Thursday, June 23, 2011

Corpus Christi

1 Corinthians 11:23-29 / John 6:56-59

For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord until He come.

How often should a faithful Catholic receive the Body and Blood of the Lord? When does the laudable refraining from sacramental communion because of the consciousness of guilt or of insufficient preparation become a culpable refusal to accept the mercy and grace offered by our Lord Jesus Christ not in spite of, but precisely because of our unworthiness and sin? Take ye and eat, this is My Body, which shall be delivered for you. On the other hand, when does the laudably frequent reception of communion become a source of spiritual danger to oneself and of scandal to others and to the world? Therefore whoever shall eat this bread, or drink of the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and of the Blood of the Lord.

The question is not an idle one. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, and as he reminds us, the reception of communion is quite literally of vital importance; to eat or drink, and to do so well, is truly a matter of life and death. His is also right, as we are right, to see this question of the worthy eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of the Lord in moral terms. How we are disposed with regard to the Lord, his teachings, his Church, and the way of life he called upon us to follow are important not simply on their own terms, but in terms of our being open or not to enjoying union with him in the Sacrament. Likewise, as Paul was concerned to point out to the Corinthians, how we are with regard to our neighbor, and not merely strangers or someone far off in need, but indeed of our fellow Christians who join us at the table of the Lord, will make of our communion either a faithful witness or a deadly sham. To receive the Body and Blood of the Lord is to be committed to our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ with the same love with which he loved us, and so not to be concerned, and actively involved, in their welfare, not to will their good and share their burdens, not to remove whatever obstacles stand between them and full flourishing in this life and the life to come, is to make a mockery of the very unity and love which the Eucharist both signifies and effects.

However, the Eucharist, the sacramental presence of the Body and Blood of the Lord in and for the life of the world, is more than a moral exercise. It is the presence, here and now, of the risen Christ, of the Lord of the universe, come among us in visible and palpable signs so that he might abide with us, and we with him, until his return in glory. In other words, at its heart, the Eucharist is fundamentally not about us, but about Christ. The question of the reception of communion, however central to our sacramental life, cannot be allowed to obscure from us the fact that our celebration of the Eucharist, our adoration of his abiding sacramental presence, whether reserved in the tabernacle or exposed for public veneration, is at root and evangelical act. It is a proclamation, a showing forth to the world, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, who suffered and died that we might die to sin, and rose again to new life that we might live forever, ascending to the right hand of the Father to complete his work by the sending of the Spirit, that we might be conformed more fully to his likeness, and thereby come to share in the very life of the Trinity. As the living Father hath sent Me, and I live by the Father, so he that eateth Me, the same also shall live by Me.

The question, then, is not how often we ought to receive communion, but whether we acknowledge to ourselves, to one another in the Church, and to the world, that Jesus Christ is alive and abides with us. The question is whether, in our communion and adoration, the world will come to see and understand the heart of the mystery of faith. When we gather before the altar of the Lord, and the world looks upon what we do, will they see the death of the Lord until He come?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Trinity Sunday

Romans 11:33-36 / Matthew 28:18-20

Going therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.

Why are we commanded by our Lord to teach and to baptize, rather than simply to teach. Surely if all things whatsoever Jesus Christ commanded are good, right, and reasonable, as indeed many non-believers assert to be the case, then sacramental initiation into the Body of Christ seems redundant at best, covetous for souls and minds at worst. This is the anxiety that even many Christians have about the missionary impulse. Surely, they opine, what Christ has taught, his message of love and of suffering for the sake of the beloved, and especially for the poor, is a credible message to all peoples, whether washed by the waters of the font or not. To attach following the commands of Christ to assent to a specific account of the divinity connects, on this view of things, two unrelated activities, the one having nothing to do with the other.

However, such a view is deeply mistaken, and forgets that at the heart of the whole Christian revelation, indeed at the heart of man's communication with God since Adam, is the invitation to know and partake in the interpersonal life of the one, true God, who is a Trinity of Persons, a unity in Trinity, a triune Unity. What this means, among other things, is that the truth of the Trinity is at the foundation of all that is. It is what philosophers today would call "properly basic." That is, there is no other truth, no other foundation, no other basis from which to judge and understand, to analyze and categorize, the Trinity. Rather, the Trinity is the one and only basis from which anything else has any meaning, indeed the sole foundation upon which anything else has any existence whatsoever.

