Sunday after Ascension
This Sunday after the Ascension takes us to the Upper Room where the entire Church, the apostles and disciples gathered around the Mother of God, are awaiting the outpouring of the celestial dew, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit. The image of this gathering in unison has been portrayed by many artists and it is one we do well to contemplate during these holy days.
Indeed Holy Church urges us to prepare for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by recollectedness and prayer – it is the first novena, the first retreat of the Church. The prayer she calls us to is not just any prayer, but prayer in unity with all the other disciples of Our Lord. We heard St Peter tell us in the epistle for today’s Mass: Be prudent and keep watch in prayer, but above all things have a constant mutual charity among yourselves: for charity covereth a multitude of sins. Be hospitable towards one another, without murmuring (1 Pt 4:7-9). By having us read this text today, the Church reminds us that if we are not united in charity with one another, then we cannot hope to receive the Holy Spirit.
Similarly, during these days it is traditional to meditate on the great sacerdotal prayer of Our Lord in chapter 17 of St John’s gospel, this prayer in which the Saviour asks the Father to grant to His disciples the grace of unity, and not just any unity, but the very unity of the Blessed Trinity. How is that possible, we may ask? It is made possible through grace, for all those who are in God’s grace have the very life of God in them, and having the life of God, the same life that all others in Christ have, they are by the very fact one with each other.
Holy Father, keep them in thy name whom thou hast given me: that they may be one, as we also are. (Jn 17:11)
Not for them only do I pray, but for them also who through their word shall believe in me. That they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou hast given me, I have given to them: that, they may be one, as we also are one. I in them, and thou in me: that they may be made perfect in one: and the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them, as thou hast also loved me (Jn 17:20-23)
What is obvious from these sublime words of Our Lord is that, first of all, the life of the Church is the very life of God that is offered to us, and secondly, that this life is not just an individual matter, but an ecclesial one. The Church is not the juxtaposition of individuals, but rather the communion of souls who share the life of Christ Himself, and who share it not only with those of their particular community, nor only with all those around the world at this time, but with all those of the past who have gone before us, and even with all those of the future who will succeed us and who are known to God.
What that means on the practical level is that just as it is not possible to be in communion with Christ without being in communion with the Church on earth today, neither is it possible to be in communion with Christ without being in communion with the Church of yesterday. This was the great lesson that the late Pope Benedict XVI taught the Church. When you read his life, you perceive that from his earliest years teaching theology to his last days as pope and pope emeritus, he constantly repeated this over and over again in many different ways. He was heavily criticised for it, from both sides of the spectrum, but he knew it was true and his life was always about working together with the truth, as his episcopal motto so aptly illustrated Cooperatores veritatis – let us be coworkers with the truth (3 Jn 1:8).
The practical consequence that has had for all the sons and daughters of the Church over the last 60 years is that it is not acceptable to pretend that we are in some new era where we must choose between the Church of the past and the Church of the present. It is not acceptable to reject the Church of today while pretending to cling to the Church of yesterday. Nor is it acceptable to reject the Church of yesterday which pretending to cling to the Church of today. There is only one Church, the mystical Body of Christ, which makes its way through history, adapting itself to historical circumstances, but always preaching the same faith and celebrating the same salvific mysteries in communion with the successors of the apostles. The Church has always been faithful to what she has received without being rigid. The Church has ever been open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit who teaches us all the truth (cf. Jn 16:13), without breaking with her past.
It is of the greatest importance to keep all this in mind as we prepare for Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has many graces to pour out upon each of us and upon the Church as a whole, but each of us must make sure that, first of all, we ourselves live in God’s grace avoiding mortal sin, secondly that we strive to live in harmony with those around us especially those closest to us in our homes and communities, and thirdly that we be in communion with the visible Church.
If, in the midst of our efforts to live in God’s grace and to do so in communion with others and with the Church, we are sometimes discouraged, either because of our failings or the failings of those around us, or the scandals in the Church, then we must lift up our eyes to the throne on high where Jesus Our Lord is enthroned since the Ascension. If our minds and hearts are there, there will be peace here below. Our Lord assured us: These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you shall have distress. But have confidence. I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). With the psalmist in today’s introit, let us ever seek His face (Psalm 26) and make that search the passion of our lives.