The Ascension: God’s Faith in Humanity

Solemnity of the Ascension – May 11/12, 2013
Dignity NoVA/Washington

Readings

As I was thinking about this day’s celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension, I came across something by theologian Fr. Ron Rolheiser. In commenting that most of us don’t really understand what the Ascension is all about, he said this: “The Ascension names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the center of life, namely, [there are times in life when] … we can only give our presence more deeply by going away so that others can receive the full blessing of our spirits.” … At times we can only give our presence more deeply by going away.

I suppose the bumper-sticker version of a part of this insight is, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ … but I think this insight is more profound than that. It reminds us first of all that from the very beginning to the very end of every human life … life is filled with transitions and experiences of moving on and letting go. That is, after all, the essence of growth. Every life and every relationship is filled with beginnings and endings and new beginnings after that. Every human experience is filled with the “interplay of life and death, of presence and absence, of love and of loss.”

heronIn celebrating the Ascension today, we hear two accounts from the same biblical source – accounts that exemplify that interplay of endings and beginnings. First, we hear the opening words of the Acts of the Apostles in which two mysterious figures ask the Apostles, “Why are you standing there looking up into the sky?” And then, in Luke, we hear the very last words of that Gospel which presents a very similar scene. Luke presents the Ascension as occurring on the same day as the Resurrection and the Easter appearances of Jesus to his disciples. The Resurrection and the Ascension are different facets of that same reality which is the core of our Christian belief. That reality is this: In Jesus the Christ, the experiences of pain, suffering, separation and even death itself are transformed into joy and happiness and unending new life.

This transformation is not unlike so many other  transformations and experiences occurring all the time and throughout our lives:

  • It’s the experience of a child going to school for the first time, even as his parents with reluctance let go of his hand on that very first day;
  • It’s the experience of removing those training wheels from a child’s bike – cautiously running after her as she wobbles from side to side and eventually finds her stride;
  • It’s the experience of saying “Yes” to one person in a loving and committed relationship, even though this also means saying “No” to all others and to letting go a former way of life;
  • It’s the experience of students who – having embraced the challenges of learning, of study, and intellectual growth – come to the end of either one academic year or academic career – and face the prospects of a new world of work or even more advanced academic challenges;
  • It’s the experience whenever we close one chapter of life – with all the mixed feelings and emotions that closing might bring – and begin to write a new chapter that might lead in directions we can only imagine.

Letting go and moving on isn’t always easy – but it’s something we know we must all do, from time to time, if we are to remain alive. The Ascension of Jesus – his “letting go” of this world – reminds us as disciples of something else we must be careful not to overlook. The disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ Resurrection from the Dead and Ascension into Heaven was primarily not sadness that he was no longer with them, but it was marked by joy because they knew the opposite was true. They knew that instead of Absence, they experienced a New Presence. This Presence of God’s Spirit deep within was an empowering Presence and an energizing Spirit Who would give them what they needed to do the work that had yet to be done. They knew that the Presence of Jesus would strengthen them not just to Believe, but also to Act. They would be strengthened to preach the Good News, to feed the hungry, to comfort those in need, and to seek a world marked less by selfishness and self-centeredness and more by charity, justice, and a way of seeing that recognizes the Face of God in every human person.

Me and Sophie - 1995

Me and Sophie – 1995

It’s been quite some time since I had a dog. The last dog I had was an Old English Sheepdog named Sophie. Although the history of the breed isn’t perfectly clear, it’s likely that the breed developed in Southwestern England sometime in the early 19th century. They were bred as working dogs … helping farmers to drive their herds of sheep and cattle to market. Being a good urban dog owner far removed from farms and fields, I was always very careful to keep Sophie on a leash when we went for our walks, keeping her close by my side. When Sophie was about three years old, a neighbor of ours on Capitol Hill got a puppy, and so one day we took the two dogs to a park on the Hill. The park was fairly large and on this particular day there was no one else around or even very little traffic, so we let both dogs off leash for a little exercise. As you can imagine … as youngsters of any species tend to do … the puppy began to run around exploring all the new sights and smells and sounds of the park. What fascinated me most, however, was what Sophie did. She ran and played with the pup, to be sure … but whenever he would run off too far, or get too close to the street, she would do an end-run around him and bring him back to the center. He would then run to the other side of the park, heading toward the street and the park’s edge on the opposite side. And Sophie would do the same thing … running after him, getting between him and the street, causing him to turn around and head back once again. It was fascinating to see! Never before had I seen her do what appeared to be an innate, natural behavior … this herding instinct that kept both her and puppy close by at all times, even while allowing themselves the freedom the run and play. From that memorable experience, I learned an important lesson: Only by letting her go … even in this small way … was I able to see her actually be who she was meant to be and do what she was meant to do.

The Ascension is a celebration of faith – but it is less a celebration of our faith in God as it is a celebration of God’s faith in us. Jesus’ departure from this world is an expression of His belief that the work entrusted to His followers will not end with His moving on and letting go. No, it is a declaration that His work will continue through the words and deeds of His followers – words and deeds which must continue to transform the world. As his disciples – and especially as his LGBT disciples with the particular mission that we have both to society and to the Church – it remains our work to go into that world and to bring the Good News to all creation. We are called to be the voice and hands of Jesus. We are called to relieve the sufferings of those in need; we are called to be instruments of peace and not of war; we are called to respond to violence with non-violence; to promote understanding in the face of ignorance, and in the presence of hate – including hatred for who we are as gay and lesbian children of God – even there we are called to be bearers of God’s love for all. As followers of Jesus, let’s make sure that are not caught staring up into the sky; let us be about the work that Jesus has entrusted to our care.

When Every Voice is Heard

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter
May 5, 2013 – Dignity/Washington

Readings

My favorite line from today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles is this:

Because there arose no little dissension and debate….”  

