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Jesus’ Ascension means we are never alone

By 11 May, 2018January 3rd, 2023No Comments
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By F. Luis Casasus, General Superior of idente missionaries

Commentary on the Sunday Gospel of 13-05-18 The Ascension of the Lord, Peru. (Acts of the Apostles 1,1-11; Ephesians 4,1-13; Mark 16,15-20.)

What is the message of this Solemnity for each and every one of the human beings? Perspective. We are enabled to see the place of Jesus in this world and in Heaven. But at the same time, we share in a vision of our life with the eyes of our Heavenly Father: we know our final destiny is to be with Him.

Self-esteem? But the harsh reality is that in our days many of us are left feeling more insecure than ever. Our lives are under pressure. You are in the middle of a crucial conversation with a young person confronting loneliness and suffering and you know that 30 persons are waiting for you to start an important meeting…which you have not yet prepared. That report is due to your boss or your superior…by yesterday. You have got a to-do list so long you can see some all-nighters in the coming days.

It is easy to feel anxious and overwhelmed in the here-and-now. When we focus on what is right in front of us, we can lose perspective on what truly matters in life. Should I choose between two important and necessary things? Should I rather continuously run from place to place? These questions have not a clear-cut answer. On top of that, we are often misunderstood for doing good and we receive only negative comments and opposition. Some may be envious and others do not like the way we manage situations. But this is not all; our sins prevent us of having a realistic understanding of our situation.  This is, for believers and non-believers, the main source of insecurity. Despite our good will, we end up by not feeling good about ourselves in any way.

In modern culture, the panacea, the miracle drug for this situation, seems to be the “love yourself” rule. Regardless your personal failures, your defects, or the opinion of other people, we are encouraged to love ourselves. When a person struggles with low self-esteem, he/she is usually invited to focus solely on best parts of herself as a way of shifting focus away from the unattractive or imperfect parts. It is a useful practice to be aware of one’s talents, achievements and gifts. And, it is certainly unhealthy to only ever be considering the negative aspects of our character and behavior. However, both these approaches fall short…because both represent an individualistic view of the person.

In the 20th century, Humanistic Psychology argued that self-esteem is central to mental and emotional health and essential to all achievement. But according to this thinking, the higher one’s self-esteem the better, and whatever lowers it, notably self-criticism or the criticism of others, is harmful. This is the problem with the concept of self-esteem that, although it is something necessary to avoid depression, to activate our potential, or to tolerate abusive relationships, it easily becomes exclusive and absolute, drawing us to an inability to learn from failures and to several forms of narcissism.

Imagine yourself, looking out at the horizon from the balcony of your room. The trees, the mountains, a river and a small lake. In it all, you see beauty, and you are not focusing on some garbage on the street below. It is not perfect; we see beauty and we enjoy it. We might even decide to remove the garbage… But in any case we take the entirety of what is seen.

Can we then have a more realistic perspective? This is an important question because our perspective in life begins to shape our priorities and our priorities will shape our practice.

As is well known, Viktor Frankl pointed out that Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’. This is an important step. Instead of contemplating my self, emphasis is placed in some essential goal in life, and this gives an opportunity to positively take in consideration our neighbors. In fact, we easily coincide with the famous psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, when she said that the most beautiful people she knew are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known the loss of something (or someone) substantial in their lives, and have found their way out of those depths.

But Jesus, with his Ascension, gives us the most complete view, the best possible perspective of our lives. He is NOT talking about a goal, but about a mission. The difference is that a mission is a legacy, a heritage, something we are given in an act of trust: in this case, amazingly, we are invited to take Christ’s place. They went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.

Every moment of the life of our Mother Mary is a proclamation of the trust and mercy of God. Even though She was not able to fully understand the scope of the grace received, She got the right perspective: faithfulness to a mission and self-denial, rather than self-esteem, give us, and to our neighbor, the true and divine image of our being: For he has looked with favor on his humble servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed.

The next simple story shows us that, not only our Mother Mary, but all of us, are transformed when we receive and welcome a mission, although apparently simple.

A school teacher was assigned to visit children in a hospital and she received a routine call requesting that she visit a particular child. The teacher was told by the supervisor on the other end of the line: We’re studying nouns and adverbs in this class now. I’d be grateful if you could help him, so he doesn’t fall behind the others. It wasn’t until the visiting teacher got outside the boy’s room that she realized that it was located in the hospital’s burn unit. No one had prepared her to find a young boy horribly burned and in great pain. The teacher felt that she couldn’t just turn around and walk out. And so she stammered: I’m the hospital teacher, and your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs. This boy was in so much pain that he barely responded. The young teacher stumbled through the lesson, ashamed at putting him through such a senseless exercise.

The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her: What did you do to that boy? Before the teacher could finish her outburst of apologies, the nurse interrupted her: You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him. But ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back; he’s responding to treatment. It’s as if he has decided to live. The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw the teacher. It all changed when he came to a simple realization. With joyful tears, the boy said: They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a boy who was dying, would they?