This is why we say, in biblical language, that God beholdest the depths and sittest above the Cherubim. That is, there is nothing distant from him, whether the lowest or the highest, because he is the sole and absolute source of any and everything that is. Because the Trinity is the foundation of all without itself any foundation, the basis and norm of all reality which admits to no deeper or more fundamental category or truth, the revelation of the Trinity and partaking in the interpersonal divine relations which are the one, true God just is what it takes to observe all things whatsoever Jesus has commanded us.

In response to those who would think they could reduce the commandments of Jesus to a more fundamental level, something which would be more basic, more foundational than God himself, Paul directs his pointed questions: For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been His counsellor? Or who hath first given to Him, and recompense shall be made him? There is no principle, no truth, no basic intuition which is prior to God, nothing which comes "first" before there is the Holy Trinity. To know this is to be open to any and all truth, to the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God. To be closed to it, to seek some "deeper" truth which would make the Trinity plausible, into which we can fit this "account" of a "perfect being" is radically to be cut off from knowing the world as it really is.

This is why baptism, and the mystery of the sacramental life, is prerequisite to being open to the fundamental truth of all that is. To know reality we must know God, and there is no God other than the Trinity, nor could there be any other God. This is a truth of which we can be certain, but which, because it touches on the inner life of God himself, will forever elude even our best attempts to decode or analyze it. It is only when remade into new sorts of creatures, only when we have been transformed, not by our own power and insight, but by the working of the Holy Spirit, and only when that transformation is nothing other than sharing in the very Person of the Son of God, such that we will share with the Father even as he and Son are one, that we can, even here and now, have a glimpse of what the world, and more directly what our lives, are all about.

This is why we proclaim the Trinity today and every day, This is the deepest mystery of our faith. We are proud to profess it, and to make it known to the whole world: Blessed by God the Father, and the only-begotten Son of God, and also the Holy Ghost; because He hath shown His mercy to us.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Habemus priorem provincialem!

The Dominican Province of Saint Albert the Great (U.S.A.) is happy to receive its newly elected prior provincial, Charles E. Bouchard, O.P. Fr. Bouchard served eighteen years as president of Aquinas Institute of Theology in Saint Louis, Missouri, where he had also taught Moral Theology. In the past few years, he has served as Vice President for Theological Education for Ascension Health, a network of hospitals and health centers in the U.S.A., the largest Catholic and largest non-profit of its kind.

Pray for the friars of the Central Province of the U.S.A. and for our new prior provincial!

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Acts 2:1-11 / John 14:23-31

Faced as we are with the diversity of tongues in the world, and with that diversity, a multitude of cultures and ways of understanding the world at least as great as the number of languages, and no doubt even greater, we are normally tempted to one of two positions. On the one hand, we might be tempted to promote one language or one culture as the sole way in which people ought to come to the truth. Our choice of which language that might be could be the result of simple chauvinism (asserting our own language as best), it could be an appeal to the historical prominence of a given language (say, promoting Latin or English), or it could be a desire to set aside any actual, living language in favor of a supposed "international" language which all could speak (such as Esperanto). On this view, our variety of cultures and modes of expression are, in the end, barriers, albeit vincible ones, to communication. Coming to truth, on this view, except for the privileged few whose natural language is selected as the lingua franca, means abandoning our best way of understanding and being understood, letting go of whatever native genius there might be in our received way of understanding for the sake of a universal, and thus somehow more "truthful," language.

On the other hand, we might be tempted to regard true and full communication across languages and across cultures as impossible. We might think of language and culture as, in some sense, properly basic, irreducible to something else, and as such concede that what is communicated in one language can never, truly, be made known in another. On this view, perhaps even more so than the other, culture and language are barriers to the communication of truth. Or, said more precisely, truth is itself subordinate to culture and language, and thus the hope of there being some one thing, some one claim, that might be held equally across all languages is understood to be in vain. While such a view leaves us intact in our native language, it does so only at the price of barring forever any fundamental communication outside of or across the differences that characterize human experience.

The descent of the Holy Spirit, however, puts a lie to both of these claims. Empowered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the Apostles preached the Gospel to a dizzying variety of languages and cultures who were visiting Jerusalem. Yet, by the power of that same Spirit, they heard every man their own tongue wherein they were born. That is, the same Gospel the same proclamation, made by Galileans in their characteristically Galilean way, was, without ceasing to be a Galilean proclamation, nonetheless perfectly intelligible to Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Lybia about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews also, and Proselytes, Cretes and Arabians.

