We Must Encounter Christ First

If we haven’t encountered Christ, nothing else matters.

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent, 2021

The Glorious Ascension into Heaven

From our human perspective, the Ascension might not seem very important. For many years, I remember thinking something like, “What’s the big deal? Jesus is leaving and going to be in Heaven. Would’ve been nice if he’d stuck around.” But the Church seems to think it is important, which usually means that it is. With 2000 years of experience in such matters, I’m willing to extend to her the benefit of the doubt. The Church says that today, God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord. Why is this such a big deal, and how does it impact my life?

St. Paul answers the first question for us. In his letter to the Ephesians, which is one of the few letters where he isn’t writing to correct some error within a community, St. Paul tells us that [I]n accord with the exercise of his great might, // which he worked in Christ, // [the Father raised] him from the dead // and seat[ed] him at his right hand in the heavens. This is a very straightforward reference to the Ascension. After his glorious victory over sin, evil, and death, Jesus Christ entered into Heaven and took his rightful place at seat of power at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Just to make sure we understand to breadth and depth of the power which the Father gives to the Son as a result of the great Sacrifice he made on behalf of humanity, St. Paul continues, that this seat is far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, // and every name that is named // not only in this age but also in the one to come. Not just Jews, but all the other peoples of the time would recognize in this statement that St. Paul is declaring Jesus Christ to rule over all the creatures of Heaven and Earth, i.e. angelic beings, human beings, animals, and inanimate objects alike, and for all eternity. When time ends, Jesus Christ remains on the throne of power, and St. Paul wants to make sure we know that.

St. Paul’s then tells us that he put all things beneath his feet // and gave him as head over all things to the church, // which is his body, // the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way. Did you catch that? St. Paul is telling us that God the Son is head over all things to the church, which is his body. This statement is important, because it tells us both why the Ascension is a big deal, and what it means for us. At the Ascension, Jesus Christ is given power over all things, but that is not all. The Church is grafted onto him: the same Church which we all entered at our baptism, the same Church we gather as today, right here, right now. The Church, mystically unified with Jesus Christ, is already in Heaven while still here on Earth. When we assemble as a Church, or as an ἐκκλησία (ekklésia) if you want to sound fancy and say things in Greek, to worship Jesus Christ, we worship him not just here on Earth, but also in Heaven. At the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Mass in particular, Heaven and Earth meet; eternity and time meet. We enter into the Heavenly Jerusalem, offer God our prayers and intentions in union with the offering of his beloved Son, and enter into a true Communion with one another all the Saints who have gone before us. The Ascension is when the Head of the Body of Christ, the Church, entered the Heavenly Jerusalem and brought us all with him.

As it turns out, younger me was very, very wrong. The Ascension is vitally important. Jesus knew this. After his Resurrection, he gave the final instruction to his apostles. He taught them about the kingdom of God. He instructed them that they would bear witness, starting in Jerusalem, moving further and further out as time went on. He promised them that the Holy Spirit would come upon them. His parting words, given in today’s Gospel, summarize the mission that Jesus gave the disciples—the disciples who would become the Church after the transformative events of the Ascension, the election of Matthias, and the Pentecost, but more on that next week. Jesus left us with these words: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. // 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, // teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. // And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20) This mission is given to all of us as members of the Church and Body of Jesus Christ. We are to make disciples—followers—of Jesus Christ. We are to bring them to baptism, so that they too can become part of the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ. We are to teach them to observe Jesus’s commandments: to love God above all things, to love our neighbor, and to follow Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. This mission seems daunting, but it is possible, because Jesus promises to always be with us and never to abandon us. Christ assumes this power at his Ascension, when he mounted his throne with shouts of joy and trumpet blasts.

