A reflection on the readings for Sunday, May 21, 2023, The Ascension of the Lord.
I have a letter here with me, written by my mother on August 10, 1992. I had been in the seminary for nine years and had just two years left before my ordination. An experience in the seminary had plunged me into a full-blown crisis of vocation. E-mail was just beginning, and cell phones were practically non-existent at that time, so, I wrote home a handwritten letter. I did not give any details, but it was clear to my parents that I was having some difficulty in the seminary. I may have even mentioned that I was contemplating a leave of absence.
About ten days later, I received a handwritten letter from my mother. Among other things, she wrote: “If you cannot continue, I am telling you as I have said always, “Our door is always open. I have no intention to make you a priest. If you find it difficult, get out early. I am only waiting for your ordination to retire. Find a good job in Bangalore and settle the matter. Nothing to worry. I am with you.” With the assurance that my mother gave me, anybody would think that I would have quit. However, my mother’s letter had the opposite effect. Call it reverse psychology, but I said to myself, “If my mother is with me, I can weather any storm.” I am not sure I understood it completely then, but I didn’t quit, and two years later, I was ordained. At my ordination, my mother stood before me in tears as I gave her my first priestly blessing.
On the feast of the Ascension of Jesus, the gospel reading ends with Jesus’ words, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” I think I understand Jesus’ “I am with you,” because of my mother’s “I am with you.” Today I would like to reflect on God’s enduring presence with us in three ways.
“I Am With You, Always”
The passage we have in today’s gospel reading is written at least four decades after the actual event of Jesus’ Ascension. By this time, the early Church has gotten used to the physical absence of Jesus. Yet, this is what is baffling: the Church never was more convinced of the real presence of Christ than at that time. We know this from the faith, witness, and growth of the early Church. A violently persecuted Church not only became stronger but spread like wildfire. Nothing could dent the faith of the early Christians in Christ and his presence with them.
Like the early Church, today, we are invited to know, believe, and be convinced that Jesus’ “I am with you” is a reality of our faith. Just as in the early Christian Church, life is never easy. My mother’s letter to me did not take my problems away. It did not make my life any easier. Yet, her assurance, “I am with you,” gave me a whole new perspective and a whole new approach to life. Jesus’ “I am with you” is not a solution to the complexities and difficulties of our life, but it gives us a whole new perspective. With Christ present with us, there is nothing we cannot face.
Intangible Yet Real Presence
How do we understand and explain the intangible yet real presence of Christ? For a moment I want to return to my mother’s letter. When she wrote, “I am with you,” she was not talking about her physical presence with me. In fact, that would not be possible. When she said, “I am with you,” she was throwing her entire weight behind me. I took that assurance and personalized it. Even today, my mother and I are nine thousand miles apart, but I know my mother is with me.
Perhaps I can give another example. Is there anyone who has lost a parent, a spouse, or a child? And how many times have you said to someone that you know they are with you? They are present in a different way, but that does not mean that their presence is not real. Sometimes, people even talk about how their loved ones sent a butterfly, a bird, a squirrel, clouds or some other sign their way to assure them. We know what an intangible yet real presence means.
Similarly, the early Church was both convinced and alive with the real presence of Christ even if it was not physical. Today, you and I are invited to personalize the presence of Christ. Just like I did with my mother’s letter, and the way we make our loved one’s presence real for us, we must do with Christ.
Make Disciples of All Nations
Personalizing the presence of Christ is crucial for Christians and for the Church and her mission. Before Christ ascended into heaven, he said to his disciples, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Following Christ’s command and in total assurance of his presence, the early Church went about making disciples of all nations. We know from the Acts of the Apostles and some early writings of the Church fathers that the early Church was a missionary one. They were alive with the assurance of Christ’s presence. They were willing to lay down their lives for faith in Christ.
Their community life was also exemplary. They came together for the breaking of the bread, shared what they had with one another, and inspired by their faith in Christ, bore witness to a new way of life. They were not always perfect. However, people who looked at them said, “See how they love one another.” Tertullian, a Church Father, later wrote: “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See how they love one another, they say, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, they say, for they themselves will sooner put to death” (The Apology, chapter 39).
In other words, the early Church bore witness to Christ not by showing his physical presence, but rather, by showing how Christ had transformed their lives. The world came to know Christ not by encountering the physical Christ but by seeing Christ alive in the Christian community. The practical implication of this point is simply this: the world does not merely hear our faith but sees our faith. Actions speak louder than words. In our encounter with the world, if the world does not encounter Christ, then Christ’s mission stands at risk.
May people look at us and say, “See how they love one another.”
Image Credit: Letter from the author’s mother.
Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.