Christians in many parts of the world are celebrating the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, deferred from the preceding Thursday. Today, we are once more called to ponder the affirmation we make so often, “I believe… that he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
Even in presently sunny Ireland, it is difficult not to turn our eyes away from the carnage in Ukraine and the slaughter of the innocents in Texas and look to heaven for solace, for Jesus to come and save us. We may dote on films about superheroes and pagan heroes of ancient mythologies, but what we deeply want is a glimpse of Jesus returning in glory. But the men in white tell us not to look up into the sky. The mystery is much deeper than that and so is our mission.
The Ascension of Jesus is often taken as the penultimate climax of the Easter mysteries, a prelude to Pentecost — the coming of the Holy Spirit into a world still longing for redemption. But the final act, the return of Jesus in glory, is not yet. We live in hope.
According to St. Luke, the Ascension occurred between the Resurrection and the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which for Christians now celebrates the coming, the parousia of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, into the hearts and minds of the early disciples and of all disciples. But that lies ahead. Here, like those disciples on the hillside near Jerusalem, we are left wondering about Jesus’ “ascent into heaven.” Did he go up into the sky? Is he someplace up above the clouds, somewhere over the rainbow? Or are we still looking in the wrong place, or at least in the wrong way, as the mysterious men said.
The sciences of astronomy and cosmology have shown that the realm of space is vast, the habitat of thousands of billions of galaxies, stars and planets. The “heavens” described in scripture are not some physical location up above the ozone layer somewhere, on the moon or perhaps on some distant planet. Semitic descriptions are poetic, both symbolic and metaphorical, like the notion of sitting on a throne at God’s right hand – not if what we believe about God is true. God is not an old bearded man on a white throne, like some Jupiter of Roman mythology. God is the Creator of the universe, a pure and perfect spiritual power and presence, as even the old catechisms affirmed. God does not have arms and legs and toes and fingernails. That great artists may have portrayed God so does not make it true.
But Jesus, on the other hand (so to speak) is human – fully human. But we believe that his physical presence has been transformed by the Resurrection and Ascension.
The passage from the Acts of the Apostles does not claim that Jesus went into orbit like some ancient astronaut, but that a cloud hid him from sight. The Ascension was never a crude, physical doctrine that asserted that Jesus was hanging around above the clouds, “up” on some other planet, or, much less, out in space somewhere. Belief in the Ascension affirms the Cosmic Lordship, the Leadership, of Christ spiritually, but also sacramentally. It means that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead and exalted by God, has fully entered into the fundamental reality of Creation itself. Christ’s presence, St. Paul tells us, is now co-extensive with the universe. God, he says, “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” [Eph. 1:22-23]. There is no “where” that Jesus Christ is not present.
To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos, but is no less present to us now and always in spirit and sacrament, the “mysteries” of Christian life .
The Ascension completes the paschal mystery, the return of Jesus to the heart of God, the triumph of innocence over the guilt of the world, the final victory of life over death, of grace over sin. It is the culminating moment of the passage of Christ to the Father, but also of salvation history itself. Yet the Ascension is also preparation and prelude, the necessary movement prior to the “descent” of the Spirit, the beginning of the transformation of the world’s history and its very structure, a spiritual transformation leading to universal jubilation.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “ it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” [John 16:7]. And, the text goes on, “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth…. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. …I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Jesus has not gone away anywhere. He is present everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention. When we look with the eyes of faith, or, as St. Paul had it, “having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” we see him in manifold ways, in the rising sun, the beauty of the rose, and, as the poet proclaims, through the features of human faces.
We may wonder, of course, what is Jesus waiting for? Why doesn’t he come soon, as we repeat directly and indirectly with our maranathas hidden in the movies and television cartoons about superheroes arriving to save us in the nick of time. Not because he is not ready. In his Spirit, he is here already. We believe that Jesus will also return as the Disciples saw him depart, but now, we are told, keep your eyes on what is happening around you, in your midst. There are hearts to mend, people to serve, a planet to save. Time to get on with it.
