BOTW - The Ascension of Our Lord
May 24, 2020
This week our Sunday liturgy formally commemorates the Ascension of the Lord, a tradition that has taken place since the late 4th century. While the Ascension is celebrated as a separate feast, approximately 40 days after Easter, it has always been considered, along with the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, part of the fullness of the Paschal Mystery.
The Ascension should be understood as symbolizing Christ’s exaltation, as well as the exaltation of those who believe in him. Having completed his mission on earth, Jesus entered into a new kind of existence in heaven. In his singular absence from earth, Jesus is now mysteriously omnipresent with his Body, the Church, throughout all the earth.
Jesus is understood as Lord of the universe. He is the Master of all believers, with the expectation that he will come back again. Jesus’ ascension served as a prelude to the sending of his Holy Spirit, who would be the One to continue the work of Christ’s New Covenant through those who would build His Church.
In today’s Ascension narrative from our first reading, the disciples are given two messages. Jesus tells them that with the power of the Holy Spirit, they will be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” Then the two angels who appear to them dressed in white tell the disciples that Jesus “will return in the same way they saw him going into heaven.”
Today’s Gospel from Matthew takes place on a mountain in Galilee, providing a symbolic location for yet another insight into Jesus’ divine nature. Matthew uses the mountain as the place where Jesus enters into the full authority as the Son of God. Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee, as he predicted before he died. It is here that Jesus will deliver the Great Commission; the disciples are sent to continue his work, to “make disciples of all nations…”
The significance of the Great Commission, with Jesus giving the disciples the Trinitarian formula with which to baptize new followers of Christ, would not have been lost on the Jews. The Jews held fast to their mono-theistic view of God. In most of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus ministered only to the Jews. So did the disciples at first. It was not until later that Jesus’ command to go to all nations was understood as outreach beyond the Jewish borders – to the Gentiles. By the time Matthew’s gospel was written, baptism of new believers used the Trinitarian formula.
Jesus’ authority has now been passed on to the church. The final verse of today’s Gospel echoes the first words ever spoken about Jesus. He is Emmanuel – God with us. Now before he departs the disciples, he assures them that he will always be with them, until the end of time.
The mystery of the Trinity is essential to our faith, and unique to the Christian faith: one God in three persons. The Hebrew scriptures do not provide a Trinitarian understanding of God. The Catholic Church teaches that the Trinity is an absolute mystery. We do not understand it even after it has been revealed. Mystery transcends the capacity of our ordinary rational and conceptual powers. It goes beyond the scope of human imagination and everyday knowledge.
The New Testament does not clearly define the dogma of the Trinity. The word Trinity is not used, but there is a proclaimed experience of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity is experienced in Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan when the Spirit descends upon him, and the Father’s voice is heard. In today’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts his disciples to go out and baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Mt. 28:19)
There were two schools of thought that came from the Greek and Latin Church Fathers. The Greek Fathers gave us the concept of an economic trinity, based on the experience of God in the world, in the history of salvation. This the understanding just described in Jesus’ Baptism and the Great Commission. Humanity experienced God as creator, Son as redeemer, and Spirit as sanctifier. Economic trinity refers to the mission of God who sent the Son and the Spirit to accomplish the work of salvation.
From the Latin Fathers we received the concept of Immanent trinity, which refers to the relationship the Father, Son, and Spirit have with one another apart from the actions they have performed in the world. Immanent trinity centers on the “Oneness” of God, one divine nature. No person of the Trinity is less than the others.
The dogma of the Trinity developed over time. Mostly addressing the heresies of the 4th through 7th centuries. The Trinity as a statement of faith came out of the Council of Nicea (325 CE) in the Nicene creed we profess still today. What is important for us to know is God as three persons, distinct but not separate, bringing separate characteristics to the one God.
God as Father – The Father, unbegotten, acts only with the Son and the Spirit. The Father generates the Son and sends the Spirit. Jesus reveals the Father who is Father because of his relationship to Jesus, the Son. Jesus is Son only in relationship to the Father.
God as Son – Jesus was eternally begotten of the Father. He was not made. Jesus is the same essence as the Father, divine and co-eternal. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to as the Word. If Jesus is the WORD of the Father, the WORD was always a part of the Father. God spoke the Word, and part of Godself came forth from his very being.
God as Spirit – The Spirit is also God. The Word of God was spoken and Jesus was begotten. The breath that came forth from the mouth of God was the Spirit. From the truth of God as revealed to us by the Son comes love. This Love is the Spirit of God. If Jesus is the Word, or Truth of who God is, the Spirit is the action of Truth, which is LOVE.
Given all this, what is the bottom line here? It is this triune God who, from the time of our creation, is not removed from us. God is truly with us in the flesh of human history, and with the flesh of the human family. God is with us in the spiritual depths of our existence as well as in our unfolding history. God is in our everyday lives. God is the source of enlightenment and community.
Theme in Our Life
Today’s feast of the Ascension is the elevation of Jesus back to full divinity at the right hand of the Father in heaven. Next week we will celebrate Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit fills us with all the gifts and graces necessary to carry out the Commission Jesus gives us today, to continue God’s work in making disciples of all the world.
We were created by God, redeemed of our sins by God, and filled with the Spirit of God’s Love, given one purpose for our time on this earth: to go and make disciples using the Spirit of Love which we received at our Baptism.
The only way we can accomplish this task, which is truly beyond our natural human abilities, is to take into our heart the last verse of today’s Gospel. We must believe, and draw strength from the fact that our God - Father, Son and Spirit, united as a Holy Trinity - is with us always, until the end of the age.
Great saints started out as great sinners. We aren’t called to be perfect. But great saints, at some point in their life were transformed by their acceptance of the fact that they were filled with the Holy Trinity, and relied on that belief to acquire the courage and strength and every virtue necessary to complete the mission that God revealed to them. These great saints weren’t perfect, but they came to be faithful.
That same Holy Trinity, our one God in three persons, by virtue of our Baptism lives deep within each and every one of us. Let us put our faith not in our own strength, but in the power of the Holy Trinity. Our path to faithfully going out and making disciples in the world starts, continues, and ends with our ability to give ourselves over to the power of the Holy Trinity.
Let’s not get caught standing looking in awe at the heavens. Let’s get started on the mission that never ends until Jesus comes again.
Preparing for Sunday
To Prepare for this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word, consider the following:
What does it mean, "to become a disciple" of Jesus?
In this context, what does the baptism "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" mean?
What do the words "I am with you always, even to the end of time" mean to you?
Let us pray:
Almighty and ever-living God, who allow those on earth to celebrate divine mysteries, grant, we pray, that Christian hope may draw us onward to where our nature is united with you.
Through Christ our Lord.