Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension

From the Gospel of St. John:  “But these things I have spoken to you, that when the time for them has come you may remember that I told you."

So the Apostles return to the Upper Room to pray and wait.  They were chastised by the angel at the Ascension: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?” They were looking in the wrong place for what they had to do.  They were trying to hold on to the Jesus they knew and loved as he ascended into heaven.  But they did have the sense to know that what they had to do now was to pray, to pray together, to try to make sense of Jesus’ order to them to go out into the world and preach and baptize.  And so they wait.

But what are they waiting for?  They found out at Pentecost in a most dramatic way, which showed them they had no idea what they were waiting for and that they finally knew what they were waiting for: the descent of the Holy Spirit, the empowerment of the Church to be the locus of salvation, the place of the presence of the saving work of Jesus Christ, the enabler of the missionary effort of the Church.

And you and I: what are we waiting for?  This is liturgical waiting time for an event that we know we will celebrate next week, the feast of Pentecost, with its dramatic notes of tongues of fire and speaking in many languages.  But this waiting time should not be wasted like waiting in a doctor’s office, where we quell any anxiety by reading mindless things like People magazine to dull the senses.  The coming of the Holy Spirit, the promise made by Christ: this fundamental event that lies so deep in the Catholic understanding of the Church.  That promise: I shall send you the Holy Spirit and he shall lead you into all Truth.  For me personally, this was part of why I became Catholic, this promise.  The guarantee of the presence of Truth by Christ himself, and in a living way through the gift, the descent of the Holy Spirit.  And this continues to stir me and deepens my faith in the Catholic Church

But let us look carefully at today’s gospel reading, which is yet another segment from Jesus’ farewell discourse to his Apostles before his Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension.   How does Jesus see the reason for the coming of the Holy Spirit, what is its purpose, so to speak?  There are two reasons:  the first is this:  “When the Advocate has come, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, Who proceeds from the Father:  He will bear witness concerning Me.”  It is only when the Spirit descends upon Mary and the Apostles that the Church is enlivened, quickened, that the Apostles fully understand who Jesus is, what his Passion and Death truly mean, what his Resurrection and Ascension mean, and finally what is their mission.  That is why they are waiting, because they still do not know these things. In Mark's Gospel, before the Ascension, Jesus appears to them to be worshipped-- and they doubt.  No, they cannot know until the glorification of Christ is complete in the Ascension, until this final acceptance by the Father of the sacrifice of his Son on the Cross  Only when the glorified body of Christ bearing his wounds ascends into heaven and is seen by the Father: it is only then can the Truth descend.  And it is here that we see the first purpose, so to speak, of the coming of the Holy Spirit: to let the Church know who this man Jesus was and is and to make the this knowledge the basis of the missionary effort of the Church, which is a mission of salvation.  And this not in some sort of gnostic sense, but a knowledge for all to know and from that knowledge to be saved.  And this is the telos of the Holy Spirit in the Church: to answer in a definitive and salvific sense the answer to the question that lies at the heart of the Gospels: who is this man Jesus? We see this clearly yet through a partially desilvered mirror in the debates about the person of Jesus in the Ecumenical Councils of the patristic Church and what comes through these messy experiences: " God of God, light of light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven."  There it is: "He will bear witness to me."  And that witness has been made possible by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, deepening our understanding of the meaning of the Life, Passion Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ and what all this means for you and me.

But there is a second reason, so to speak, for the coming of the Holy Spirit in today’s gospel.  Jesus speaks here directly to the Apostles, the foundation pillars of the Church, but he speaks here as well to us all as members of his body of the Church. “And you will also bear witness, because from the beginning you are with Me. Yes, the hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think he is offering worship of God.”  The promise of the Holy Spirit is also the promise of the strength to bear witness to the person of Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life.  And this witness will provoke persecution.  Persecution is promised by Christ to the Apostles, to the Church, and history records this persecution not only in the early Church whose martyrs are the seed of the triumph of the Church.  But it is throughout world history that we see this persecution of the Church in every nation and culture down to our own time.  The loss of an historical sense is a mark of modernity and post modernity, the forgetting of what Christians have endured from emperors, barbarians, from those who understood their religious zeal in terms of conquest and domination, from strife among those who broke the bond of peace between Christians,  from those whose hatred of the Church in the name of reason and brotherhood caused blood to flow like water, the extermination camps, the Gulag, the systematic driving out of Christians from the Holy Land, down to the militant secularism of our own time that rightly sees the Catholic Church as the last enemy. There are those today, even within the Church, who seek accommodation with a world that is inexorably opposed to the Truth of the person of Jesus Christ, and this accommodation is not only shameful. It is doomed to failure, for it denies who Christ is, especially in his judgment of the world.  But the presence of the Holy Spirit prevails even against those who falsify the Church, for one cannot fail if one is true to the one who said:  “Behold, I have overcome the world.”

But there has been a forgetting also of what the Christian faith has done for the world, that transformation that the Western world now takes for granted and thinks that the fruits of that transformation can endure without that faith that proclaims that man and woman are made in the image of God and all the implications of that proclamation.

What we are waiting for is not some coming of a magic kingdom that is a cross between Oz and the realm of the Lion King.  What we await is what is already supremely and absolutely real: the presence of God among us in all of his power and truth, making all things real:  and that is what is worth waiting for.