Today, many Christians around the world will be anticipating the great Feast of the Ascension of Jesus on Thursday, the 40th day following Easter. Others will delay until the following Sunday, and Eastern Christians will celebrate it on June 2nd. Exactitude is not the point, obviously. What is shared is the belief that after the forty days during which Jesus appeared to his followers, he ascended into heaven where, following the ancient creeds, he is seated at the right hand of the Father and from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead, and, as we heard last Sunday, “make all things new.”
But we are not on our own. Jesus also promised his disciples, as we hear in the gospel reading, that in his name the Father would send the Paraklete (which means Advocate or Comforter), the Holy Spirit who will instruct us “in everything”… Pentecost is the name of the feast on which the Spirit erupted in the midst of gathered disciples – on the fiftieth day following the Resurrection and also the Feast of Weeks, celebrated in Judaism fifty days plus one after Passover. “Pentecost” is simply the Greek word for “fiftieth.”
All that remains to come. At the moment, we are effectively ending the Sundays of Easter with readings that begin by describing a critical moment in the life of the early Christian community and, in the climax of the Book of Revelation, which has been our daily reading during this joyful season, the ultimate triumph of God, the gift of a new heaven and earth.
The first reading for today details the resolution of a crisis first faced by Jesus’ early followers – whether to impose the full weight of Jewish law on the gentile converts of southwest Asia we heard about last week. In the Spirit of peace and reconciliation, the “Apostles and Elders,” and “the whole Jerusalem church” required only that the very minimum be imposed, that no burden be laid on the converts beyond that which was strictly necessary – a far cry from the more than 600 tenets of the Law.
Jesus himself made clear that his yoke was easy and his burden was light (Mat 11:30). Christian history sadly reveals that as time went on, more and more burdens were imposed, the yoke made increasingly heavy until the Spirit of Freedom periodically broke through the human tendency to constrict rather than liberate, even to weaponize the faith. Even today, one needs a degree in canon law to grapple with the thousands of accumulated rules, laws, and prescriptions, a welter of legislation that would astonish the early Christians and undoubtedly their Lord.
The gospel reading today is taken from Jesus’ “farewell discourse” at the Last Supper in the gospel of John. It is a charter of hope and love in which he promises not only God’s constant presence but the gift of the Paraklete, that Holy Spirit who is the very spirit of Jesus himself.
And then, Jesus endows his disciples with the gift of peace. His peace. He tells his them not to feel distressed or fearful. Challenges and disasters lay ahead, and we certainly seem plagued with them at present. We, too, need not only comfort but instruction and guidance, just as we still need “tidings of joy” once proclaimed on a dark hill near Bethlehem. Here, what we hear Jesus saying is, simply, do not fret: the reins of time and human history are ultimately in the hands of God.
The second reading comes very near the end of the Book of Revelation. It is not a horror story but a testament of hope, a promise of the ultimate victory of God in Christ, which is conveyed so well in the passage we have just read. Despite sin, oppression, and suffering, God triumphs in the end when every tear is wiped away and there is no more death or mourning. God makes all things new.
It is important to recall that the City of God, the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven, is not only beautiful. As I mentioned last Sunday, it is mind-bogglingly enormous, more than half the size of the moon! Roomy enough to fit everyone inside — everyone who ever lived, is living today, and will ever live.
And so, to repeat myself, our fears may be real but they are ultimately groundless. We have no reason to be afraid of the dark forces that threaten our peace. If the world turns from God, Jesus overcomes the world. And in the gift of the Spirit, sent from God as the earnest of Christ’s return, we have the pledge of an everlasting home. A very big one. The return of Christ to the Father that we will soon celebrate is the beginning of the end, a prelude to the coming of the Spirit of Christ that fills the whole world, the Lord and Giver of Life, making all things new. And in that Spirit we struggle build our human city, which one day will be taken up, healed, and transformed into the true and eternal City of God.