His presence. As mentioned above, the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs. This sentence captures the meaning of today’s feast: We are never alone and Jesus walks with us. He does so in many different forms. For instance, we read in the Acts of the Apostles: During the night Paul had a vision. A Macedonian stood before him and implored him with these words, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we sought passage to Macedonia at once, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We should not take this as a singular, extraordinary case. Perhaps the first thing that comes to your mind is that you have never had a similar dream. Presumably, you are right, but this moment in the life of Paul is just an example, telling us two features of Christ’s presence:

* He gives us clear, unmistakable signs of His will, of His current expectations about your mission.

* He gives us a new enthusiasm and energy enabling us to immediately get us moving in order to fulfill our mission.

These two traits, both simultaneous and complementary, are manifestations of the Mystical Recollection and Quietude respectively. These are the first internal effects of the gift of the Holy Spirit by Jesus Christ, and the external effects are the accompanying signs to authenticate the reality of our message. Driving out demons and picking up serpents with our hands, means that we can really give peace and freedom to our fellowmen. Speaking new languages is a way of saying that we are able to present the truth of the Gospel in new and unexpected ways, born from the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit.

Maybe we did not fully realize the extent of what we say in the Eucharistic Prayer III: Look, we pray, upon the oblation of your Church and… grant that we…may become one body, one spirit in Christ. May he make of us an eternal offering to you. Is it not the plenitude of prayer, the continuous prayer? This is probably the deepest change operated in our lives by the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, through the Holy Spirit. Becoming a permanent or eternal offering, is equivalent to live in a continuous state of prayer.

Not only that. In the midst of persecutions and struggles, we are able to forgive because we are given the right perspective to see the weakness of the enemies of Jesus and of those who in some moment are our enemies: They will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me (Jn15:21). The heart of humanity hates to hear and rebels against the need for repentance for the forgiveness of sin.

In rejecting Christ, the world, not only rejected his words, but also his works and the works of our Father. When we forgive, we are truly doing the work of our Father, which will be the mark that our enemies will use to discover Him, in this world or on the last day. The Ascension reminds us of the omnipresent spirit of God, caring for and protecting us from everything, from hars words and criticism, from abandonment and exclusion, even from the pain of suffering death as witnesses and martyrs of Christ.

Only by means of the Ascension do we become fully aware that we become forever part of the nature of God. In the measure that we receive the assurance that everything He has done remains eternally, we also understand that our humble and limited works will have eternal value. This helps us to remember that whatever our physical or psychological state, whatever our age, whatever our talents and limitations, we have a mission in the world. You and I always have a service to offer, a testimony of love to give in the present moment of our lives.

Because Christ has ascended, we can experience his presence, really speaking to us, really teaching us, really pouring out his love in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

His world. An even more profound meaning of the Ascension is that Jesus, true God and true man returning to Heaven, is telling us who we are, where we belong.

In the words of Pope Benedict: The Ascension of Christ means that he no longer belongs to the world of corruption and death, which conditions our life. It means that he belongs completely to God. He, the eternal Son, has taken our human being to the presence of God.

This is another way of teaching us how to live with a different perspective: we are called to follow Jesus not only in His pilgrimage in this world, but also in His possession of paradise; as Pope Leo said, we have even entered Heaven in the person of Christ; through his grace we have regained far more than we had lost through the devil’s hatred.

Ascension, is deification, and deification nothing but the fulfillment of man’s creation. It is not a return to the eternal past after an unhappy episode in time. It is the setting of man, once and for all, within the Trinitarian life and love, where he may flourish and be fruitful in perpetuity. The Ascension of Christ means that He is presently reigning from heaven and therefore we are called upon and enabled to honor and obey Him in every area of personal lives. In truth, the Holy Spirit is the presence of Christ in the Christian’s life, personally present at all times and under all circumstances.

Let me conclude with some words of the II Vatican Council, analyzing some of the Christ’s forms of presence, since he is no longer in Human Form:

In the celebration of the Mass the principal forms of Christ’s presence in his Church are manifested progressively. First, he is present in the assembly of the faithful gathered together in his name; then he is present in his word when the Scriptures are read in the church and explained; likewise, he is present in the person of the priest; finally, and above all he is present under the Eucharistic species, in a manner altogether unique, God and man, whole and entire, substantially and continuously. This presence of Christ under the species is called ‘real’ not in an exclusive sense, as if the other kinds of presence were not real, but par excellence (Eucharistic Sacramentum).

The concept of presence is not a mere analogy or metaphor. In fact, the first commandment of God to Abraham was to walk in His presence. It is also a useful warning to make clear that we are supposed to listen to Him not only in the moments of silent prayer, but in the midst of our activities and reflections, that is, when we walk.

Ultimately, walking in His presence means to be conscious that you are attracted and purified by His power which leads you to fulfill the purpose for which He has called you into being. It is not enough for us to know this abstractly; we must spend our entire life within this growing awareness. Through the Holy Spirit, He is present to us more deeply that we are to ourselves. He stands beside us and within us in the deepest and most active kind of presence.