What is astounding here is that the miracle of Pentecost, the beginning of the new age inaugurated by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit not on this or that person by prodigally on a large crowd representing the diversity of the known world, did not simply reverse the penalty of Babel. It was not as though this international gathering, with their diversity of languages and modes of thought, we somehow delivered from that diversity into a one, new or ancient, single tongue and celestial culture, abandoning who they were and their inherited modes of thought in order to receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nor was it that the Good News proclaimed by these Galileans as received by the Galilean Word made flesh, needed somehow to be supplemented, or corrected, or accompanied, by intrinsically alien ways of thinking and being. Rather, by the power of the Spirit, the truth of the Gospel found itself heard and manifest to each through the native genius of his own tongue, each capable of delivering, even in what humanly seemed to be insuperable differences, the very same Good News.

This truth ought to remind us about our own evangelism today. On the one hand, we must never proclaim the Gospel as though presuming that those who receive it, in order to receive it, must abandon who and what they are to be successfully a disciple of Jesus Christ. Pentecost reminds us that there is no language, no culture that is not capable, through its own native genius, of bearing the message of the Gospel. On the other hand, and for the very same reason, we must reject the worry that in spreading the Gospel, we are somehow asking people to lose something precious in their culture and their language. It is of course true that we never receive the Good News of Jesus Christ without being transformed, without dying to the old man so as to rise again in the new. Even so, this dying and rising, this being born again, simply makes clear to us what was good and wholesome in our speaking and our thinking, in our culture, and what was ultimately an obstacle to our flourishing.

In Pentecost, we see in a way only hinted at before, that God who revealed himself in our human nature in a specific place, in a specific time, to a confined and finite number of people, in doing so did not render the Good News of salvation distant to those from far away who speak different tongues. In the Spirit, we encounter a unity beyond any we might dared have hoped for, a unity that joins us without remainder to our fellow men, without in the slightest compromising the unique qualities that set us apart. This is the Gospel of love announced on that fiftieth day of the Resurrection long ago, and it is the same Gospel we proclaim today.

Come. O Holy Ghost, fill the hearts of Thy faithful: and kindle in them the fire of Thy love.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Vigil of Pentecost

Acts 19:1-8 / John 14:15-21

Quite a few years ago, I taught a course at the University of Notre Dame, and one day a young men in the class approached me to ask why we should believe that what the Scriptures said about Jesus was true. He asked, I could see, not so much as a challenge nor as a protest, nor for that matter out of idle curiosity. He was a believer, but was beginning to wonder, now that he was being exposed in his studies to views and claims quite contrary to his own, whether what he had taken to be true really was as he thought it to be. When I told him that the New Testament was written either by the Apostles themselves who had walked with and been taught by Jesus, or at least recorded what these same Apostles had handed on to the communities they had founded, the young man was not satisfied. Why is it, he wanted to know, that we should trust the Apostles? Suppose they had misunderstood Jesus? Suppose that had gotten him and his message wrong?

In reply, I told the student that the Holy Spirit had descended upon them, the Paraclete, the Comforter whom Jesus had promised at the Last Supper. This Spirit, as Jesus promised, reminded them of all he had taught them and brought them to the fulness of truth, and because we share in baptism by this same Spirit, we too can recognize by faith that the Apostles and their successors give a faithful witness to Jesus. We have, with the Spirit as our friend, a supernatural motive, the grace of God, which permits us to give credence to what the world could only regard as credulity: that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh, that he died upon the Cross, and in that death we were freed from our sins, and rising on the third day to everlasting life, he opened the way to all who would believe and receive the Holy Spirit to be conformed not only to his death, but also to his endless life of glory and joy in the Kingdom of God. The young man paused, and he looked at once relieved and amazed. It was as though he had never heard this before, and yet it was to him the answer he had long hoped to be true, namely that his faith was neither a leap in the dark nor was it up to him alone. He believed because God was within him.

We often find ourselves tasked with defending the Christian faith in the public square, and occasionally even to our fellow Christians. In this, of course, we stand in a holy tradition with the likes of St Paul, who, arriving in Ephesus, spoke boldly for the space of three months, disputing, and exhorting concerning the kingdom of God to those in the synagogue. Disputation and exhortation, then, are noble and proper tasks. All the same, we ought to remember the sober reminder of Jesus that the Spirit of truth, the Paraclete whom he sent to abide with us for ever, is such that the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, nor knoweth Him. That we shall know Him, on the other hand, comes neither from any special merit of ours nor from some keen and able insight nor from some arbitrary leap in the dark. Indeed, it does not come from us at all. We are able to know the Spirit because He shall abide with us and shall be in us.

