The Ascension of the Lord

Lectionary: 58

...baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit....

Historians of the Church tell us these final words from Jesus as he ascended into heaven -- a very clear indication of the Trinity -- developed first into the baptismal formula which we still use, and then into the creeds, the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian

The word Trinity does not appear in the Bible and is not a name of God. It is rather a beautiful teaching which helps us to understand the relationships of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit to one another and to us, without explaining that which is beyond human comprehension. 

Because Jesus told us to "baptize them in the name..." we don't readily recognize any other formula. In the New Testament the only alternative is "in the name of Jesus" but, typically of Christians, there is a lot of controversy around it. 

Some theologians have suggested an alternative like "in the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier" but these proposals fall flat for many reasons. For one, those works belong to Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. When we name the Father as the Creator of All we do not imply that Jesus and the Holy Spirit did not create the universe. The Father and the Holy Spirit redeem us; and the Father and the Son sanctify us. Secondly, the Bible will be around a thousand years from now, long after late-arriving bogus formulas have disappeared. We don't try to improve on the Bible. 

On this feast of the Ascension we celebrate the man we have known, one of our own children, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, who has been given and has taken his appointed place at God's right hand. This is a wonder and delight; that a human being is the Son of God. He is not adopted in the sense that there was a time when he was not the Son of God. He was always, from before eternity, the Son of God; by his death and resurrection and ascension he has been revealed to us. This was beyond our imagination and comprehension. We would not believe it if we had not seen it. No one could have dreamed this up. 

Many would refuse the title to him. They think God should not do it; or they simply deny that God exists in any form, human or divine. They refuse to take our word for it. They might believe many things people tell them but they won't believe that. Their skepticism certainly causes us sadness and grief; it might even force us to rethink our beliefs. But we keep coming back to what we have seen and heard, and what the Spirit of Truth has reaffirmed in our hearts. As Isaiah said, "Who would believe what we have heard?"

Their skepticism and the doubts that abide in our hearts -- Saint Matthew says "When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted." -- only urge us to deeper prayer. We have found peace, satisfaction, joy, generosity, courage and solidarity through our practice of faith; we cannot surrender such gifts for a few lingering doubts that only lead to perdition. 

Saturday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Lectionary: 296

Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. Until now you have not asked anything in my name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. 



Which of us has not greeted this reassurance with some skepticism? “Whatever you ask he will give you? Ask and you will receive?” I don’t think so. I have asked for many things in prayer and did not get what I asked. Needy as I am, making demands upon others and upon God, I’ve become inured to disappointment.

 But neither can I ignore the words of the gospel. There is a context in which Jesus’ promise makes perfect sense; in which it is absolutely assured. That place is within the Eucharist and the Life of the Holy Trinity

 Saint Hilary of Poitier, one of the great western theologians of the fourth century, emphasizes the connection between the Mass and our belief in the Holy Trinity. The following reading is the non-scriptural reading for the Office of Readings, Wednesday the fourth week of Easter: 

If the Word has truly been made flesh and we in very truth receive the Word made flesh as food from the Lord, are we not bound to believe that he abides in us naturally? Born as a man, he assumed the nature of our flesh so that now it is inseparable from himself, and conjoined the nature of his own flesh to the nature of the eternal Godhead in the sacrament by which his flesh is communicated to us. Accordingly we are all one, because the Father is in Christ and Christ in us. He himself is in us through the flesh and we in him, and because we are united with him, our own being is in God.

He himself testifies that we are in him through the sacrament of the flesh and blood bestowed upon us: In a short time the world will no longer see me; but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will understand that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you.

If he wanted to indicate a mere unity of will, why did He set forth a kind of gradation and sequence in the completion of that unity? It can only be that, since he was in the Father through the nature of Deity, and we on the contrary in him through his birth in the body, he wishes us to believe that he is in us through the mystery of the sacraments. From this we can learn the perfect unity through a Mediator; for we abide in him and he abides in the Father, and while abiding in the Father he abides in us as well – so that we attain unity with the Father. For while Christ is in the Father naturally according to his birth, we too are in Christ naturally, since he abides in us naturally.

