THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD (A)
So the Church, like us, has both a spiritual and a material aspect to her. And that material component is made up of bishops, priests, deacons and most of all of lay people - people like me and you, saints and sinners alike. And just as we often say of ourselves, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mt 26:41), the Spirit of the Church is unfailing and ever-pure, while the "flesh" of the Church -- you and I -- struggles and stumbles along the way. We see this even in the Scriptures. Today we hear the conclusion of Matthew's gospel. The scene opens with Jesus and the Apostles ascending Mt. Olivet in Galilee, where they worship Him. The gospel says, "they worshiped, but they doubted."
These are the men who had spent the last three years travelling with Jesus, ministering to and with Him, witnessing His miracles, learning from His teachings. These are the men who saw their Lord arrested, condemned, tortured and crucified. They buried Him. They mourned. And then they rejoiced as they became witnesses to the Resurrection. Some, like Thomas, refused to believe it at first. But as the Resurrection of Christ proved to be true, you know their hearts must have nearly burst with thanksgiving and excitement. But despite all they had been through with Christ, they doubted. Isn't this just like us? Despite our desire for faith, despite our desire to trust God, does not doubt sometimes find its way into our hearts? How could it not, if even the apostles who saw Christ face to face and witnessed personally the Resurrection were subject to doubt?
If our faith were in a purely human Church, that doubt would be warranted. If our faith were in a religion crafted by men then we would be justified in our doubt. But Jesus reminds us in His words to the apostles that the Church is more than that; that our faith is warranted, and so our doubts can be put to rest.
"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me," Christ assured them. Some translations say, "all authority" (RSV:CE). The concept of authority is essential in understanding the continuing role of the Church in the world. The Jewish people recognized rightly that God has ultimate authority over the universe. He is the author of all creation and so all authority is rightly His.
We see many times throughout the Gospels Jesus claiming and demonstrating that He shares in this authority of the Father. His many healing miracles, His forgiveness of sins, His raising Lazarus from the dead -- all these things are demonstrations of Christ's divine authority. And we see many times Jesus passing this authority on to the Apostles. For example, when He gives Peter the keys to the kingdom (Mt. 16:19), a symbol of authority of the steward's office; or when Jesus breathes on the apostles and tells them, "whose sins you forgive are forgiven them" (Jn 20:23), a transmission of Christ's authority to forgive sins which is expressed in Mt 9:6 (and parallel passages in Mark and Luke).
Here in today's gospel, Christ again grants this divine authority to the Church. This time, we find in Christ's words a summation of the entire work of the Church -- a mission statement, if you like. He tells them, "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."
This is known as the Great Commission. It outlines the threefold mission of the Church.
- To evangelize all nations. This means more than winning individual souls for Christ (though it does mean that). It also means winning over entire cultures. Every area of our lives - social, economic, political, etc. - should be brought into conformity with the Gospel. Our faith refuses to be compartmentalized into something we just do on Sundays, or practice in the privacy of our own homes.
- To administer the sacraments. Baptism is the gateway to the sacramental life. It is the first step along the path of sanctification (being made holy) that we undergo by participating in the sacramental life of the Church. Christ established seven sacraments for the purpose of transmitting His grace in a very concrete way to the faithful for all time. The Church is charged with carrying out this sacramental mission and sanctifying the faithful.
- Teaching what Christ taught. It is not the mission of the Church to create new teaching, or change old teachings. It is the mission of the Church to teach what Christ taught. In this way the Church is like a curator, preserving and passing on the truths of the faith to each new generation.
This threefold mission of the Church is impossible without divine assistance. As I stated above, the visible Church on earth is made up of human beings who are weak and fallible. But God knows this. He wills to use our weakness to show us His strength. This is why Christ reminds us today that the Church carries out her mission not on her own corruptible human authority, but on His omnipotent divine authority.
Moreover, Christ assures us that He continues to be with and to guide the Church. It is no accident that today, when we celebrate the Ascension of Christ into heaven, that we also recall His promise "to be with [us] always, to the end of the age." In His human form He was present to the Apostles and those disciples physically present to them, in that particular place and time. Now, seated in glory at the right hand of the Father in eternity, He is made present to all peoples, in all places and times, through the ongoing ministry of the Church. He is present through the workings of the Spirit which continues to guide and animate the Church, as He has done since that first Pentecost. And Just as God descended to earth to share in our humanity, we hope to rise with Him into heaven so that we may share His divinity. Where He goes, we hope to follow.
All of us, I am sure, can at times in our lives identify with the disciples at the beginning of today's gospel, who worshiped yet doubted. In those moments we only need to remind ourselves that our faith is not in mere men, but in the Christ who continues to be with His Church to this day. It is within the bosom of the Catholic Church that we find the fulfillment of the great commission. It is within the bosom of the Catholic Church that find the graces of Christ's divine authority and life. And it is within the bosom of the Catholic Church that we find the real hope of our own glorification and resurrection.
So let us pray today that we may always remain faithful to Christ and to His Church, established for our good, so that we may one day follow Him into glory.