25 May [In countries where the Ascension is celebrated today, Thursday]
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
The Ascension marks the beginning of the time of the Church. The solemn language of today's gospel reading marks it clearly. The institution is already beginning to take shape: baptism is the rite of initiation into it, in some such way as marriage is the initiation of family. The Church of this gospel reading is the Church here below, made up of human beings, mandated to teach, to preach and to initiate new members through baptism.
There is a contrasting image of Church in the second reading, Ephesians 1:17-23. There Paul tells the same story: "God…raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places." But the angle of view is different. The Church that is born of this event seems purely inner and spiritual, without apostles, without baptism, without institutions. This Church is the Body of Christ, waiting here below, striving to come to perfection, member by member, so as to be like its Head and to follow him into glory and become "one body and one spirit" with him.
Are there two Churches, then, or perhaps two visions of Church? The Vatican II document on the Church (Lumen Gentium), is clear: "The society structured with hierarchical elements and the mystical Body of Christ – the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches – are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they form one complete reality which comes together from a combination of human and divine elements” (no. 8). It is sometimes hard work to hold the two together, especially today when many are disillusioned by the scandals within the organisation. But battered and broken though it is, the Church has not been abandoned by Christ. St Augustine wrote, "Just as he did not abandon heaven when he came among us, he does not abandon us when he returns there. He is raised above the heavens, yet he suffers all the anguish that we, the members of his body, suffer." “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24).
[In countries where the Ascension is celebrated next Sunday, today’s Gospel reading is the following:]
The word for ‘a little while’ (mikron) is used seven times in this short passage. Something is about to happen soon, but they don’t know what. This is the way to be scared. They can tell that It has something to do with death: the word here for ‘mourn’ is a word that is used for grief at a death.
“You will have sorrow, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” He did not say it would be replaced by joy, but it that it would turn into joy. Joy will not come by repressing sorrow but by allowing it to be transformed.
If I repress sorrow it does not go away; it is still there, working in me like a silent cancer, sapping my vitality from within. And my ‘joy’ will have a quality of desperation; it will only be a mask for fear, like whistling in the dark. I will be in the impossible situation of someone trying to run away from himself. It is only by looking into the heart of sorrow that I can find real joy. This contradicts common sense, but that is what you can expect from the Gospel.
The Resurrection happened in the tomb. This death-and-resurrection event, which we call the Paschal Mystery, is the heart of our faith, and if the heart isn’t beating, the body is dead. We have a lot of cheap knowledge: knowledge that has not been bought at the full price of experience. It is easy to sign up to a list of beliefs; it is as easy as saying ok. But everyone knows only one or two things really. We know the dying and rising of Christ to the extent that our own life is being shaped by it, no more, no less. The disciples made an honest admission, “We don’t know what he is talking about.” That is always the first step in understanding: to understand how little we know.
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