love, peace, and truth, are what He has made us for.

I was inspired with this thought during my Friday Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration. I want to invite all of you to have your home blessed, even if it was done years ago. I want your homes to be holy, cleansed of the obstacles to holiness and peace that you knowingly or unknowingly invite there. I want your rooms where you spend you lives to be holy. I want your bedrooms to be holy. I want the space where you spend time as a family to be holy. I want your life to be holy. Because your human existence, in the image of God, is holy. And if there is a tension between the holiness of your existence, and a lack of holiness in your life, you will not have peace—not God’s peace. And you will look to satisfy that need for peace in disordered ways that take you away from the real peace (all the holy aspects of peace) that you are made to seek… and that can be found only in the peace of God.

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Be back soon…

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Sorry that it’s been a while, and thank you for your patience. We’ve had a succession of great things happening at the parish, with the Easter octave, then 2nd week of Easter with First Communion, a beautiful wedding, and our Divine Mercy Holy Hour, and a really big and sad funeral, school arts and music celebrations, and our annual parish budget preparation (late, of course), and this and that. And the homilies have had to deal not just with the readings, but with some in-house things that we needed to talk out as a parish family, and I didn’t think that it needed to be posted for all the world to see.

So I’ll start posting homilies again shortly. Pray for me and my little flock, and we will pray for you. God bless you!


 

Homily: Do You Love Me?

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The Third Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41
Psalm 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19


In last week’s Gospel, we had two separate appearances of Jesus to his Apostles: First, the evening of the resurrection, but Thomas wasn’t with them. And then a week later, on the Second Sunday of Easter, and this time Thomas saw and believed. And Jesus blesses those who haven’t seen, yet believe. And then we had what sounded very much like the ending of the Gospel book.

But wait—there’s more. About half way through today’s gospel reading, it says, “This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.” The first half of the reading, before that line, and the second half after it, can be looked at separately, so that’s what we’re going to do.


At the beginning of the reading, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’” Some people read that to mean Peter had given up and decided to go back to his former way of life. That just doesn’t make sense. We should remember that they just saw the resurrected Jesus, twice. Now, they were in Galilee, waiting for Jesus, as they were told. And while they were waiting, Peter decides, “We’re just here waiting. I’m gonna go fishing.” And they all say, “Yeah, ok. We’ll go with you.”

As usual, it seems, they spend all night fishing, and catch nothing. Then this stranger on the shore shouts out, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” That’s a weird thing, maybe a little flag. He called them, “Children,” but they just answer, “No.” He tells them to throw the net over the right side of the boat, and they immediately catch so many fish they can’t even pull the net back into the boat. And that’s when it clicks for John, who remembers something like this happening before, after fishing all night unsuccessfully, this strange man gives them a strange suggestion, and on doing so, they catch a super-abundance of fish… way back when Jesus had first stepped into Peter’s boat. John turns to the others “Duh! Guys, it’s Jesus!” (That’s a more modern translation!) Peter jumps in the water, while the rest bring the boat and the net ashore. Apparently, Jesus must have seemed different somehow, or why would it say, And none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ I don’t think it would say that if his resurrected body were exactly the same as he was before. But clearly, they knew that indeed he was himself. Then, after the miraculous catch of fish he had just given them, he gave them a meal of loaves and fishes. Yep, that’s Jesus.


Then, more importantly, we have the second half of our reading. First, notice that it very specifically says that Jesus was next to a charcoal fire. The Greek word for charcoal fire, anthrakian, appears only twice in the whole bible: here, and the charcoal fire Peter was warming himself by when he denied Christ three times. When did Jesus predict that Peter was going to deny him three times? When, at the Last Supper, Peter had said to Jesus that even if all the other disciples were to abandon him, Peter would never abandon him; that he loved him so much he would lay down his life for him. Now, next to a charcoal fire, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me? Wow. I can’t imagine how this must have been for Peter, to have Jesus so sharply call to mind that shared moment of betrayal: both his prediction of his betrayal, and Peter’s very moment of betrayal, by a charcoal fire, just as their eyes met, as the cock crowed. 