He himself has told us how natural this unity is: He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him. No one can be in Christ unless Christ is in him, because the only flesh which he has taken to himself is the flesh of those who have taken his.

He had earlier revealed to us the sacrament of this perfect unity: As I, who am sent by the living Father, myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me. He lives because of the Father, and as he lives because of the Father so we live because of his flesh.

Every comparison is chosen to shape our understanding, so that we may grasp the subject concerned by help of the analogy set before us. To summarize, this is what gives us life: that we have Christ dwelling within our carnal selves through the flesh, and we shall live because of him in the same manner as he lives because of the Father.  (From the treatise on the Trinity by Saint Hilary of Poitiers) 


Through all my reading of the last two or three years about the doctrine, I have found no one who says it so clearly as this fourth century theologian. While all Christians salute the doctrine of the Trinity, its meaning is revealed through the Eucharist, sacraments and liturgy.

Given our being "in him through the sacrament of the flesh and blood" we should not be surprised to hear Jesus say, "...ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete."
At the point the author or preacher always says, “But of course I am not worthy and fail to live up to… blah, blah, blah.”

Forget all that. Let us pray with the confidence that we want what Jesus wants who only wants what God His Father wants. With Jesus and the Holy Spirit we bring everything to God in prayer. Of course we’re disappointed from time to time as Jesus was disappointed but our victory is assured.


Memorial of Saint Philip Neri, Priest

So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.
In the hospital ministry I meet a lot of people who are suffering with pain. It may be a sharp, stabbing pain in a certain part of the body, or an acute pervasive discomfort throughout the body.
Some patients suffer in silence; others complain loudly; a few will complain their rights are being violated.
Recently that "right" threatens to become political as we address the epidemic of opioid abuse. For a brief moment some experts believed medicine could abolish all pain with a judicious application of “pain killers.” I have seen patients who, according to the doctors, were taking “enough pain medicine to kill a horse;” they groaned in agony and demanded more relief. One patient could not bear to be touched. Apparently the effort to eliminate all pain only made them more sensitive. Alcoholics and drug addicts, unfortunately, choose a path that only leads to increasing sensitivity, accelerating hunger for relief, overdose and death. In some cases, it seems, the only cure for pain is death.
In today’s gospel Jesus promises his disciples, “…you will grieve.” There is no escaping it. The effort is worse than a fool’s errand.
The Christian’s specific grief follows from knowing the Lord. We have enjoyed the ecstasy of his company; we must now suffer the agony of his absence.
The mystics tell us they are the same thing, two sides of the same coin. The measure of your joy is the measure of your sadness. When Jesus promises the fullness of life he offers us that two-sided coin, but not a choice of which side we prefer.
As a Franciscan I contemplate the life of Saint Francis of Assisi with the same intensity that I read the gospels, and I recall his passionate love of “Lady Poverty.” When everyone despised, avoided and shunned her, he courted, betrothed and wedded her. He knew her as the widow of Jesus Christ, abandoned since the day he died but now honored in the houses of Franciscans.
In our own time, still fleeing poverty, the world adds failure, disappointment, loneliness, frustration and pain to the list of untouchables. Marketers assure us we should be happy, satisfied, secure and pain free all the time. If we’re not there is something wrong and what are you going to do about it? (Buy my product!)
Jesus promised his disciples, “…you will grieve.” If you have known the Lord you know grief. If you have known compassion you suffer helpless sadness. You have seen your savior lifted on a cross and there was nothing you could do about it. You have seen your children and grandchildren make foolish, unnecessary mistakes and you were helpless to prevent it. You have expressed your opinion clearly and been accused of narrow-minded arrogance and stupidity. You have tried to alleviate poverty and been rebuked by this world’s wisdom. You have allowed the Holy Spirit to guide your decisions and could not explain why things ended so badly.
As the season of Lent/Easter comes to an end, we accept as gift this two-sided coin of life in its fullness.

Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy."

If you live and breathe you volunteer for grief. It comes with the choice to be human.

