03 MAY, 2008 - The Ascension
Version for print here
Today we celebrate Christ's ascension. Let this be clear - there was something very new and wonderful when Jesus returned to His heavenly Father. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity left heaven to take on a human body born of the Virgin Mary and was named Jesus. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity remained in heaven as a member of the Holy Trinity but He also began to live on earth as Jesus, true God and true man. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, came with His glorified body, the body that hung on the cross, was buried and rose from the dead. He came with His five wounds that would forever serve as trophies of His victory over sin and death. This feast then celebrates Christ's final departure from earth and also His exalted position seated at God's right hand. In the Apostles Creed we pray, "He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father."
In that Creed we acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son Of God and that He came to earth being born of the Virgin Mary. He is both Divine and Human. We acknowledge that He is our Lord and Saviour. What we must keep in mind, however, is that Jesus is active in this position. The very fact that He appeared to the apostles over the span of forty days shows this.
While on earth Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit AFTER He had ascended to His Father. This He did after the Ascension. He promised to prepare a place for the apostles so that where He was they would eventually be. He "always lives to make intercession" for "those who draw near to God through Him." He is the one mediator between God and man. Finally Jesus also promised to be with His Church to the end of time . We believe everything that the Scriptures tell us about Him and everything that the Scriptures tell us that He said and did. This is what makes us Catholic Christians and we proudly proclaim the same – meaning every word that we say. It is important therefore that we know what we are saying and we understand what we are saying in the Creed because to be a Christian is to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and Saviour, but to be a Catholic Christian is also to acknowledge that the Catholic Church is the one true Church that Jesus established.
Now my purpose here is not to play the Catholic Church against all other Christian denominations but rather to present to you the argument that to deny the authority of the one Church that Jesus Christ established is to deny the authority of the one who established her – the one who is head of His body the church. And not only deny Jesus’ authority but ultimately His divinity also.
If we deny that the Church has full authority to teach the truth and that all she teaches is the truth – or if we dissent from the teaching of the truth or from the Church’s authority – then ultimately what we are denying is the Divinity of Christ Himself. For as St. Paul says in today’s reading Christ is the Head of His body the Church and He promises to remain with her and protect her until the end of the age. As Catholics we fully accept and understand the fact that Jesus is Divine and that if He is the Son of God as we so proudly proclaim Him to be then we must also acknowledge that He has divine power - to safeguard His One True Church He clearly intended to establish and be with until the end of time.
But safeguard the Church from what and for what?
From the New Testament we learn that Jesus gave special and highly significant emphasis to the word "truth." He tells Pilate that He has come to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37), and He tells His disciples that they will know the truth and the truth will set them free (John 8:32).
On the night of His betrayal He tells His disciples that He will send them the Spirit of Truth who will teach them "all things " remind them of all Jesus has told them (John 14:26) and guide them "into all the truth" (John 16:13). Note that little word "all," repeated three times. Then, in His prayer to His Father, Jesus asks that His disciples be sanctified (made holy) and consecrated (set apart) in the truth. Not in goodness or virtue or love, but in the truth.
The truth matters so much to Jesus that He calls Himself - the Truth. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. In His meeting with the Samaritan woman, He says that His Father seeks "true worshippers" who will worship Him "in spirit and in truth". Not only that, but He calls the devil not the Father of Sin or of Wickedness, but the Father of Lies. To drive the point home Jesus says that Satan "has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him" (John 8:44).
So if the truth is as important as Jesus says it is, and the enemy is not some amateur liar but the very Father of lies, then the battle-lines are clearly drawn and the only question remaining is: does Jesus have what it takes to protect His Church from this enemy?
Scripture gives us two images of the Church that are especially pertinent here. Whether we see the Church as the Bride of Christ and Jesus as the Bridegroom (Eph. 5:25, Rev. 21: 2) (Matt. 9:15) or as the sheepfold and Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), His role as protector is paramount. His defense of His Bride, His defense of His flock is not abstract or theoretical; it is intensely personal, because the Father of Lies is a real and deadly enemy, whose chief weapon is falsehood.