Actually, Jesus doesn’t ask, “Do you love me.” He asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me  more than these?” More than these what? Does Jesus mean… Do you love me more than you love these other people? (Do you love me above all other persons in your life?) Or does he mean… Do you love me more than you love these fish? (Do you love me more than your way of life, your “comfort zone,” the pleasures and comforts that this world offers?) Or does he mean… Do you love me more than these other men do? Do you have greater love for me than others do? Do you excel in Christian love, so as to be ready to excel also in Christian authority? I would say that Jesus meant all of that, in his simple question. Simon, son of John, do you “agape” me? Do you love me with the sacrificial, self-giving, love that I have shown for you?

Simon Peter answered him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’” I “phileo” you.” I don’t love you with your agape love, but I love you with all my phileo love. Not like God, but like my teacher, my mentor, my brother, my dearest friend. Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.” Nourish my hungry people, give them the living water to quench their thirst, and the bread of heaven to feed their souls.

Second time, same thing: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Do you agape me? Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” I phileo you. Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” The Greek word isn’t quite as soft and fluffy. It’s “Shepherd my sheep.” Lead them, protect them, guide them, provide for them. Teach and train them. Including the other Apostles. I’m putting you in charge. I am the Good Shepherd, but I’m telling you to shepherd my sheep on my behalf.

Now the third time: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” But this time Jesus lowers the bar, and uses Peter’s word, “phileo.” It says, “Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, do you love me?” Do you phileo me? And Peter said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” I phileo you. Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

When Judas had seen the effect of his betrayal of Jesus, he despaired of his forgiveness, and went out and hanged himself. When Peter had seen the effect of his betrayal of Jesus, he went out and wept, for having so offended the relationship he had with Jesus.

Now, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me,” in effect, forgiving and wiping away Peter’s betrayal. Now that Peter has experienced Jesus’ divine mercy and love for him, Jesus is inviting Peter to follow him not just as a disciple, but to follow him specifically in Jesus’ place as leader of the disciples, to be the Rock on which Jesus had said he would build his church. To be a Christian leader doesn’t mean great technical skill, or great administrative skill. It means great love. Peter, do you excel in Christian love, so as to be ready to excel also in Christian authority? Will you do what ever it takes, sacrificing your life, to love my people with my love for them? Jesus says, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ He said this signifying by what kind of death Peter would glorify God [–crucifixion]. And when he had said this, he said to Peter, ‘Follow me.’”

Jesus is in effect saying to Peter, “For now, I will meet you where you are, and accept your love of friendship, your phileo love. But in the Holy Spirit, you will mature in your role, you will mature in your love and care for my dear little flock that I trust to your care. Peter, the Fisher of men, Peter the Shepherd of the sheep: you may not be there yet, but I will bring you to my agape sacrificial, divine love. And you willingly make good on that promise to lay down your life for love of me and my body, the Church.” That’s the Peter we see in the Acts of the Apostles.


Since I now don’t have time to get into the other readings, I’ll just end with this: that this love we’re talking about with Jesus and Peter is what we mean by the agape love between Christ and his Bride, the Church. Husbands, you are like Peter, striving to more perfectly love and honor your bride with Jesus’ love for her, and to lead her, by serving her, nourishing her, shepherding her toward heaven, stepping up as the spiritual head of the home, especially for your children. Wives, you are called—first, to choose a good man who wants your salvation more than you do (and so won’t ask you to jeopardize your salvation by sin)—and then to look to your husband as the Church looked to Peter: as an icon of Jesus, a man capable of noble character, who needs your prayers and love and encouragement to be the man that God is calling him to be for you. Husbands, you are an icon of the Bridegroom. Wives, you are an icon of the Bride. Your marriage is an icon of the faithful, forgiving, patient, abundant, unbreakable love between them. That’s the sacrament of Marriage, which is so much more than sex and companionship. It’s the agape self-giving love of the cross, by which you offer your life to each other, maturing in your love and care for each other. “My beloved, do you love me? Yes, you know that I love you.”

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