Other translations say it more clearly, referring to the “sharp dispute” that Paul and Barnabas had with those unnamed Jewish-Christians who had come to Antioch from Judaea and who were preaching that in order to follow Jesus, one must first follow all aspects of Judaism, including circumcision, the rules about ritual purity, and all the dietary restrictions found in Mosaic Law.

photo(3)Now if they were here, my parents or brother or sister, or some colleagues from work, or perhaps even a few of you who know me well would not be surprised to hear me say this … to say that I like this line about dissension and debate. Ever since I was a child I always liked a good argument. I’ve always enjoyed the back and forth of a well-thought-out discussion, and found the process of logical reasoning to be stimulating and energizing. But before I say more about why I like this line so much, let’s take a closer look at this reading.

It comes from the 15th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, about two-thirds of the way through this very important document about the life of the early Church. As you may know, the author of the Acts of the Apostles is probably also the author of the Gospel of Luke, and so scripture scholars will often refer to “Luke / Acts” as a single entity. The passage we hear today begins with the first two verses of Chapter 15 and includes the reference to that “dissension and debate” that I mentioned earlier. Then, unfortunately, the reading skips 20 verses and tells us the result of what many commonly call the “Council of Jerusalem.”  I say “unfortunately” because – as is so often true – what’s just as important as the outcome of a discussion and debate is the process of how that outcome is reached. How we get somewhere is often just as important as where we end up.

The question those early Christians faced was this:  Is it necessary for Gentiles who wish to be baptized and become part of the community as Christians … is it necessary for them also to follow all the rules of Judaism?  It was a debate between so-called Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians. Twenty centuries later, we know the outcome; we know the result.  We know that the burden of following the Mosaic Law was not placed on the shoulders of Gentiles who sought to become Christian, and so for over two thousand years we as Christians have not felt obliged to follow those practices.

Although the issues of circumcision and Mosaic Law have long been settled, every century and every generation throughout Christian history grapples with its own “issues of the day.” Christians in every age struggle with making choices about how our Christian faith guides us, about what that faith might ask of us in all spheres of life – from the most intimate and personal to the most public and communal.  How DO we … or rather, how SHOULD we make those choices and decisions as the community of the followers of Jesus? Looking at those 20 verses that we did not hear gives us some insight. In those verses …

  • We’re told that the whole Church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas and others to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders about this issue.
  • We’re told that the “apostles and the elders” came together to “look into the matter.”
  • We’re told that Peter spoke to the group, reminding all that the Holy Spirit had been given to the Gentiles as well, and asking the very legitimate question of why Jewish-Christians should impose on Gentile-Christians a burden that they themselves have not been able to bear?
  • We’re told that the gathered group listened as Paul and Barnabas related the many signs and wonders that God had worked among the Gentiles.
  • And finally we are told that it was James, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem (not Peter), who – after all the discussion and prayer and all voices were heard – pronounced the decision that no extra burden would be placed on Gentiles.

Clearly that Scriptures tell us that openness to the guidance of the Spirit is called for when faced with difficult or divisive issues. They demonstrate that we must be open to listening to the Spirit, the Advocate, the One Whose gifts we hope and pray will guide us in making good choices and in choosing the best path.

But the Acts of the Apostles and this glimpse at the “Council of Jerusalem” tell us something else, as well:  They tell us that good decision-making is not only about listening, it’s also about being heard.  It involves finding our own voice and not being afraid to take ownership of and responsibility for the Baptismal Faith that is ours. In that Faith, we are confirmed with the Gifts of the Spirit. In that Faith we gather each week to share the One Bread and the One Cup. In that Faith we are all called to share in the ministry of preaching the Good News … including our Good News of the working of God’s Spirit within us as evidenced by the way we live our lives. Yes, we certainly must listen, not only to one another, but also to the countless ways in which the Voice of God speaks to us every day.  But just as there is a time to listen, so too is there a time to speak up.

As the political successes of the LGBT community continue to increase in the public square, at the same time we are seeing some very strong reactions of many Catholic bishops and even some Catholic lay people who do not like those successes. Most recently, the Archbishop of Detroit and the Bishop of Providence have made headlines with their not-so-veiled warnings to Catholics regarding their thoughts and actions concerning same-sex marriages. Using language of what we had thought was a by-gone era, the Bishop of Providence said that Catholics who attend a same-sex wedding could possibly “harm their relationship with God and cause scandal to others.” The Archbishop of Detroit went even further, stating that Catholics who support same-sex marriage should not receive Communion, because to do so – he said in a rather convoluted argument – would be to renounce one’s integrity and show a disconnect between belief and action.

Thankfully, many priests and many more lay people are finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard. Individuals and groups across the country are choosing – with faith and with respect – to speak out with a different message, a different story.

And so, I like that line about debate not merely because I like a good argument, but because the story of the early Church reminds us of a Truth that those in power can tend to forget.  It’s the truth that says that the best decisions are always made when every voice is heard. From the weakest to the strongest, from the most vocal to the most reserved, God’s Spirit dwells within us all. It’s a Truth that even the institutional Church has tried – though with limited success – to recognize.  In the half-century since the Second Vatican Council, as the Church has tried to move from the absolute monarchy of the papacy to a more inclusive Body of Christ, we’ve seen the rise of parish councils, parish finance councils, diocesan presbyteral councils and pastoral councils and other bodies seeking to allow greater participation by all. Despite the limited success of those efforts, individually and collectively, we should heed the words of Jesus not to let our hearts be troubled or afraid. We should listen to the Voice of the Spirit Who speaks in the depths of every heart, and we should not be afraid to let that Voice speak its truth in our lives… a truth that tells even those who don’t yet want to listen, that we, too have something to say.