Sunday, May 12, 2013

Seventh Sunday of Easter (C)

Acts 7:55-60 / Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20 / John 17:20-26

How is the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven not, at least in some respect, a disaster for the Church, rather than a glorious mystery? We hear today of the witness to the faith given by St Stephen, a witness filled with the Holy Spirit. Yet, at least by any normal metric, we would conclude that the outcome was not so glorious: But they cried out with a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. Now, in his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ was certainly no stranger to opposition of this sort, of those hearing his message and seeking to kill him, even then and there to throw him off a cliff. Jesus, however, always passed through the midst of them unharmed. Even when the time for his Passion arrived, and Jesus humbly submitted to his own betrayal, false judgment, torture, and death, he made sure that not one of his disciples, save the son of perdition, would be lost. For all the pains that he endured, his disciples were spared.

So, we might be forgiven in thinking that something has gone wrong here, that the providential care which had watched over Jesus and his disciples while he was on the earth has been withdrawn to heaven, where Jesus is, seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. However, this would be a mistake, a failure to see what the martyrdom of Stephen is supposed to remind us of the saving mystery of the Lord's Ascension into heaven.

As we are reminded, what both motivated and empowered Stephen to be such a bold witness was not simply being filled with the Holy Spirit, although that would surely have been enough, as it had been for the prophets of old. Rather, we are told that Stephen, thus Spirit-filled, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. That is, Stephen's fearless witness is not merely a result of having met and learned from Jesus in his earthly ministry, nor even from having encountered the risen Lord. As would be the case for St Paul after Stephen's death, the protomartyr Stephen was able to witness to the truth, and be so conformed to his Lord that he could not only forgive his murderers but also had so overcome death that he is more properly said to have fallen asleep, not in spite of the absence of Christ's earthly presence, but, paradoxically, because of it.

Said differently, Jesus Christ is not less, but radically more present to us in his ascended glory than he ever was in his earthly ministry. It is not by the Incarnation alone, nor by the Passion, nor even by that victory over sin, death, and Hell we recall in the Resurrections that Jesus brings us to the Father. It is through drawing up whole and entire everything he has assumed from us, his whole, complete, victorious human nature into the presence of the Father, and receiving in that nature from the Father the name above every other name, the name reserved to divinity alone — Lord, I AM — that we, in him, are brought to that completion of life with God that is the purpose of the whole Christian mystery. While on earth, the divine humanity of Jesus Christ was, in his self-emptying, only available to those who came to see him those who touched him or even the hem of his garment, those who in his presence confessed their faith and found not only their own needs, but those of the ones they loved, responded to and fulfilled. Now, in the presence of the Father, that same divine humanity is, through the power of the Spirit and by means of the mysteries of the Christian faith, directly available to each and every person. It is in and by the power not only of the Risen Lord, but the Ascended Lord, that we can, here and now, be so fully conformed to his death that we can share, as Stephen did, even now in his victory over death and sin, and know not death, but sleep and life eternal.

This is why the Lord's Ascension is not for us a disaster, nor the inauguration of a suspended time between the joy of his earthly presence and the joy of his return. Instead, now is the time of glorious joy, knowing that Jesus Christ our Savior, in the fulness of this glorified humanity and his divinity, is present to us in such fulness as only to be surpassed at the end of days, when all things are brought to completion, and the elect will delight in a new heaven and a new earth. Until that day, however, we need not wait to know Jesus, not in a remote way, but directly, for there is nothing closer to us, not ever our own selves, than God, and whoever is in God's presence. Jesus Christ is not gone from us, but with us, and in that hope, we can wait with confidence when the bright morning star which has dawned in our hearts, dawns at last for the whole world to see.

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