As Christ ascended to Heaven and the apostles began to comprehend what had just happened, St. Luke tells us in Acts that they were staring at the sky when suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. // They said, “Men of Galilee, // why are you standing there looking at the sky? // 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.” (Acts 1:11) Aside from being a bit comical—let’s be honest, it’s a little funny—these messengers remind the apostles that now it is time to get to work. Our work right now is to worship God in this sacred place and at this sacred time. When we leave this assembly of believers and, following the example of the apostles, go out to the ends of the earth—or perhaps just our neighborhoods—we have our orders from Jesus Christ, to whom [a]ll power in heaven and on earth has been given. After we refresh ourselves at this Heavenly banquet, let us [g]o, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [Christ has] commanded [us]. And behold, [Christ is] with [us] always, until the end of the age.

Today’s Readings:
May 24, 2020
Ascension of the Lord, Year A
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20

Corpus Christi: Sharing in the Divinity of Christ

Today is the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ. There is a prayer you may have never heard before, but it is said at every Mass by the deacon or the priest when he pours the wine and water into the chalice during the offertory. It goes, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” The more I prayed with this prayer, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized how deep and profound that this short prayer is.

So, let’s dig into this prayer together.

By the mystery… The Eucharist is, above all, a mystery. Jesus Christ is present in what appears to us as a piece of bread and some wine. We will never really understand how. The Church and the smartest theologians who ever lived have worked to try to figure it out. St. Thomas Aquinas, one of smartest of the smart guys, told us that the substance, the “what it is-ness,” of the bread and wine are replaced with Jesus Christ. While the appearance of bread and wine remain, we know by faith that Jesus is now present: the bread and wine are now Jesus. We know this because Jesus himself told us at the Last Supper that this is his Body and his Blood, and he commissioned his apostles to do this in memory of him. We relive this exact moment at every Mass. We don’t just remember the Last Supper at Mass. We bring the Last Supper into our minds and we live it, through the mysteries of the Eucharist and the Mass. We are participating in the Last Supper at every Mass.

of this water and wine… We use ordinary gifts in the Holy Mass: bread, wine, and water. We give them to God, for his glory, in the offertory. The offertory is a profound moment at the Mass, because it is when we give back to God those things which he has given us. The prayers that Father says at Offertory remind us that we received these gifts from him. “Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you.” Now, we return them to him. In addition to the bread, wine, and water, we offer ourselves to God at Mass. During offertory, we offer our prayers, works, and sufferings to God in addition to the physical gifts. Many times, we are tempted to rush through the offertory and get it over with, but instead we should strive to recognize what is happening at the offertory. By our participation in the action of the offertory, we dedicate ourselves more and more to God during every Mass.

may we come to share… We are all here to witness the Eucharistic mystery which happens at Mass, in other words, to participate in the Mass. At Vatican II, the church asked for our full, conscious, and active participation in the Mass. Full, conscious, and active participation does not mean that we all need to be up on the altar with Father, but that we consciously unite ourselves in prayer with Father and everyone else here. We follow Father as he leads us into the most sacred mysteries of our faith. The Church calls us to pay attention, to respond, and to prayerfully keep in mind the mystery we are celebrating. United in this way, we are the one, unified, Body of Christ. As we unite ourselves in prayer at Mass, the Mass can more effectively transform our lives into the beautiful lives God has planned for each of us.

in the divinity of Christ… Jesus Christ is fully in the Eucharist. This includes his divinity. This means the Eucharist is God, and it is worthy of worship. That is why we have things like Eucharistic processions and Eucharistic adoration, because God is in the Eucharist. After Father says the Eucharistic prayer, we no longer have bread and wine; they have become God, who has entered the world for all to see in the form of a truly divine food, which God then invites us to eat. Honestly, it’s kind of weird if you think about it, because eating the Eucharist means eating God, but it is also an incredible gift. The Eucharist is different than any other food. Normal food nourishes our bodies by becoming a part of us. The Eucharist nourishes us too, but instead of becoming part of us it transforms us and brings us closer to God than we could ever get on our own! The Eucharist is the only food that makes us more like it—it makes us more like God!

who humbled himself… God challenges us all to be humble and to put him first. By doing so, we lead others to God. He tried to teach the Jewish people to do this, but they didn’t understand. So he showed true humility, and God himself became a human being.