When I make such a statement I include the principle of intentionality. It might be called awareness but I prefer the nuance of deliberateness. I intend to live.

Sometimes in meditation I have simply paid attention to my breathing. Resting easily I notice inhale and exhale and a significant pause before inhaling again. Eventually, before I feel oxygen hunger I say to myself, "I will inhale now -- because I want to." The Lord has commanded us to choose life and breathing is a very good way to do it.

To be human is to breathe; to be human is to grieve. Especially because we have a dual sense of the way things are and the way things should be, we feel great sorrow about the difference. No one should have to die and yet my loved ones die. I too will die. How fair is that?
And so we live with that. Sometimes we ignore it; sometimes we try to put it off. Neither effort changes the reality of grief. We speed away from it like motor boats on a calm lake, until we stop and the wake of sorrow catches up with us. Unprepared, we may be thrown from the boat.
Approaching his death, resurrection and ascension Jesus knew his disciples would suffer grief almost beyond human endurance. He suffered with them like the dying parent who wishes she could stay with her children. Jesus must go to Jerusalem to face arrest, prosecution, torture and execution; a fate he chooses in obedience to his Father. He must do this just as surely as the parent must die; and he chooses it with the same freedom I choose in my breathing meditation.
But his choice entails grief for himself and his disciples. Sadness is a blessing. Mysterious, dark and unavoidable it searches for us relentlessly, like the Hound of Heaven. It ignores our preference for joy and dismisses our predilection for comfort. It creeps into our hearts, separating us from others and teaching us the ache of loneliness until we choose to share it with others. And then it becomes joy, for in our sadness we remember his words, "I am with you always."
Our Catholic tradition is not shy of grief. We treasure the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross and the Seven Dolors of Blessed Virgin. In grief we find companionship with Mary, the saints, the Lord and his Church. There we realize our end is more than happiness, it is communion.

Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Easter

I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.

In today's gospel, from John 16, Jesus is wrapping up his "pre-crucifixion" instruction and admits his disciples have a lot to learn, "I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now." However, he promises to send the Holy Spirit.
The philosopher John Macmurray remarked on our willingness to learn the truth. It's not as easy as you might think. The truth is something other than my beliefs, opinions, preferences and desires. It exists apart from me, and all my ideas about it bear only some resemblance to the Truth. It is always greater than the mind can comprehend.
The human being has the capacity to receive the Truth, and even to welcome it, but it is nonetheless alien to the receptive mind. We will often be disappointed either by reality or by our sorely limited ability to comprehend it.
Aware of our disability, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit. The "Third Person of the Blessed Trinity" is the Truth and loves the Truth; he prepares our minds and hearts to receive it, which we must do with humility.
During the Festival of Faith in Louisville last month, Karen Armstrong reminded the gathering that compassion expects to suffer. This kind of compassion doesn't dole out excess wealth to the unfortunate. Rather, it recognizes that another's suffering is my own and I must respond to it as eagerly as I would were it my own. It doesn't matter who is hungry -- myself or someone else -- I feed the hungry. It doesn't matter who is cold, tired, homeless or naked -- myself or someone else -- I see to the need. Compassion does not act because it feels good to be nice; it is driven by a far deeper urgency.
Have I changed the subject? I was speaking of truth and now I speak of compassion. The subject is the same. Truth in action is mercy, and no other truth matters.
The disciples "could not bear" what they saw on the morrow. They fled from the Garden of Gethsemane even before the day broke. Mercy remains with the Lord as he remains with us, welcoming the truth that is almost merciless in its demands upon us.

On this day I thank God for 42 years of priesthood.

Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Lectionary: 292

...when (the Advocate) comes he will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation: sin, because they do not believe in me; righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me; condemnation, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

The weekday gospel readings during the Easter season after the octave, are taken from the Gospel of Saint John. We are now in the 16th chapter, the final chapter of Jesus' Last Supper discourse. The 17h chapter will be a prayer directed to the Father, and Jesus will proceed to Gethsemane and his crucifixion in the 18th chapter.

