A. I’m glad at long last to celebrate Mass here at St. Francis of Assisi. I had intended to visit long before now and in fact a Mass had been scheduled except that mother nature decided to favor us with a snowstorm that day. So thank you for your patience and please accept my warmest thanks as you strive to be a welcoming Catholic community that responds to God’s call to live out the message of Christ’s love and service to all people. You are ably and lovingly led here at St. Francis by Father Denis Diehl and I am delighted to join with you in expressing our common thanks for his dedicated service as your Pastor!
B. My long-delayed visit brings me to you on the solemnity of the Ascension, an event in which we profess our faith every Sunday in the Creed as we say of Jesus: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” When we profess this truth or listen to Scriptural accounts of the Lord’s Ascension, what does it mean to us and to our lives as followers of Christ? Does it mean that Jesus has left us and flew to some distant corner of the universe? Or does it mean that, having died and rose from the dead, Jesus went back to heaven and is now taking a long sabbatical while we muddle along down here on earth until the second coming? … The fact is, our Easter faith is not complete until we understand in faith what the Ascension of the Lord should really mean for you me … …and to this task let’s dedicate the next few moments.
II. Preparing the Disciples for Baptism in the Holy Spirit
A. Throughout his public ministry, Jesus instructed his apostles and his disciples. By his preaching, his miracles, and private instructions, he tried to help them understand and open their hearts to the Good News. And for forty days after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples continuing to teach them and to show them that he was truly alive. The disciples were amazed and filled with joy to encounter the Risen Lord yet, as Scripture attests, they still had doubts and they still misunderstood. In a sense, the Apostles and disciples were like catechumens whom the Lord was instructing and evangelizing, to get them to a point where they could experience his presence in a new and powerful way: namely, through baptism in the Holy Spirit.
B. So as he ascended into heaven, Jesus told his followers to stay in Jerusalem, to return to the upper room, there to watch, wait and pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate. For unless they were filled with the Holy Spirit they would never fully grasp all that Jesus had taught them; nor would they really open their hearts to the radical newness of his Risen Life. And without the Holy Spirit, the disciples would lack the courage and strength to preach the Gospel to the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike, performing the signs and wonders that confirm God’s mighty love.
III. Redeemed Humanity in the Heart of God
A. So the disciples did as the Lord asked: they returned to Jerusalem and could be found in the upper room and in the temple area. St. Luke tells us that they were not sad or fearful but joyful as they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit. And while they prayed and rejoiced, Jesus, for his part, did something really marvelous … something that should make us happy also, every day of our lives. He ascended, as we say, to the right hand of the Father, to God’s inner life, but now bearing our humanity redeemed at the price of his blood. In other words, the Son of God who became one of us did not jettison our humanity as he ascended into heaven rather, he brought our redeemed humanity into the very heart of God. In ascending Jesus retains our humanity and brings it to the Father’s right hand, opening up in the Trinity “space” for our humanity, so to speak, making room for us in the very heart of the Godhead.
B. And from his place at God’s right hand, the Exalted Lord, truly God and truly man, continues cares for us and for our world, and continues bears our burdens with love beyond all telling. Thus Jesus’ ascension signals not his absence from us but rather a new way and powerful way of being present to us, not merely in Jerusalem or Bethany or Emmaus, but in every place and in every time… here in Fulton Maryland, in our place and time, 2,000 years later. Jesus is not merely a figure of history; no, he lives, exalted at the Father’s right hand stooping down to share our sufferings, drawing us up to share his joy and his glory, seeking to engage us in his life and mission, perhaps as never before.
IV. The New Evangelization
A. When the Holy Spirit came, the disciples were indeed filled with the presence of Christ but now with a new power and a new joy beyond anything they could have imagined. They rightly viewed the Lord’s commission to preach the Gospel everywhere not as a mission impossible but rather as a mission glorious, a mission to which they would give their lives as witnesses, as martyrs.
B. Next Sunday, we will celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Virgin Mary and the Apostles. What then should we be doing to get ready for this event in the life of the Church? Let us do what the Apostles did: let us pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Let us spend the week ahead praying each day for a renewal of our own Baptism, that moment when we were baptized with water and the Holy Spirit. We should be asking that the graces received in Baptism and Confirmation to be stirred up in us so that our faith might come alive; so that ‘the eyes of our hearts’ might be opened afresh to Jesus, risen and exalted and to the surpassing truth, beauty, and power of the Gospel. And just as Jesus brought our humanity to the heart of God, so too, let us allow the Holy Spirit to bring Jesus to our hearts and homes. As the motto of Blessed John Henry Newman proclaims, “Cor ad cor loquitur,” “heart speaks to heart” – God’s heart to ours and ours to God! Thus will we bear him witness by lives of ardent prayer, by kindness to others, by overflowing charity for those in need, and by a readiness to speak of the reasons for our hope, especially before those who have fallen away from the faith for whatever reason.
C. One of the greatest fruits of the Second Vatican Council is the Church’s singlehearted focus on the new evangelization – bringing the Gospel of Christ to a troubled world with new fervor, using all the means and methods of communication at our disposal, but most of all bearing personal witness to Christ and to the Gospel. Exalted in heaven, the Lord seeks to engage you and me in this mission. He is calling us to become not merely his disciples but “missionary disciples” who find in the Holy Spirit the courage to bear witness to the Gospel among family members, friends, and those searching for truth – and this is in culture that is becoming increasingly less open to God and to religion.
D. So let us spend a few minutes each day this week in deep prayer, asking that the Holy Spirit may come anew upon us and upon the Church, so that Jesus, exalted at God’s right hand, may live in us and we in Him. May God bless us and keep us always in his love!