This is why our evangelization, our apologetics, our public disputation and exhortation concerning the Kingdom of God must always be tempered with a special kind of humility. As the basis of our confidence in the Gospel of Jesus Christ arises from nothing other than the personal presence of the Spirit of the same Christ dwelling within us, we know that only insofar as we introduce others to our divine Friend and Comforter do we offer them a motive to know as we know, to see as we see, to believe as we believe. If the world does not see Christ risen from the dead even today, this is because it has not been made alive by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: Yet a little while, and the world seeth Me no more. But you see Me: because I live, and you shall live.

If, then, we want to invite others to embrace the Friendship of the Holy Spirit, if we, like Paul, would speak convincingly to those who have not so much as heard whether there be a Holy Ghost, then we need to live out, clearly, publicly, unambiguously, the kind of life to which the Spirit's friendship has called us. We must, in other words, keep the commandments we have received from Jesus Christ, and chief among these is the commandment of love. It is in our love of the brethren in the faith, it is our love in the face of opposition, indifference, or scorn, it is our love seen in unconquerable joy even in the face of a society determined to reshape itself in ways alien and hostile to the Gospel, and most of all it is our love of those to whom we witness and from whom we seek nothing apart from offering them a share in the life we have in the Spirit of the risen Christ, that will not only manifest the Gospel to the world, but will open our eyes to the love we are called to share in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

Send forth Thy Spirit, and they shall be created, and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the Lord endure for ever, alleluia!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sunday after the Ascension

1 Peter 4:7-11 / John 15:26, 27; 16:1-4

It has become a commonplace in the ecclesial culture wars to pit fidelity to the received word of Christ against the new and unexpected promptings of the Holy Spirit. In their favor, the first sort have the clear words of Jesus Christ himself: When the Paraclete cometh, Whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, Who proceedeth from the Father, He shall give you testimony of Me: and you shall give testimony because you are with Me from the beginning. The point seems clear enough. The Spirit, the Paraclete, knows the Son intimately, is sent by him and proceeds from the Father, who is one with the Son. This divine intimacy is echoed in the ecclesial intimacy of the apostolic band with their Lord and Master. In both cases, it is this intimacy, this knowing Jesus so well as to be able to bear authentic witness to him, that grounds both the divine and the human testimony. To claim to hear the Spirit as speaking against the witness of the Church, then, especially against the witness of the apostles and their successors, the college of bishops, is to fail to hear the Spirit or the Church, or perhaps even both. In any case, it does not support laying claim to the Spirit as a cause for holding against the Church's clear witness.

Even so, while we must indeed, as Peter reminds is, be prudent and watch in prayers, taking care to keep true to the truth we have received in Jesus Christ, the Prince of the Apostles does not regard this as our most compelling task. Rather, he says, before all things have a constant mutual charity among yourselves, reminding us that charity covereth a multitude of sins. While we of course grant the primacy of charity, can we really make this task of mutual charity something before all other things? Might we risk muddying the waters of our testimony, being indulgent with those slow to believe and this give to the world a divided witness to Jesus Christ? When those among us, or even ourselves, have violated the way of life to which the Gospel calls us, ought not our public denunciation of the deviation be just as swift as our charity to our brother? Can we really let the charity come before all things?

The truth is that there is no authentic witness to Jesus Christ, risen from the dead and ascended into glory, that is not always first, foremost, and before all things, a life lived in love. However seemingly accurate our transmission of the apostolic witness is, it is only mere seeming if it does not issue in a love which willingly suffers the worst of rejection by the world on behalf of Christ and of our fellow Christians. This is why the Spirit, who is Love himself, must always be at the heart of our Christian living, and why the promptings of the Spirit, even when they seem to encourage a sloppier handing on of the faith than we might prefer, can never be rejected as if in doing so we can keep our tradition more authentic. There is no Spirit-led movement that opposes the Church, but at the same time there is no authentic presence of the Church's true tradition, the true testimony to Jesus Christ, were there is not suffering, cruciform love.

