May. 23, 2020

THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD, 2020

WE MISS JESUS BUT STILL HAVE HIM

1st- Acts 1:1-11; 2nd- Eph. 1:17-23; Gospel- Mt. 28:16-20

If someone asks you the question, where is Jesus, what would be your answer? This question might have been part of the struggle that his disciples had on seeing him ascend into heaven. Shortly before this, Jesus was speaking to them in a very strange language, “A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me” (Jn. 16:16). The disciples shuddered at the meaning of “a little while” and kept pondering what that might portend. And today, he ascends to heaven as they watch; the “little while” becomes a reality.

Jesus’ ascension seems to be the second disappointment for his disciples, the first being his crucifixion and death. Both create a sudden absence of Jesus for them. At his death, they missed him. They panicked. They went into hiding. They felt lost. Then he reappeared after three days and they began to readjust thinking he was going to stay with them permanently this time. Now, it’s 40 days, he’s leaving them again. They are not sure of his destination; all they see is their Master taken up into heaven. Is he gone forever? Will he come back again as he did after his resurrection? So, they gaze as “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” It looks like a movie whose chief actor dies while the cast is still in progress. Since the movie isn’t over, the angels appear to address them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

For a few days now in the rectory, we have been talking about the theological concept of the “already but not yet.” The ascension of Christ and the question of where Jesus can be found presents us with the “already” and the “not yet” in today’s liturgy. The “already but not yet” teaches that believers are actively taking part in the kingdom of God but will only reach the full expression of this kingdom sometime in the future. 

The “already” is the inauguration that we see in the gospel encounter. Jesus tells his disciples that the powers in heaven and on earth have been handed over to him. He takes them into ministry as his apprentices learning the skills and manner of his works. He commissions them as they finish their apprenticeship, “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.” Christ makes this kingdom present. He is with his apostles. He is still with us accomplishing the mission of his Father as “head over all things to the Church which is his body” (Eph. 1:23). God’s kingdom is already in existence. It is with us.  

However, this kingdom will not reach its full expression until sometime in the future. We do “not yet” see it in its glory. Jesus’ ascension brings us into that kingdom in a special way as he leads us into a deeper relationship with God, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 17:20). The disciples seemed confused about this kingdom and they ask, “Lord, are you going at this time to restore the kingdom to Israel?” The answer from Jesus is that it is not important for them to know the time. It’s not their responsibility because the Father alone knows. Theirs is to receive the Holy Spirit and be about the business of witnessing to the presence of the kingdom in all parts of the world. Jesus leaves and they watch. But is Jesus away really? The answer is provided by the angels, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

It seems appropriate to be celebrating ascension during a time of quarantine when it seems like Jesus has been taken away from us. At this moment, many of us feel frustrated with the Church. Many of us feel that the church is not doing the right thing keeping the doors closed because of the COVID-19 situation. Many of us feel like the Church has shut them out from receiving the Blessed Eucharist, from touching and feeling Jesus in their hands and hearts. As if we are standing in confusion looking upwards. We are gazing and wondering in isolation. We are feeling like the disciples; what might be next? We are truly missing Jesus. At this moment, there’s a feeling of loss leading to frustration.  

The “not yet but already” theology can be applied to our situation and might help us to answer the question, “Where is Jesus?” Where is Jesus now that he is taken away from his disciples? If he ascends into heaven, is he still with us? Where is he when he died? Where is he during those three days in the tomb? Where is Jesus when Mary Magdalene couldn’t find him? Where is Jesus when the doors of the Church are locked up? Where is Jesus when we are not able to attend Mass or pray with the community? Where is he when we feel frustrated? Where exactly is Jesus when we think we are not able to see him physically or feel his impact? Yes, Jesus has gone to inaugurate the “not yet” kingdom, but he is already with us. Jesus is in our hearts. He is in our homes. Look at the line in the gospel that says, “When they saw him, they worshipped, but they doubted” (Matt. 28:17). The apostles doubted his presence in Galilee. But their hesitation didn’t take away the presence of Jesus. It didn’t mean he wasn’t there.

My dear friends, so here we are again, spending another feast day -ascension- apart. What do we do with our situation? With our painful feelings? What do we do? Maybe we need to ask ourselves, do we really recognize that Jesus is with us now? Have we invited Christ into the struggle? Have we fully offered it up to him? Most of us have heard the expression offer it up. Offer up the frustration, the sadness, the anger, the loneliness, the grief, and fear. Offer up the isolation. Offer it up with Jesus on Calvary who knew all these pains intimately. Offer it up to him as he ascends. Tell him to lift you up with him. This suffering will not last forever and will never have the last say. God is preparing a great blessing through this current suffering. Everyone wants to be back at mass again. We seem tired of watching the mass at home on the computer or on our cellphones. We are getting bored with EWTN or Facebook live-streaming of masses. 

As for us priests, we have been asked several questions during this period about the decisions taken to lock the churches because of the COVID. Unfortunately, too, we might not have all the answers for those wondering and feeling left out in limbo. So you seem to be gazing like the apostles in confusion. Be assured that the priests are with you in this suffering too. We want to see our parishioners. We want to see your smiling faces, and sing with you and offer the mass together. We want to give you holy communion and shake your hands after mass. We cherish the hugs we shared with you. We want to ask you how you are doing. I want to see you and tell you to “stay out of trouble.” But I’m standing here again, listening to the echo of an empty church, preaching to a cell phone. I don’t like it. It isn’t fair to us too. But life isn’t fair. The Christian life isn’t fair else Christ wouldn’t have died. So, we are standing with you. But God promised us his grace and that is sufficient for us. God invites us to turn our pain and suffering over to the Lord and he will do great things with it. That’s the meaning of holiness; Christ raises us beyond our emotions and feelings. 

My dear friends, missing Jesus and having him are two different things. We might miss him because of what/how we feel. We might miss him because we feel physically drawn away from him. Missing him can only make us gaze in idleness and lament. Having him makes us do something. The reality is that we still have him. Jesus is still present as God. Jesus is present in our hearts. He is present in our homes. He is present in our relationships. Jesus is still profoundly present. He doesn’t want us to just stand idle and wonder where he is going to. He is going to prepare for us the “not yet” kingdom. His mandate for us is to teach others to observe everything that he has commanded us, to live out our “already” in relation to the Father. I want you to know that Jesus is with us always, “until the end of the ages.” Even after his ascension, we still have him.