Jesus takes this threat to His Church personally.
And in His prayer to the Father on the night of His betrayal, right after asking that His disciples be "kept from the evil one"- that is, protected from the Father of Lies - He gives the means by which this protection will be instituted: they are to be sanctified in the truth. So Jesus tells us who the enemy is, and what He as Bridegroom will do to safeguard his Bride: He will send the Holy Spirit of Truth, the one who sanctifies us in the truth. Nowhere does Jesus promise us a Church without sinners or dissenters - on the contrary, as He teaches us in the parable of the wheat and tares – The farmer lets the weeds grow up with the wheat because uprooting the weeds might damage some of the wheat.
The farmer waits until harvest time. Then He will separate the wheat from the weeds, the obedient from the disobedient, and gather the wheat into His barn and then He will cast the weeds into the fire. Jesus promises us a Church which will be without lies, a church guided by the Spirit of Truth. St. Paul must have understood our Lord well, since He refers to the Church as the "pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). Where could he have gotten such a notion except from the one who promised to send the Holy Spirit of Truth?
If we accept the divinity of Christ then we accept His divine capacity to personally defend, protect and preserve His Church from the enemy. If He cannot do that, then He may be a shepherd, but certainly not a divine one; a bridegroom, but only human. If He cannot keep His flock safe from falsehood, then that means the Father of Lies wins and Jesus, whoever He is, is not the Lord. But we believe and we proudly profess together that because Christ is the Divine Bridegroom and the Divine Shepherd, the Catholic Church is exactly what she claims to be and who Sacred Scripture tells us that she is: Christ's beloved Bride, His cherished flock, protected by the Spirit of Truth and therefore infallible in matters of faith and morals. If the Church is not infallible, Jesus is not God, and the Holy Spirit is not the Spirit of Truth.
Jesus, as Lord, is also the Lord of History.
Why is this? Well, Jesus promised to be with his Church until the end (Matt. 28:20) and so His divine shepherding takes place in time, as history unfolds. The Father of Lies is and will be a constant threat until the end, until Jesus returns in glory. Now how can Jesus be the Lord of History if the Church did not have the truth from the very beginning ? How can Jesus be the Lord of History if the Church did not have the truth until Luther came along 1500 years later, or Zwingli or Calvin? Or any other person in our time who dissents from the truth or those who teach God’s children to dissent from the truth.
If the Church has not been under the constant vigilant guidance of the Holy Spirit of Truth since day one and remain in the Truth for every second, then Jesus is not the Lord of History, and if He is not the Lord of History, He is not the Lord. Although Jesus did say He came to bring not peace, but the sword of division, we know that the division He speaks of refers not to the Church, but to the separation between the Church and the world. Jesus makes clear that being sanctified in the truth is to be one, as the Father and He are one. Truth and unity go together: there will be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16). Lies, dissent, disobedience and disunity all go together – all are a product of the Father of Lies. Dissenters are not new. They have been with the Church since the beginning. One of their deceptions is that they teach that it is ok to dissent from the teachings of the church or that we are required to dissent.
St. Paul remarked on the connection between false teaching and disunity at the very beginning of the Church: "I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you so that those who are genuine among you may be recognized" (1 Cor. 11:18-19).
What does St. Paul mean when he says the genuine ones? Who are these "genuine" ones? They are the ones in possession of the truth. And how may we recognize them? They are those who obey the teaching of the apostles, chief of whom is Peter, and their successors, the bishops, chief of whom is the pope.
Vatican II’s Document Lumen Gentium teaches us this :
“Fully incorporated into the Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who – by the bonds instituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion – are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the Bishops”.
And why do these genuine ones, that is Catholics who are in full communion, freely give their obedience? Full communion means those who fully accept all that the Church teaches. They give their obedience because Jesus is God the Son and He really did what He said He would do: establish his Church on Peter the Rock, and send us the Holy Spirit of Truth to lead the Church into the fullness of truth and protect and preserve her from the Father of Lies.