If we would follow Christ, if our mind and heart would be in heaven where Christ is, then it must be ever occupied with loving those whom he loves, our brothers and sisters in the Church, and all peoples of the world, whom he has called into unity with him through the preaching of the Gospel.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

St Francis Caracciolo, Confessor

Wisdom 4:7-14 / Luke 12:35-40

Francis Caracciolo, one of the founders of the Minor Clerks Regular, could be said, on one description, to have been brought to holiness by mistake. While known to be more pious than his peers, he was not opposed in his youth to chasing after the usual worldly, even if not sinful, pursuits that captivated young gentlemen of Italy in the sixteenth century. His story at first follows a usual pattern. Struck by a terrible illness, he pledges his life to God should he recover. Recover he does, and joins with the Bianchi della Giustizia, the White Robed Men of Justice, who pledged themselves to serve the spiritual needs of men in prison, and especially those who were condemned to die. This was, and indeed is, a holy and good work, and had the story ended there, with Francis and the Bianchi helping the souls of criminals turn to God at the hour of their death, then this would have been a fine example of being conformed to Christ.

However, as it happened, Francis is mistakenly delievered a letter sent by Ven. John Augustine Adorno to Fabrizio Caracciolo, inviting him to join him in founding a new religious congregation. Francis, even when realizing the error, nonetheless took the mistake to be a more profound, and providential, message, God directing him to take up Adorno's offer. Together, the two Caraccioli and Adorno founded the Minor Clerks Regular, most notable for their taking of a fourth vow not to pursue any ecclesiastical office outside or even within the community. In their collective humility, the Minor Clerks Regular, the Adorno Fathers and Brothers, put themselves under the motto Ad majorem Resurgentis gloriam, "to the greater glory of the Risen One."

There is, of course, a kind of superstition which sees in every coincidence a hidden message, in every stirring of a leaf, in every drop of rain or positioning of tea leaves, an important clue to the a successful life, if one had only the eyes and knowledge to interpret. For some, Francis Caracciolo's decision to abandon his laudable work with prisoners on the basis of a wrongly delivered letter seems just this kind of superstition. Why, after all, take what one knows to have been human error to be the unmistakable voice of God? Would not God have used more direct, or at least less fortuitous means, minimally have avoided using the ambiguity that arises from error, to communicate with his saints?

To be sure, there is no surefire way to distinguish God's deliberate and providential arranging of events from an "ordinary" coincidence since the distinction is a false one. All events, including mistakes and coincidences, fall under the providence of God and all things that happen, however they are caused directly, have God as their first cause and origin. So, the question is not one of picking out the intelligible from the simply random in life. Whatever is random as regards this world is, without ceasing to be unplanned in its own way, always planned and intended by God.

What remains for us, however, is not to try to discern the hidden counsels of God from flights of birds or the entrails of goats as did the pagans of old, nor from the patterns of the stars as some do even still today. Rather, we are to be attentive to the task our Lord, Jesus Christ risen from the dead, gave us before his Ascension, to go, preach the Gospel to every creature, teaching them, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This is how we are to be found when he shall return from the wedding. It is in taking without delay those opportunities to proclaim and live out the Good News of Jesus risen from the dead and ascended into glory, whenever and however those opportunities come to us, that at the first, or second, or even third watch, the householder will consider us blessed among his servants.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Ascension of Our Lord

Acts 1:1-11 / Mark 16:14-20

Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven? This Jesus, Who is taken up from you into heaven, said the two men in white garments, shall so come as you have seen Him going into heaven On a certain way of reading, this pair of sentences, the question and the assertion, seem to be in conflict one with the other. After all, if Jesus shall indeed so come as we have seen Him going into heaven, then this means he will return descending from the sky even as he ascended up into the heavens. To this way of reading the text, the motive to look up to heaven seems assured precisely by the logic which the angels put forward to dissuade the apostles from a heavenword gaze.

Of course, what this suggests is that we have misread what the angels wanted the apostles, and indeed want us, to hear. Let us consider again the events of Jesus' Ascension. The apostles have just asked Jesus whether he, having been raised from the dead and having appeared to them for forty days, would at this time restore again the kingdom of Israel. Jesus' reply is clear, not in answering the question itself, but in insisting that this question is inappropriate for his disciples in via: It is not for you to know the times or moments which the Father hath put in His own power. What they are assured is not knowledge of the establishment of the kingdom, but rather an assurance of the presence of the Holy Spirit, a presence which will give warrant and credit to the Gospel they are commanded to preach. In My name, Jesus tells the eleven, they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay they hands upon the sick, and they shall recover ... But they going forth preached everywhere, the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with signs that followed.

