JUST AS WE HAVE SEEN HIM ASCEND

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
Ascension of the Lord - Year A

Power, promise, and presence take center stage in our celebration of the Lord’s ascension today, 40 days after the resurrection (plus two in many dioceses all over the world). That power, referred to by the letter to the Ephesians as “the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might, which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,” (2nd reading) is echoed by our response after the first reading: “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord.”

That power, however, is born of a promise. It is not power for its own sake bestowed on oneself; not worldly and political power; not military might, nor power that accrues from a deep need to lord it over others, but a power proffered from above – a power for a purpose … “he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (1st reading)

The power that today’s liturgy speaks of has to do more with presence, invigorating and empowering presence, that ironically, can only take place after a formal leave-taking by the Risen Lord, that is the Ascension into heaven. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

We speak about a presence that was fulfillment of last Sunday’s promise: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you … And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.” (Jn 14:15-21)

This power from above becomes prophecy – the power to proclaim: “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

This divinely bestowed power also becomes priestly: “baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

This power from God also becomes kingly: “make disciples of all nations.”

This power shines out, and is summed up, in powerful presence: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:16-20)

This power is mediated for us by one mediator; “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

Lastly, this power has as indispensable element, a clear purpose: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” It is power, not only with a purpose. It is power meant to be for service, designed by the heavenly giver to be at the service of his saving presence, at the service of what commentators call “the great commission,” ultimately, at the service of Christ’s prophethood, priesthood, and kingship.

Servanthood and power are two concepts that remind us more of oil and water. The two can’t – and won’t – mix. The world understands power not in terms of service, but of authority. The world sees power as an end in itself, a value that, for many people, might be referred to as a terminal value, not a means value, and thus, something worth pursuing in itself, and for itself. The fact that many nations, most especially the Philippines, still wallow in the mire of rampant graft and corruption in and out of government, shows just how coveted the goods attached to power, prestige, and position are. Being the second most corrupt nation in Asia, powerful positions are seen, not as avenues for service, but as stepping stones to more wealth, more influence, and more clout, in a society populated mostly by poor, easily manipulated people.

Eighteen years after the historic Second Plenary Council of the whole Philippine local Church, which raised a rousing call to servant leadership, liberative evangelization, and a movement towards a spirituality of social transformation, the sad reality of a Church and people deeply steeped in a culture of power and position as honor rather than onus (latin for “burden”), social status, rather than selfless service, remains. Ours is a Church that still has to focus more on evangelization and less on administration; more on mission and less on maintenance of the status quo. We belong to a people and government still sorely wanting in the ideals of social justice, solidarity, and responsible and honest citizenship deeply steeped in sound environmental awareness.

Eighteen years after the historic Plenary Council II, we stand witness, to our utter shame as a Church and people, to the dismal failure of evangelization. Twenty nine years after the urgent and rousing call from Pope John Paul II for a “new evangelization,” both clergy and laity alike (at least in the Philippines), have not yet even understood, let alone fulfill, the call of Redemptoris Missio (1979 Encyclical of John Paul II on the need for new evangelization). Clergy are as busy as ever with ritual and sacramental dispensation, along with purely administrative concerns. Rectors and superiors of communities running so-called “catholic schools” are preoccupied with routine “maintenance,” rather than “mission” tasks. For the most part, the teaching of “religion” becomes relegated to ill prepared catechists and “value education” teachers who are hired for the purpose often because they can teach nothing else but religion. Living “middle class” lives, quite apart and a little removed from the lives of the great majority of their constituents, clergy and religious fall into the trap of a pervading mental attitude that believes that “managing for mission” translates automatically to “engagement in mission.”

They take easily to the “kingly” role, but miss out terribly on their “prophetic” role. School managers and technocrats, they may run efficient schools (although, by any standards, this, too, is highly contestable), but they fail dismally as “ministers” who “educate by evangelizing, and evangelize by educating,” as our Salesian documents of more than 30 years would describe our mission as Salesians. The ordained in our midst do well as dispensers of “holy goods” like the sacraments. They celebrate daily Masses and sit down to hear endless confessions. But they are not alarmed at the reality that a good number of our graduates end up becoming ‘born again” Christians in less than two years after they move out of our schools. They are not alarmed, too, of the fact that a great percentage of our graduates appear unconcerned and unbothered by the constant and rapid depredation of the country’s natural resources, if not direct participants in a culture and economy that are predatory and abusive of the rapidly dwindling natural resources.

Again, they take almost naturally to their “priestly” role. But they miss out on the more important “prophetic” role.

What, then, do we make of today’s Good News? Where, then, do we go from here? My readers are supposedly those who belong to the “front lines,” those who are among the ranks of the more influential, endowed by God with more gifts, graces, and more human, spiritual, and material resources. Like me, like many of my readers who belong to the ranks of the ordained, who share in Christ’s prieshood, prophethood, and kingship, “more is expected of us, since more has been given to us.” Even those of you who are not ordained, but who nevertheless are tasked with the same call to ministry by virtue of our baptism and our sharing in the royal priesthood of the laity, are also recipients of today’s good news.

And what should we focus on, among others, in today’s liturgy? I suggest simply this. I suggest that the Lord’ Ascension to heaven, based on the readings, is really all about power from God. It is power that we ought to translate into presence. It is power that we all ought to translate into proclamation – into evangelization. It is a presence that engenders hope. And it brings about hope because it is presence born out of a promise: “I will be with you all days, even to the end of the age.”

The Ascension is not all about departure and leave-taking. It is all about an empowering promise of presence. What the Lord promises, He does. What he teaches, he witnesses to. Just like Pope John Paul II and his battle cry, “Do not be afraid,” he lived it always, all the way! … to the very end … faithful, faith-filled, hope-filled, and full of courage. “I have run the race, put up a good fight, and kept the faith.” This, the Lord, promises us today. This, the same Lord, challenges us today … just as he has ascended … just as we have seen him ascend …

What, then, are we waiting for? What are we looking out for? What more do we want? “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”(Acts 1:11)

Ascension is, then, all about hope and courage… for you and me. His presence, his power, his promise are what sustain our hope … Just as we have seen him ascend, so shall we … like St. Paul, like St. Peter, like Pope John Paul II … like Christ ….just as we have seen him ascend…

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