And this brings us to the final portion of the prayer:

to share in our humanity… God, the creator of everything, not only humbled himself, but emptied himself, so that he could take on human flesh and blood. When God did this, he did not come down as a king or an emperor. He made himself a helpless child, who grew up the son of a carpenter. He experienced the loss of a parent when Joseph died. He experienced joy at the Wedding at Cana He experienced the death of a friend and relative when John the Baptist died. He experienced abandonment, torture, and death in his Passion. He experienced the full range of human emotions. There is nothing we experience that God has not also experienced, both as God and as human. Any pain we feel, God has felt with us, through us, and for us.

God became human so that he could be with us more closely, and he gave us the gift of the Eucharist so that we could become one with him in a very tangible and concrete way. God, the greatest mystery of the universe, loves us. He desires so much for us to be one with him that he took on human nature. He gave us the gift of the Eucharist, His own Body and Blood, so that when we consume it, we share in the divinity of Christ, and even while we are still on this earth, we may truly experience a taste of Heaven.

Today’s Readings
June 3, 2018
Corpus Christi [The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ]
Exodus 24:3-8; Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18; Hebrews 9:11-15;  Lauda Sion Sequence; Mk 14:12-16, 22-26

Reflection for the Third Sunday of Lent

About halfway through today’s Gospel, the woman at the well says to Jesus, “you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus responds to this in an interesting way,

“Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.”

A lot is going on in these few sentences. Jesus affirms worship in Jerusalem, but then says that neither Jerusalem nor anywhere is where the worship will take place. But we know that true worship, even now, continues in a multitude of places on the earth. While this could be a prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, it can also be seen to contain more truths about true worship. The center of Jewish worship was the Temple. Non-Jewish worship was often centered around a particular place. Ancient peoples often believe mountains to be the places of the gods. The Psalms, which are both Jewish and Catholic prayers, often reference this idea of going up a mountain to worship. What Jesus is telling us is not that there will be no places of worship in this world, but that the true center of worship will no longer be here on earth. The true center of Christian worship is in the Heavenly Kingdom of God. The Mass in the West, the Divine Liturgy in the East, these are both participations in the Heavenly Liturgy. They are but images of the true glory of Heavenly Worship.

This worship requires us to know who we are worshipping. If God is not physically present on this earth, we must have some understanding of who he is in order to give him worship. This does not mean that we understand God: God is beyond our understanding. It means that our God is understandable. There is order, some sort of reason, to God at which we can grasp. The false gods of the pagans did not have this. They were given earthly forms so that people could form images in their minds, but their actions and behaviors were unreasonable. The stories of the gods were as often about their cruelty and strangeness as they were about their positive qualities. Furthermore, there was not a rationality to the religious system which allowed for rich, deep and complex thought. It allowed for many wonderful stories, and for much thought about human nature, but it was ultimately shallow. Often, the pagan gods take on aspects of human nature and the stories are formed more by human condition than by the nature of God.

The Jews, after hundreds of years of various journeys through the desert and exiles, had banished such thought from their minds. They had finally realized that God is one, that he is immaterial, and that there is an order to Him. Perhaps we do not understand, but there is a perceivable order. The Jews were chosen by God to spread this wonderful discovery to all the people of the world, but they failed their mission. Salvation still comes from the Jews through Jesus Christ and the Apostles, all of whom were Jewish. Jesus and his Apostles brought salvation to all mankind, by teaching us how to worship God in Spirit and Truth through the Eucharistic Sacrifice. It is a sacrifice in Spirit because it joins in the Liturgy of Heaven, and it is a true sacrifice because it is an anamnesis—a true memorial in which we make present what occurs in the past—of the Passion of our Lord.

This worship in which we participate then forms the basis of our entire lives. It is the water which Jesus promised the woman at the well. When we pray and offer ourselves to God totally, most perfectly through participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we receive this water that lasts through all eternity.

(Sorry this is late! – MS)

Today’s Readings: Ex 17:3-7; Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Rom 5:1-2, 5-8; Jn 4:5-42