Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau
Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault
(Fontgombault, May 14, 2015)
Postquam locutus est eis, assumptus est in cælum.
After He had spoken to them, He was taken up into Heaven. (Mk 16:19)
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
My dearly beloved Sons,
Is the feast of the Ascension a new Good Friday? At the ninth hour, when He was nailed and lifted up on the Cross, Christ cried out with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit.
On the day of Ascension, the Lord lifts Himself up and disappears from the sight of His disciples. The flame of the Paschal candle, which since the night of Resurrection had been symbolising Christ’s victory over death, has just been snuffed out. From this day onwards, Christ will no longer be present by the side of His Apostles with His body and flesh, so that He might share a meal with them or they might touch Him, as had been the case during the days following Easter.
For the Apostles, the time of sole faith is beginning. They had already experienced the night of faith just after the Resurrection, and they had doubted. On this day, during His last apparition, the Lord, just before He is going to send them forth on mission throughout the whole world, upbraids them with their incredulity and hardness of heart. How could they proclaim the Gospel if their faith is wavering?
After the Lord has been lifted up in Heaven, what do the Apostles do? They look into the sky. They gaze at the place where they last saw Him. A certain sadness has probably seized their hearts. Two men in white garments call out to them: “Why stand you looking up to heaven?” (Acts 1:11)
The role of the Apostles is not to gaze into the sky and to wail as if they had become orphans. They must now fulfil the mission which Christ has entrusted them with: to preach the Gospel unto the ends of the earth. St. Paul will write to the Romans:
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they be sent, as it is written: How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace, of them that bring glad tidings of good things? (Rm 10:14-15)
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles might be called the Book of the proclamation of Christ. After the Gospel has proclaimed the good news of the salvation that had been promised to Israel and has been brought to the world by Christ, the Book of the Acts of the Apostles tells of the beginnings of the Church, and especially the very first teachings of the Lord’s disciples after He has left them.
On this day of Ascension, the disciples are torn between the wish to follow their Master, and the mission that has been entrusted to them; this mission makes it essential that they should remain on earth. During the Last Supper, Jesus had foretold His disciples that He was going, so as to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house. He had promised to come back and take them with Him.
Yet, He orders them: “Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations.” (Mt 28:19) But if the Master goes away, He does not forsake His disciples. He does not leave them orphans:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth in me, the works that I do, he also shall do; and greater than these shall he do, because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that will I do: that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you shall ask me any thing in my name, that I will do. (Jn 14:12-14)
This promise that Jesus made just before His Passion holds for the Apostles; it holds also for all the disciples of Christ, and for all ages. It holds for all those who wish to leave on mission towards peripheries, places where Christ’s word has not yet fully resounded, places where His love and mercy have not yet been received.
Rather than remain and gaze into the sky, we must take our pilgrim’s staff. But where should we go? Cardinal Sarah has recently said in a television interview:
Whereas Eastern Christians are giving their lives for the Gospel — for Christ, — in Western countries Christians are wondering how to put the Gospel into practice.
To bring the Gospel to all places means first of all to evangelize the peripheries of our own hearts, and sometimes not only the peripheries. It is an easier task to work at our neighbours’ holiness than to undertake seriously the work of our own conversion. However, let us remain aware that the fruits of the mission depend on the testimony of the apostles. If we put into practice the new commandment, “Love one another” (Jn 13:34), this will be the sign by which all will know the true disciples of the Lord.
How could we not mention the testimony of today’s Eastern Christians? Sanguis martyrum, semen christianorum, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of new Christians. Faced with barbarity and hatred, our brothers and sisters give the world the testimony of the essential gift, the gift of their lives for Christ. Whereas the source of politics, of public men’s conspiratorial silence or resounding indignation, are but too often economic vested interests, financial or electoral strategies, in the eyes of which a few hundred thousands human lives, religious freedom, the right to life from its conception until natural death, do not matter much, poor men, poor women, poor children, are wrenched from their families and tread the path that leads them to death in the Name of Jesus. As they yield up their spirit, their hearts turn towards Heaven and look into it, whence they can see Christ come and fetch them, so that they may remain with Him.
How could their martyrdom not stir the hearts of men of good will from all nations and all religions? How could our faith not be strengthened by their testimony?
At the foot of the Cross were standing Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved disciple. Jesus told John: “Behold thy mother.” (Jn 19:27) As He did that, He gave to all men Mary as their Mother. After His Ascension, two men in white garments certify to the disciples that the Lord will come back in the same way they have seen Him go into Heaven.
The Lord has not forsaken us: He has given us Mary as our Mother, and He will come back to fetch us.
O clap your hands, all ye nations: shout unto God with the voice of joy. (Ps 46:2) Make disciples of all nations. (Mt 28:19)