Therefore just as there are always those who dissent and those who teach dissent there will also always be some who have the fullness of truth and who listen and obey their shepherd for if the sheep can't tell who is teaching the truth, the flock is lost. You can't be just a little bit pregnant. You are either pregnant or you are not. And if the Catholic Church is really the Church established by Jesus who really is Lord, it can't just possess a bit of the truth. It either has all the truth or it does not. When it comes to faith and morals the Catholic Church cannot be right on some things and wrong on others.
Truth is not divisible. It cannot True and False at the same time. Therefore if the Catholic Church is the one true church established by Jesus Christ as we proudly profess when we say the Apostle’s Creed – if the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ who is it’s head and who protects it from the Father of Lies - then it must always be in possession of the fullness of truth and always teach the truth. If Jesus is Lord, meaning really and truly divine, then everything else follows: the infallibility of the Church, the inerrancy of Scripture, the ex opere operato reality of the sacraments, the papacy, the authority of the church to teach the truth, the doctrine of purgatory, Humane Vitae, the Sanctity of Marriage between one man and one woman, the evil of pornography, the evil of homosexual acts, the evil of abortion and euthanasia, the necessity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, the dogmas concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary, "all the truth." Not just part of it.
Since Jesus is the Lord of History, all this truth has come in time, step by step, as the Holy Spirit of Truth has led the Church into the fullness of truth. So the Church established by Jesus cannot go "off the tracks" of the truth, not with the Holy Spirit as its guide, not ever – not for one second. It is one thing to reject the divinity of Jesus, a truth available only to those who have been given the faith by their Heavenly Father. It is another thing entirely to accept the divinity of Jesus but then at the same time to reject the authority of His one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church and the Vicar of Christ on earth – the Holy Father – Our Pope. The person who does this needs to go back and reread the New Testament, and consider what it really means to say that Jesus is Lord, that the enemy is the Father of Lies and that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth.
Catholics believe it to mean that Jesus, at every moment throughout these last 2000 years, has always had what it takes to protect his Bride, from her beginning at Pentecost until her Lord returns in glory. He has said that He will be with us until the end of time and He has done so. As Catholics we are called to be defenders of the truth. This means opposing those who are advocates of the Father of Lies. As Catholics we have been given the immense privilege of belonging to Christ’s Mystical body, of having the one true faith and through it knowing the sure means of salvation and holiness.
But as today’s Gospel directs us, we were not given the fullness of truth to keep it to ourselves alone – each one of us has been given the great commission – we have been sent to spread the truth of our faith to all peoples. We are directed to “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, and Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
Coincidentally this Sunday is also World Communications day and so we are invited to reflect upon the media of social communications (films, radio, television, newspapers, magazines, CD’s and DVD’s) and how these influence our lives both the good and the bad. The church uses the Media to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ - an example of this is the Television Station EWTN. The Eternal Word Television Network which presents good solid Catholic teaching 24 hours a day – 7 days a week. It has an Audience of over 80 million people. It is available to us through both Starchoice and Bell XpressVu – wouldn’t this be a great gift for your Children or Grandchildren. It costs around 4 or 5 $ a month. Check the Bulletin for channel numbers.
My friends, Look up! There is your desired goal ascending to sit at the right hand of His Father. It is a goal which neither poverty, nor hardships, nor death itself can keep you. Follow the truth. The Holy Spirit will assist you. For the treasures that are laid up for you are worth any cost. Follow the truth for the eye has not seen, nor the ear heard, nor has it even entered into the hearts of men what God has prepared for those who love Him. Christ has ascended to lay up a treasure for you. If you are a doubter, Christ’s ascension is a final proof of His divinity. If you are among the weak, Christ ascended to send the Holy Spirit to strengthen and confirm you. If you are a sinner, Christ is your advocate pleading for your forgiveness before his Father.
As we believe so shall we teach – let us therefore teach the truth – and the truth will set us free.