The events of past few days remind us, tearfully, that the world is in greater need than ever of salvation. Natural disasters seem to be proliferating. News of war and rumors of war are interspersed with accounts of domestic violence as shocking as they are now becoming more prevalent than ever. This year alone in the US, over 7,000 innocent people have been shot and killed in acts of unspeakable cruelty. Yesterday, the nation was horrified to see the 198th mass shooting. Last year there were 693 such mass shootings, and hundreds more suicides and homicides, 15,945 gun deaths in all, including 8,910 suicides. The US seems poised to equal or surpass that number this year.
By comparison, in Ukraine, since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the official UN civilian death toll is estimated to stand at 3,381, as well as 3,680 injured, although the actual figures are thought to be much higher. Most deaths and injuries are the result of aerial bombardment and artillery shelling, but many are the result of direct gunfire.
It has been said that guns do not kill people. No, people kill people with guns. And our nation especially and much of the world is, as they say, awash in guns, both legally purchased and illegally obtained. Over a billion of them. And the United States is outstanding in the proliferation of guns among the civilian population — 393,347,000, almost one per person, the highest percentage in the world.
It is not terribly surprising that in a period of tension and anxiety, anger and hatred explode in gunfire. But it is terrible. Someone is making a fortune manufacturing and selling such weapons in a country not at war. That the leaders of our nation seem unable to stem the tidal wave of the arms trade is itself a terrible indictment. Even a Supreme Court justice should be able to realize that the Second Amendment to the Constitution was never intended to entitle the citizens of this country to murder innocent fellow citizens – including children, women, the aged, and defenseless.
Such is the grim backdrop of the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2022. Yes, the world is in need of redemption. Still.
The first reading takes us back to the foundation of the Christian churches in southwest Asia. Of all those ancient cities and towns Luke carefully identifies, most are now mounds of ruins, including several of the seven cities whose churches are addressed in the Book of Revelation.
The second reading, from near the end of that wonderful and often hair-raising and usually misunderstood work, describes the future of the Church rather than its past — the new Jerusalem, the holy city that is God’s gift to all the world, not a human creation. It is described as impossibly larger than any structure ever designed by human beings, larger than any structure human beings will likely ever build.
We tend to miss that, because the dimensions are given in a different chapter. But when you work out the volume, as I have my students do, it describes a cube 1,500 miles on each side and 1,500 miles high – about 3,375,000,000 cubic miles –- approximately three-fifths the volume of the moon by our standards. It is the largest construction ever imagined by the human mind. But the simple point the author is making is that there is enough room for everyone. Everyone who ever lived, who is living now, and will ever live. Salvation is inclusive.
But that is another story. Here, the promise is what is important — God will dwell there with the people, always with them, beyond death and mourning, beyond all pain and suffering. All that will be gone. And here, the whole book of Revelation comes to a point in that simple phrase, “See, I am making all things new.”
It’s a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope. We only have to look at the news in the papers or on television to see what a mess we human beings can make of things. If anything, we have a tendency to go backwards, to undo things or redo them rather than make them truly new. War is perhaps the best example of such regression. So much waste, such vast destruction, sorrow, pain, and loss. War, violence, killing, and ecological destruction is what we too often do. Peace, love, and renewal is what God does… and seems to expect us to do as well.
…“love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” [John 13:34-35].
The name of waiting is hope. Not passively, but preparing the way of the Lord as best we can in the midst of trials and tears. In the end, today’s liturgy says it all:
“Behold, the dwelling of God is with humanity. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” [Rev 21:1-5].
Today the celebration of Mothers’ Day in the United States and elsewhere comes as a welcome respite after weeks of violent weather, deadly shootings in neighborhoods, schools, and shopping malls, as well as political upheaval and bitter controversy over the abortion issue. The war in Ukraine drags on mercilessly. That we live in turbulent times is an understatement. We need relief, more than races, no matter how exciting, can provide. We have the Word of God to steady us.