So, how is it that Jesus shall so come as we have seen Him going into heaven that we ought not to stand ... looking up to heaven? The answer is in both the Acts and the Gospel. As Acts record it, while they looked on, He was raised up: and a cloud received Him out of their sight. As Mark presents it, the Lord Jesus, after He had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God. That is, in both accounts, the Ascension was unexpected, unannounced, and happened in the midst of his being present to them. That we know of his going up to heaven could and can only be known by our trust in them, by our assurance that the Lord is working withal not only in the witness of the apostles and their Gospels and letters, but even to this day in his Church, and in our faithful reception of that teaching as authoritatively taught by the Church universal. Said differently, Jesus was taken up to heaven in just the same way as he rose from the dead, and as Jesus upbraided the eleven with their incredulity and hardness of heart, because they did not believe them who had seen Him after He had risen again, so he calls the eyes of the eleven, and our eyes as well, away from heaven. He calls our eyes and our ears to be focused not on a personal assurance of the presence of the risen Lord and his glorious return, but, buttressed by supernatural faith to give credit to the authentic witnesses of Christ, our attention rather is to be on the proclamation of the Gospel to every creature, that those who are called will come to salvation: Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned.

The Ascension, for all of its natural focus on the glorious entry of Christ into the Temple not made by human hands, for all of its rightful revelation of the fulfillment of the High Priestly work begun on Calvary, now bringing the Blood beyond all price into the true Holy of holies, not made by human hands, and there to plead our cause better than did the blood of Abel, is not meant to direct our hearts or our minds towards fretting about the day or time of his return. Rather, it is because our hearts and minds can be, and indeed by faith already are, safely secured in heaven above where Christ is, we can with unfettered freedom engage the creatures of the world and without fear or hesitation proclaim the Good News of eternal life in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Vigil of the Ascension

Ephesians 4:7-13 / John 17:1-11

There are no small parts, we are told, only small actors. Of course, these words hardly ever issue from the actor who has been cast in the role of "Soldier #3" or "Woman eating pasta". If anyone speaks them, you can be assured that that man is the director, that woman has top billing in the show. Now, we accept as a given that not every show, not every beautiful thing can have each and every part be equally prominent. Its beauty, its impact derives at least as much from what takes a rightly minor place as from what is central. We can see this, for example, in good mosaics. From afar, one might see what appears to be a field of blue or gold. Up close, however, one sees that the tiles differ one from another, and that many of them are quite different colors, red or green or even black. The effect, however, is a seamless field of a single color, but one which is altogether more pleasing for the presence of those otherwise unnoticed tesseræ of different colors. A mosaic which has portions all of the same hue looks inevitably poor and flat.

Even so, even granting the beauty of the whole in light of the presence of the obscure, unnoticed, unheralded parts, who would actually want to play the minor role? What tessera, could they speak, would want to be merely an unseen accent color, whose contribution is only to highlight the dominant color while remaining itself unmarked and unseen? In the spiritual life, the question is even sharper than this. Who, on granting that God has apportioned an array of spiritual gifts — And He gave some apostles, and some prophets, and other some evangelists, and other some pastors and doctors — and that this array of gifts is for the good of the whole, nonetheless would be satisfied to know that his contributions are, at best, only to make another's work shine with even greater brilliance? Even more to the point, when Jesus departs, ascending to heaven to sit at the Father's right hand, who would rather remain in the world than be gifted to share, bodily, a life with him in heaven, even now?

This view, however understandable, mistakes what it means for Christ to be present in his body in heaven and thus, to that extent, "absent" from the world. Jesus Christ has not descended first into the lower parts of the earth and then ascended above the heavens as though to pass through every part of his creation only serially, leaving the one place so as to enter the other. As Paul reminds us, he came down from heaven and has returned on high not so as to leave the world, but rather that He might fill all things. In other words, the mystery of the Ascension is not about the absence of Jesus Christ, but rather about the exaltation of each and every one of the members of the Body through the exaltation of the Head. Since anyone made one in Christ is not merely rhetorically or poetically, but really and truly wherever Christ the Head is, then there is no life in Christ that is not a central part of the divine economy of salvation, no member who is merely a disposable twig or leaf on the great Vine. To be in the Body of Christ who has ascended on high is to be the one and only Christ, the perfect man, and thus no more distant from the body than the foot can be said to be less the body than the hand or the eye.

This is why the Ascension is not merely a mystery about Christ in himself. This is why the ascending of Jesus to glory matters to each and every one of us. Made one with him, being among those whom the Father gave to the Son out of the world, means to share, here and now, all of the love poured out upon the Son, our Head, who has gone before us to prepare a place for us. This is our hope, our blessed assurance. Declare it with the voice of joy, and make this to be heard: the Lord hath delivered his people. Alleluia!