The Church, Christís Body
(Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Luke 24:46-53)
Introduction to Mass
The feast of the Ascension of the Lord commemorates the event that brought Jesus' own mission finally to a close and inaugurated the mission of the Church in history. The feast is significant because Jesus' departure tells us something important about the nature of God's plan of salvation for us and about the way God always works to draw us into his life.
My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
The readings today illustrate the level of understanding that the first Christians reached about the events following Jesus' resurrection, and the mission that they were being charged with.
"You will receive the power of the Holy Spirit", Jesus tells his followers in the first reading, and you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth". The gospel passage, also by Saint Luke, says the same thing: the followers of Christ must now begin witnessing to him, preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins "to all the nations".
After Jesus' departure the first Christians had no sense of bereavement, no sense of Christ's absence. The opposite was true: they had a powerful sense of his continuing presence, and the second reading, by Saint Paul, shows how quickly the Christian community came to understand itself as the body of Christ, the vehicle of Jesus' continuing presence in the world, and the means of carrying on his mission.
These circumstances - the circumstances in which the Church was founded - were consistent with God's way of acting at every earlier stage in his dealings with humanity.
The story of the Old Testament is the story of God calling us to live in a covenant of friendship with him, inviting us to open ourselves to the influence of his grace and the power of his holiness. But God never reveals himself to us directly. He always makes himself known indirectly, in and through historical events, in and through individual human beings.
He revealed himself especially to Abraham, to Moses, to the prophets, for example, and commissioned them to witness to their experience, and to bring others into contact with him. In fact people who had this kind of contact with God were always fired with an urgency and a passion to share their experience of God with others and to bring them into the same kind of friendship with God.
And if this was true of any group of people, it was true of the members of the Church community in the period immediately after Jesus' Ascension.
They were free from the confusions and misunderstandings that afflicted them during Christ's ministry. They were also free from the spirit of doubt and what we might call the habit of endlessly deferring commitment that in our time seems to hold people back from wholehearted Christ faith - or from any set of coherent beliefs and principles. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, whatever else it did, enlightened them, clarified their minds about the meaning and purpose of Jesus' mission and filled them with the conviction that comes from a genuine and unmistakeable encounter with God.
So now, finally and without any ambiguity, they knew Jesus not as a gifted teacher and healer, but as God. They understood his passion and death as the revelation of God's love in history. And now, following his return to the Father, they experienced their membership of his Body, the Church, as the place where the means of sharing God's life more fully than ever before had been made available.
If this was true for the first followers of Christ itís also true for us. We make up the body of Christ, the continuing presence of Christ in the world, and our job is to witness to him "to all the nations" just as much as it was the job of the first generation of believers .
In recent decades, in our part of the world at any rate, we've just passed through a period when it had become fashionable to regard religious faith as out-dated, a primitive outlook on life made up of myths and fantasies. "Modern man" to revert to the slogans of the nineteen-sixties, had "come of age": he could stand on his own two feet and no longer needed the crutch of religion.
Today the self-confidence has wilted, but it was always shallow and misplaced in any case. The truth is the opposite of the slogans: human beings need God, and they need God as he's been revealed to us in the gospel.
To try to live without reference to God, without his grace, without embarking on the path to holiness, actually deprives human beings of the true goal of their existence. Many of the obsessional and destructive patterns that warp people's behaviour now come from the attempt to supply our need for God with inadequate and unsatisfactory substitutes.
Fortunately there is every sign that, in the spiritual crisis of the present time, the fellowship of the Church is emerging, purified, from its recent turmoil and disorientation, rediscovering the conviction needed for its mission, and recovering the original purpose that was imparted to it at the moment Jesus withdrew and handed his work over to us.