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Ascending to higher places with Jesus
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This past week, while the world kept spinning, we priests of the Stockton Diocese spent four days together on retreat.  Although some have to return for funerals or essential meetings, we try to dedicate the time to renewal.

Yesterday morning, we gathered for “Lectio Divina”.   This is a meditative form of scripture reading designed to bring us into communion with God.

While at St. Andrew’s Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery near Lancaster, I met Fr. Luke Dysinger.   A brilliant scholar and musician, he has made lectio divina the substance of his prayer.  “A very ancient art,” he writes in an article on the Internet, “practiced at one time by all Christians, is the technique known as lectio divina - a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures which enables the Bible, the Word of God, to become a means of union with God.  This ancient practice has been kept alive in the Christian monastic tradition... Together with the Liturgy and daily manual labor, time set aside in a special way for lectio divina enables us to discover in our daily life an underlying spiritual rhythm. Within this rhythm we discover an increasing ability to offer more of ourselves and our relationships to the Father, and to accept the embrace that God is continuously extending to us in the person of his Son Jesus Christ.”

 The text chosen for our prayerful consideration was tomorrow’s Gospel:

 “Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.  He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.  And these signs will accompany those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.’  So then the Lord Jesus, after He had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it.  Amen.”
In certain regions of the United States, the Ascension of Jesus is celebrated on Sunday, so that those who work on Thursday can participate.  Our Lectionary covers the Bible in three years.  2009 features Mark 16:15-20.  
Breaking into small groups, we shared which words had stood out for each one of us.  I expected to hear my brother priests saying, “Well, ‘cast out demons,’” or “pick up serpents,” or “drink any deadly thing.”  After all, in the media, these would definitely get all the attention.  But in fact, they all grabbed on to something more uplifting, and surprisingly similar: “they preached everywhere,” to “all the world,” and to “the whole creation.”

The Great Commission, given as Jesus ascended from his disciples into the presence of his Father, remains the task of every Christian.  It is expressed most clearly in Matthew 28:18-20: “…Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations.  Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world.”  Jesus’ “marching orders” for his followers need to remain chiseled on the interior doorway of every house of prayer on the face of the earth.  Far from simply an option for ministers and missionaries, they oblige all of us.

How much more for us priests who’ve gathered from the far corners of the world through the preaching of committed Christians across the centuries, does the Great Commission require that we keep proclaiming the Gospel!

 Unfortunately, Mark’s gospel, always abrupt and candit, omits Matthew’s consoling phrase, “…know that I am with you, until the end of the world.”   

Lacking this, we ministers might feel like the astronauts of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, exposed at dangerously high altitudes to debris rocketing through space while bringing new vision to the Hubble Telescope, or the crew of the Star Ship Enterprise, light years from home in a hostile world.

Suddenly, I heard my brother priests bringing in the few words from Mark which resonate with Matthew’s encouraging phrase.  “the Lord worked with them,” now became the central theme.  From beyond our group, our Bishop was saying to others, “he worked with them.”  Between us, at the very same time, a Filipino priest said, “he worked with them.”  And, to my left, my buddy from Nigeria echoed, nodding, “yes, he worked with them.”

The Ascension, as our speaker would observe, is a mysterious co-mingling of two seemingly contrasting realities: Jesus makes himself more available to the disciples by removing himself from their midst.  “If I do not go,” he had warned the disciples, “the Counselor will never come to you.” (John 16:7)

 We shared how we’d experienced the Lord working with us and within us.  What a blessing to repeat with St. Paul, “It is God who, in his good will toward you, begets in you any measure of desire or achievement.” (Phil. 2:13)

Yes.  The miracle of the Ascension is this: He who became one of us in the Incarnation, who died for us on Good Friday, who rose from the dead on Easter, is alive and well in his Church through the Spirit of Pentecost.   We who are sent by him into the world go together, and he goes forth with us.
The Catholic Catechism states: “Christ’s body was glorified at the moment of his Resurrection, as proved by the new and supernatural properties it subsequently and permanently enjoys.  But during the forty days when he eats and drinks familiarly with his disciples and teaches them about the kingdom, his glory remains veiled under the appearance of ordinary humanity.  Jesus’ final apparition ends with the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory, symbolized by the cloud and by heaven, where he is seated from that time forward at God’s right hand… (Paragraph 659)

“The lifting up of Jesus on the cross signifies and announces his lifting up by his Ascension into heaven, and indeed begins it.  Jesus Christ, the one priest of the new and eternal Covenant, ‘entered, not into a sanctuary made by human hands. . . but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf’ (Hebrews 9:24).  There Christ permanently exercises his priesthood, for he ‘always lives to make intercession’ for ‘those who draw near to God through him’ (Hebrews 7:25).  As ‘high priest of the good things to come’ he is the center and the principal actor of the liturgy that honors the Father in heaven’ (Hebrews 9:11 and Rev. 4:6-11. P. 662).

“Being seated at the Father’s right hand signifies the inauguration of the Messiah’s kingdom, the fulfillment of the prophet Daniel’s vision concerning the Son of man: ‘To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed’ (Daniel 7:14).  After this event the apostles became witnesses of the ‘kingdom that will have no end’.” (664)

The Ascension of Jesus, then, represents far more than a necessary pause in the rush of an impatient church toward Pentecost.  It is the critical move that makes Pentecost possible, the door opening outward toward infinity, the bubble of our senses bursting to a fuller reality, the right-of-passage of an adolescent church called to full maturity.  For us, the Ascension lays out God’s challenge to proclaim the gospel we have received, to become the gospel we proclaim, and to remember that our ministry belongs to Jesus.

To celebrate the Ascension fully means to fully embrace our missionary task, as well as the Spirit who empowers us to serve.  It also means to keep our minds set on things that are above, not on the things of earth. (Col. 3:2)