Today is also Commencement for Dominican University graduates. As I will be taking part in the celebration, it will be necessary to get an early start. So I am including here a reprise of my homily from 2019 which also fell on Mother’s Day.
Our readings today remind us of the spread of early Christianity in the decades following the Resurrection of Jesus. In the Acts of the
Apostles, St. Luke documents the spread of the faith throughout Asia Minor, what we now know as Turkey. We are more likely to recall cities like Corinth and Rome, but the original cradle of the Gentile churches was the central and western regions of Cilicia, Galatia, Lycia, and Phrygia, north and west of Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas and other Christian missionaries preached and won enough converts to establish small congregations. It was not an easy task. They met hardship and resistance, but the faith grew town by town, as they made their way west toward Rome, Spain, and Gaul. By the way, the little island in the Aegean Sea where John the Elder received his vision of the risen Christ and may have composed the Book of Revelation, was also in Asia Minor, not far off the southwest coast of the ancient city of Ephesus.
There is a subtext in these readings that is worth noting today, when prejudice, discrimination, and division, even genocide, are in the ascendant. It is highlighted in the opening verses from the reading from the Book of Revelation, where John writes,
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…” [Rev 7:9].
This is the inclusion theme, appearing in what you might suspect would be the most unlikely place to find one in Christian scripture. But the phrase appears over and over again in Revelation, like a drumbeat: “every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages,” culminating in the great vision of the New Jerusalem coming from heaven, and the fulfillment of the earlier promise:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among human beings. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’” [Revelation 21:1-5].
He then gives the dimensions of the City of God, which is so vast it could hold all the people who ever lived and are living now, and will probably live in time to come. The only condition is to live justly with compassion and honesty. It can be a struggle, as we have seen just this week, but the promise stands.
And that is the same subtext we find in the short passage from the Gospel of John: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” [John 10:27-30].
The story of early Christianity, the struggles, sacrifices, disasters and small triumphs, are fascinating in themselves, but the lesson we can take from these accounts is much more significant than geography. It is not simply that Christianity began as a Jewish sect or rapidly grew into a West Asian religious movement, much less a European one, but that it was from the beginning universal in its embrace. All are equally welcome. All.
A Latin chant once used during the Lenten office begins “Media vita morte sumus…” It sums up much of what has transpired this week, especially in Ukraine:.
“In the midst of life we are in death. Of whom may we seek help but you, O Lord; who for our offenses are justly displeased? Yet, O God most holy, O holy and mighty, O holy and merciful Savior, give us not over unto bitter death.
Cast us not away in the time of age; forsake us not, O Lord, when our strength fails us.”
It is equally and even more true that in the midst of death, as Jesus and John the Elder proclaim, we are alive. For it is the hand of God that sustains us. So long as we remain true, despite everything, no one can ever snatch us away. May we also be sustained on our way by the love and faith of our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, all the way back to that little band of valiant women who went to the tomb that first bright morning of eternal promise.
Today’s readings are about transformations. Some symbolically involve animals, such as fish and sheep, and the great surprise in store for the visionary of Patmos when he is taken into heaven to see the Lion of Judah. Others concern people — mainly disciples and martyrs. In all of them, we are challenged to consider what it takes to witness to Jesus.
There’s something worth noting in the first readings – the repetition of the word “name” in the Acts of Apostles and Psalm 30. Naming is an important biblical motif – a name not only
signifies someone, but invokes their power and presence. But it especially establishes their identity, it tells us not only who they are, but what they are – from the naming of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, to the mysterious “new name” endowed on his faithful witnesses by the Lamb of God in the Book of Revelation [Rev 2:17]. When Jesus changed the names of Simon bar Jonah and Saul of Tarsus to Peter (“petros,” rock, ] and Paul, he not only changed the men, he changed history.
