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May 28, 2017 - Intangible Yet Real

The Ascension of the Lord

Scripture Readings

I have a letter with me written by my mother on August 10, 1992. Earlier that month, I had written home about the difficulty I was having in the seminary. I was trying to get my parents opinion on taking a leave of absence. Here is what she wrote back: “If you cannot continue, I am telling you as I have said always, “Our door is always open.” I have no intention to make you a priest. If you find it difficult, get out early. I am only waiting for your ordination to retire. Find a good job in Bangalore and settle the matter. Nothing to worry. I am with you.” With the assurance that my mother gave me, anybody would think that I quit. However, that is not how it worked out. I said to my self, if my mother is with me, I can weather any storm. I decided to take my difficulty in the seminary head on, knowing that, no matter what, my mother was with me.

On this the feast of the Ascension of Jesus, the gospel reading ends with Jesus words, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Two thousand years later, we who are gathered here cling on to these words. My homily today is more about the presence of Christ among us rather than the actual ascension of Jesus into heaven. We believe that Christ is truly preset among us. Yet we are unable to point him out among us. It is this real-yet-intangible presence of Christ that makes our task very delicate and challenging. 

Here are my three points for today:

1. “I Am With You, Always.” The passage we have in today’s gospel reading is written at least four decades after the  actual event of Jesus ascension. By this time, the early church has become comfortable with the physical absence of Jesus. Yet, the early church was more convinced of the real presence of Christ than the world ever has been. We know this from growth of the early church. The church was a persecuted church yet and yet they never felt abandoned. If there is one thing God is assuring us of today, it is this - that Christ is truly present to us as we muddle through life. My mother’s letter to me did not take my problems away. Neither did it make my life any easier. Yet, her assurance gave me a whole new perspective and a whole new approach to life. I believe this is what Christ is saying to us today when he says, “I am with you.” Life is still not easy for me these days. And once again, no other words have been more life-giving and invigorating for me that the words of Christ, “I am with you.” Christ has given each one of us the assurance of his presence. In the Eucharist, in the Sacraments, through scriptures and in prayer, Christ is saying to us, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

2. “Real-and-Tangible.” How do we understand and explain the real-yet-intangible presence of Christ? For a moment I want to return to my mother’s letter. When she wrote, “I am with you,” she was not talking about her physical presence with me. In fact, that would not be possible. What she was saying was that she was throwing her entire self in support of me. I took that assurance and personalized it. Even today, my mother and I are nine-thousand miles apart. Yet, I know that my mother is with me. If you tried to convince me otherwise, I will simply cut you off. May be I can give another example. Is there anyone here who has lost a parent, a spouse, or a child? And how many times have you said to someone that you know they are with you? They are present in a different way, but that does not mean that their presence in not real. People even talk about how their loved ones sent a butterfly, or a bird, a squirrel, clouds or some other sign their way to assure them. We know what a non-physical-yet-tangible presence means. Similarly, the early church was both convinced and alive with the real presence of Christ even if it was not physical. Today, you and I are invited to personalize the presence of Christ. Just like I did with my mother’s letter, and the way we make our loved one’s presence real for us, we must do with Christ.

3. “Make Disciples of All Nations.” Personalizing the presence of Christ is crucial for Christians and for the Church and her mission. Before Christ ascended into heaven, he said to his disciples, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Following Christ’s command and in total assurance of his presence, the early church went about making disciples of all nations. We know from the Acts of the Apostles and some early writings of the Church fathers that the early church was a missionary church. They were alive with the assurance of Christ’s presence. They were willing to lay down their lives for faith in Christ. Their community life was also exemplary. They came together for the breaking of the bread, shared what they had with one another, and inspired by their faith in Christ, bore witness to a new way of life. They were not always perfect. However, people who looked at them said, “See how they love one another.” Tertullian, a church father later wrote: “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See how they love one another, they say, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, they say, for they themselves will sooner put to death (The Apology, ch. 39).” In other words, the early church bore witness to Christ not by showing his physical presence, but rather, by showing how Christ had transformed their lives. The world came to know Christ not by encountering the physical Christ but by seeing Christ alive in the Christian community. The practical implication of this point is simply this - that the world does not merely hear our faith but sees how our faith. Actions speak louder than words. In our encounter with the world, if the world does not encounter Christ, then Christ’s mission stands at risk. Perhaps, this is already happening. May people look at us and say, “See how they love one another.” 

This Eucharist we celebrate is the real presence of Christ. As Christ said, "I am with you always, until the end of the world."

- Fr. Satish Joseph