Sunday, May 20, 2012

Homily Ascension Sunday–Christ at the Father’s Right Hand and by Our Side

Ascension by CopleyAt the seminary I went to in Baltimore, St. Mary’s, we were encouraged soon after we arrived to pick a spiritual director. A spiritual director is a priest who helps someone discern the will of God and the action of the Holy Spirit in his life. For us, our spiritual directors helped us to grow closer and closer to this call we had received: to be priests of Jesus Christ. They helped us discern which things in our lives were of God, and which were of the evil one. My spiritual director was a priest on the faculty: Fr. Anthony Perez.

It didn’t take me much time at all to know that I wanted Fr. Perez to be my spiritual director. He had a quiet, confident presence in the seminary. He always joined the seminarians for prayer, even while other faculty members were often too busy. He sat in the same pew in the chapel every time, as an ever-present journeyman along the often difficult way of seminary life. He always wore his clerical attire too, which impressed me so much – he was a constant witness to us of what God was forming us to be. He loved the liturgy too which enkindled my own love for it and my dedication to celebrating it well. Most of all, we knew that he loved us.

In the beginning of my third year of theology, my second to last year of seminary, he died tragically and suddenly while doing what he loved – spending time with seminarians. He was playing racket-ball with a group of guys at the local gym when he fell suddenly to a massive heart attack. One of the guys with him was a cardiac technician before he entered seminary – but even he could do nothing for him. At the Vigil Service before Fr. Perez’s funeral, one of the other priests on the faculty said something in his homily that I’ll never forget. He said that during Fr. Perez’s earthly life he directed many seminarians in their spiritual lives. We should never forget, he said, that Fr. Perez still directs us, only now in the silence of our hearts. Although I picked a new spiritual director for my last two years who was also very helpful, I felt in my heart Fr. Perez’s continued spiritual direction – helping me to make it to Priesthood.

We feel a similar tinge of bitterness today as we celebrate the solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord into Heaven. For 40 days after his death and resurrection he has been revealing himself to his apostles and us. He adds new depth of meaning to the time we have already spent with him. One of my favorite saints, St. Josemaria Escriva, puts it beautifully in his reflection on today’s feast:

We miss his human speech, his way of acting, of looking, of smiling, of doing good. We would like to go back and regard him closely again, as he sits down at the edge of the well, tired from his journey; as he weeps for Lazarus; as he prays for a long time; as he feels pity for the crowd… But I think that the sadness that is particular to the day of the ascension is also a proof of the love we feel for Jesus Christ, our Lord. He is God made man, perfect man, with flesh like ours, with blood like ours in his veins. Yet he leaves us and goes up to Heaven. How can we help but miss his presence? (In Conversation with God, Vol. 2, p. 535).

There were times when I was struggling with something and I wanted so much to go to Fr. Perez’s room, knock on his door, and get his advice. I wanted him to teach me how to celebrate Mass, the last class of seminary. I wanted him to be at my Priesthood Ordination. In my prayer, memory, thoughts, and feelings, he did teach me how to celebrate Mass and he was at my Priesthood Ordination. It took some time but I finally realized that my task at hand was to become the type of priest that would honor him and the direction he had given me. And so that is what I have tried to do.

For all of us today, our task at hand is to wait, as Jesus said, for “the promise of the Father about which we have heard him speak” – to wait for a renewed gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, a wondrous gift we will celebrate next weekend. When we receive His Power we must be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” “This Jesus who has been taken up from us into heaven will return in the same way.” His earthly mission has been accomplished, our has just begun.

We are not alone though in our respective missions, in our various ways of life. While Jesus has taken his rightful place at the right-hand of God, as the Head of the Church which is his body, he continues to live and work among us. He still speaks to us when the Gospel is proclaimed. He still heals us through the sacraments of anointing of the sick and confession. He is still interceding for us through his priesthood and sustaining us through the Eucharist and all of the sacraments. His physical presence is no more, but that doesn’t make him less really present to us as he lives in our hearts in Holy Communion, as we enjoy his presence in the tabernacle.

We can either live as if he is no longer among us or we can live knowing that he is always by our side. “May your hearts be enlightened,” Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.” Christ’s continued presence among us, in the Church and her ministers, in the divine life of the sacraments, in our faith, in the good works that we do, in each us, gives new meaning and vigor to our lives. With this realization, a single mother is no longer the only guiding light of her family. With this realization, long hours at work to support a family are no longer worthless. With this realization, the good things we do that go unnoticed are noticed by he who matters most. Be not afraid! Christ lives! As he lives among us, he shows us that life is worth living to the full. And as he sits at the right hand of God he gives us hope that we can live there too.