To write or even speak the name of the Holy One of Israel in late Judaism was forbidden. “Lord” [Adonai] was substituted. But for even the earliest Christians, to call upon the name of Jesus is to find salvation – it is to call upon Jesus himself, his person, presence, and power, as we find in the first five chapters of the Acts of the Apostles in particular and in astonishing claims in later writings: “be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well” [Acts 4:10. See Eph 1:21 and Phil 2:9-10].
Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows Peter and John being threatened by the Sanhedrin for preaching about Jesus, “the Name.” This time, they were saved from a good beating by the intervention of Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel [Acts 5:42, 22:3], but they still rejoiced, as Luke says, that they had been judged worthy of ill-treatment for the sake of Jesus’ name. In time, they would suffer far more, and at least in Peter’s case, as Jesus predicts in John’s gospel, he would be led to his death for shepherding the people of God.
The second reading continues the great cosmic liturgy of the Book of Revelation. The visionary has been promised that he will see the Lion of Judah — God’s fierce war champion [Rev 5:5]. But what he encounters is a small Lamb, standing but also marked by slaughter. This Lion is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and is thus worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” At this early moment in Christian history, Jesus is already portrayed as the King of Martyrs as well as the Lord of Lords.
The Gospel takes us to the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus appears to the disciples for the third time, as John is careful to note at the end. And he shifts our attention to fish and sheep.
Fish appear several times in John’s Easter stories, although it is Luke who mentions that Jesus actually took a piece of fish from the disciples and ate it to show that he was not a ghost [Luke 24:41-43]. Since Peter was a fisherman, and so were Andrew, James, John, and some of the others, the prevalence of fish is not too surprising. Part of the imagery here reflects the great change in Peter’s life. Having already made him a rock and a gatekeeper, Jesus now makes Peter a shepherd. But before we give up on the fish story, it’s interesting to consider the number of fish the other disciples caught — “a hundred and fifty-three of them,” John carefully informs us, “and although there were so many, the net was not torn” [John 21:11].
As you might imagine, John is having a little fun with us. Scripture scholars say that at the time he was writing, there were 153 known species of fish — 26 of which lived in the Sea of Galilee. So these fish may have represented for John all the fish in the world — and not just fish, but people. For the Disciples are now fishers of men and women — all of them. Every last one is supposed to be netted. A very big order.
In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus say “the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind…” [Matt 13: 47]. For his part, Luke tells the same story that John has here, but he places it very early in Jesus’ ministry. After the miraculous catch, Peter, Andrew, James and John all leave their nets and boats, and perhaps even the fish, to follow Jesus, who has told them, “henceforth you will be catching men” [Luke 5: 3-11 ]. John probably had this tradition in mind, but he places the story after the resurrection, just before Jesus’ commission to Peter, shifting the image from fishing to shepherding.
Not only does Jesus want all people everywhere to become his flock, his “catch,” he puts Peter in charge. The Big Fisherman is about to become the Shepherd of the Kingdom of God. Then Jesus questions Peter, challenging him three times to affirm his love, undoing the three denials in the chief priest’s courtyard. But Jesus he also promises Peter that his commission will end in martyrdom, when he would stretch out his arms to be crucified like his Lord.
For someone to devote their life, their whole heart, soul, and strength to preaching the good news of Jesus to an indifferent and sometimes hostile world, doesn’t necessarily lead to a dramatic and bloody death like that of Peter and hundreds of thousands of martyrs up to present times. It can, of course. For us today, it is more likely to end in the little daily martyrdom of ridicule, frustration, and plain hard work as a parent, a teacher, a parish administrator, a student, an office worker, a soldier, immigrant, or homeless person. Or for that matter, married couples, families, and just about all of the rest of us. At some point in coming years we will be commemorating the Martyrs of Ukraine.
The main point is that there is room for us all, and whatever it takes, whatever it costs, it’s worth it. And in the end the kingdom of heaven is best described in the words of the Book of Revelation as the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Heaven is more like a wedding banquet than a harp festival. And weddings, all of them, should be a sign and symbol for us of that heavenly banquet, where all are invited, all are welcome.