So today's passage begins with the word now, as in, "Now the hour has come..." This sixteenth chapter concerns the agony of judgment that must fall upon the entire world, beginning with Jesus' disciples. They will be overwhelmed with grief as he ascends to the Father, especially because his "ascension" will appear to all the world like nothing more than his being raised upon a cross.

I spoke with a Veteran recently who has been struck with paralysis on one side of his body. Eight months later he can walk, but just barely. He has not adjusted well and was almost suicidal before he was brought to the hospital. Having hit the bottom of self-pity, he is ready to turn around and come back to life. Because he is an extraordinarily devout man I could suggest to him that his disability is a "communion" with the Crucified Lord. "It's certainly not the cross you might have preferred, but it's the one he gave you."

Like most people, I would like to see Justice Reign Supreme, and the sooner the better. However, I am not quite so ready to have it begin with me. I can think of a dozen others who should change their ways before I do. Once again, that's not the way it works.

In today's gospel, sin is defined as not believing in Jesus. He does not set the standard; he is the standard of what is valuable and what is not, of who is righteous and who is not. Salvation, or "freedom," begins with believing in him.

It is right that he should go to the Father, even by way of the cross. Further, it is right that we should "no longer see" him; for we must find that inner way of faith that leads to the Father through him.

By the time this Gospel was written Jesus would have been a hundred years old, but the Gospel recalls the incomprehensible waste of a good man with so much more to do, accomplish and give. How is it that we, the disciples at that table, should see him no more? How can that be good or righteous?

They, like you and me, must live by faith. It will be an astonishing faith, as the Acts of the Apostles reveals, which is driven to announce the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Their boldness was unimaginable on that particular evening, in the quiet days before the Passover, but it would soon burst into view.

Finally, with their new faith they will see "the ruler of this world" condemned. Although he is rich and powerful with armies at his beck and call, he weighs nothing and means nothing. In God's sight he barely exists!

I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.

Monday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Lectionary: 291

When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.

Christian mystics throughout the centuries have experienced, celebrated and taught about the "indwelling of the Holy Trinity." Though the doctrine of the Trinity seemed incomprehensible, confusing and thoroughly uninteresting to most people, and especially to those entrusted with teaching it, mystical writers thrilled at its beauty.

Only with the twentieth century effort to restore the Mass to its original splendor has the Holy Trinity begun to glimmer in more minds and hearts. Once again we realize the Holy Spirit is gathering us to the church and the altar; once again we enter into communion with Jesus and one another as we eat his flesh and drink his blood; once again we enter the presence of God the Father and, in persona Christi, offer our sacrifice to Him. In the Mass we find ourselves swept out of the mundane by the Holy Spirit and our Savior Jesus who joyfully, graciously introduce us to the Father.

In today's gospel Jesus promises to send the Advocate from the Father; the Advocate is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father. Advocate is a juridical word; advocates speak to the judge and the jury on behalf of their clients. In Jesus' teaching the Holy Spirit advocates to the Father for us; and to us, for Jesus. If we believe in Jesus it's because we have accepted the Advocate's assurances. If we are saved it's because the Father has accepted the advocacy of the Holy Spirit and of Jesus on our behalf.

We know this as we attend our liturgies. I ask myself, "How did I come to be here?" and I cannot explain it. Was this my idea? Do I deserve credit for entering and remaining with the Church all these years? Has my behavior earned such a reward? I don't think so! Not even close!

This is the work of the Father who sees with the human eyes of Jesus and overlooks my faults in the Light of the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus goes on to say, "And you also testify..." Again, was this my initiative? Did I decide to become a Christian, a Catholic or a priest? No, I only accepted what was given to me, including the pleasant responsibilities of testimony.

The mystics have been telling us this all along but Christians of the 21st century comprehend it only through our practice of worship. We permit ourselves to be swept into the Sacred Presence; we allow our lungs and tongues to sing God's praises; we lift up our heads to see the signs and hear the words; we open hungry mouths to be fed and dry throats to be slaked by the Gift of God.