Sunday, June 5, 2011

He has Ascended!

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47:2-3,6-9
Ephesians 1:17-23
Matthew 28:16-20

In the Catholic Commentator, our diocese newspaper, this week featured two major articles about Father Todd Lloyd and I being ordained. One discussed the ordination ritual and all that went on during it, while the other was aimed more at getting to know us and to know how we came to hear the call to priesthood. In the latter, I have to admit that when I read the first paragraph I busted out laughing. It reads: “Father Brent Maher has come a long way from being a rebellious heavy-metal-loving teen with dyed hair who was not only non-religious but anti-religious.” Welcome to the Diocese, huh?!

I had to laugh because I certainly have come a long way from those days to where I am now, from dyed hair and rebellion to celebrating the Mass and doing Latin chants. But in reading that little column it gave me pause to simply think about just how far I have come, how different I am today from then. In reflecting over the past week about the reality that I have been ordained a priest, I have been greatly humbled. Though this little clip from the commentator gives a small hint of my journey to God, only I myself have the full knowledge of all that truly went on. And as I come to celebrate the Mass, Confession and other sacraments, I cannot help but be stunned at the fact that God has chosen me, someone once so rebellious and anti-religious, to work in such a mysterious and powerful way as a conduit of grace to save people’s souls. As I celebrate the sacraments and contemplate my new life as “Father Maher” rather than “Deacon”, I begin to understand much more deeply the reality of St. Peter’s own exchange with Jesus, when the Lord works a miracle and St. Peter’s reaction was to fall on his face at the feet of Jesus and cry out “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

As powerful as that experience is, more mysterious is the fact that I am not just a priest for a while or just in this life, but for all eternity. As Psalm 110 says “You are a priest forever.” And as I reflect on this reality, I find it a bit frustrating because the reality is that we cannot know eternity because we are not there yet. That sense of mystery lies beyond our grasp in this life, but we celebrate a small foretaste of it now, especially in this Easter season. For me, I have the grace of my own ordination. But for our whole Church we have the mystery of Jesus’ death on the Cross on Good Friday, His Resurrection on Easter Sunday, today His Ascension into Heaven, and next Sunday the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. This sense of mystery all around us, and yet we cannot fully understand it – but we celebrate it in hopes of one day coming to have that full knowledge we will possess in Heaven.

As we celebrate today the mystery of the Ascension, we are struck by a couple of questions. How is it that God, who came down to Earth but never left Heaven, can Ascend back to Heaven to the Father and yet be able to say, “I am with you until the end of the age”? We can speak of the Eucharist and the priesthood and the Church, but in a mysterious way He is still in our midst aside from those realities of His Presence. Also, as we celebrate the Ascension, where Jesus is raised up body and soul, we have to wonder where His body went. He didn’t just leave it behind like a snake leaves an old skin, rather somewhere Jesus Christ still reigns with His glorified body. I wish I knew where, but that is not for us to know in this life. It is a mystery. Theologians have speculated on these things, but that is not for us today in the church parish. What matters for us, I would suggest, are three points.

First, Jesus is truly risen and ascended! The Son of God still reigns as King of All not just as a spirit but with His own glorified body that was offered up on the altar of the Cross. He did not simply cast it aside, but remains in that body. This is a sign of hope for us, because we too will one day be raised from the dead and hope to be glorified as He was glorified. The fact that Jesus keeps His body also reminds us of the blessedness of our own bodies and the reality that the Resurrection of the Body is not just a theological concept but a true reality.

Second, Jesus ascends to Heaven. Jesus ascends to the place that all of us long for – that place where there are no tears but only great joy and eternal adoration of the Lord, in Whose presence we will be. His Ascension opens the gates for us, that we too might be able to one day enter into Paradise and reign with Him in our own glorified bodies.

And finally, Jesus ascends not just to open the gate of Heaven for us, but also to send the Holy Spirit upon us. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to carry out that mission that was entrusted to the Apostles – and to all of us – to teach the whole world the Gospel of Christ. Only with the grace of the Spirit can we do so. And as we now wait as a Church for the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, next Sunday, we cry out to God that He might send the Spirit upon us. We cry out and beseech Him in prayer, like the Apostles and Blessed Mother did for those nine days, that the grace of God would be poured in abundance on us. We can certainly do this via nine-day novenas (which I noted on here the other day), but we can also do what is called the nine-hour novena. For those who missed the start of the Novena to the Spirit, I would certainly encourage you to take up this practice and choose and day and at the start of each hour for nine hours, pray the appropriate prayers. Certainly this will win great favor for you. In the end, whether you pray the rote novena prayers or simply pray fervently from the heart, the goal is to truly desire the Spirit to come in a powerful to our lives because when the Spirit enters our hearts, then we are able to go out into the world and truly carry out the mission of teaching the world about Christ by our word, actions, and the way we carry ourselves throughout the day. And when we – the Church - do this, when we work out the mission entrusted to us, we shall certainly gain our eternal reward and finally enter into that heavenly banquet, where Christ, Our Head, has preceded us.