THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
5 JUNE 2011
“Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations …
And know that I am with you always; yes to the end of time” (Matt. 28, 19-20).
These words of Jesus from the Gospel for today’s Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord strike a definitive universal – or “catholic” – note of joy. They are words of mission and commitment. They are the words of the Risen Lord addressed to us his people. He entrusts us with a mission:
“Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations …
And He is very quick to add a promise: “know that I am with you always; yes to the end of time”.
We may think that going to the nations and teaching the Gospel is an immense and very difficult task. And we would be right. Preaching the Gospel to a hostile world is an arduous enterprise indeed. I remember being particularly moved at a special place in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. It was the cemetery where the frail bodies of tens of missionaries who came from Europe in the nineteenth century had found their final earthly resting place. Many had died very young, aged 26, 27, or 30. They had left their homes in France and Belgium and travelled thousands of miles. They had worked untiringly for weeks and months until they succumbed to malaria and other tropical diseases. They had given their lives to preach the Gospel. They knew how costly the Lord’s command was to be. They paid the highest price. The iron crosses which mark their graves are to this very day revered and respected by the locals, Christians and Muslims alike.
Equal respect and reverence is shown at Namugongo for the memory of the brave Martyrs of Uganda whose liturgical feast we celebrated a few days ago on the 3rd of June. It was Ascension Thursday 1886. These young men preferred to die rather than give in to the impure intents of their king and betray the Law of Christ. When Pope Paul VI canonized them in 1964 he had this to say: “We are familiar with the lives of the great saints, martyrs and confessors, of Africa, such as Cyprian, Felicity and Perpetua, and the great Augustine, Who would have imagined that one day we should be adding to that list those names that are so dear to us, the names of Charles Lwanga, Matthias Molumba Kalemba and their twenty companions? Nor should we forget those others, of the Anglican communion, who have died for the sake of Christ” (Homily at the Canonization, 18 October 1964).
The courage of these young men of Uganda and the dedication of the missionary priests and lay brothers of Bagamoyo stemmed from a fire that consumed them: the fire of Jesus’ presence, the same fire experienced by the two disciples of Emmaus: “‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ (Luke 24, 32).
The Apostle Paul would express this presence of fire in terms of love: “For the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor. 5, 14). He also had received a mission and a promise. An incident narrated by Luke would suffice: “One night [while the Apostle was in Corinth] the Lord said to Paul in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.’ (Acts 18, 9-10). On the way to Rome Paul and his companions fell victims to the terrifying onslaught of a great tempest at sea. Paul encouraged all on board with these words: “I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.” So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we will have to run aground on some island.’ “ (Acts 27, 22-26).
That island was called Malta (Acts 28, 1; cfr 1-10). The Apostle Paul stayed on the island for three months and his stay was marked with the signs Jesus had promised to his disciples: “[T]hese signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16, 17-18). The faith of our forefathers, Fr Ivan, was born from this fortunate meeting with the tangible signs of the presence of the Risen Lord and the word of his Apostle!
Indeed, today’s Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord talks about mission and presence. It does not talk of Jesus’ departure, of a sense of loss in the disciples or of their bereavement. As the Holy Father has explained so beautifully in his book “Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two”: “”Ascension” does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but, rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy” (p. 281).
This is confirmed in the Gospel reading from Matthew where the mission entrusted to the disciples is set within the context of Jesus’ power and presence: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.’
“Baptize” and “Teach”. In these two commands of the Risen Lord the Church recognizes the sacred power of both word and sacrament. As the Vatican Council II has reminded us with enduring authority (Sacrosanctum Concilium nn. 6-7): “Just as Christ was sent by the Father, so also He sent the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit. This He did that, by preaching the gospel to every creature, they might proclaim that the Son of God, by His death and resurrection, had freed us from the power of Satan and from death, and brought us into the kingdom of His Father. His purpose also was that they might accomplish the work of salvation which they had proclaimed, by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves. …”.
“On the very day of Pentecost, when the Church appeared before the world, “those who received the word” of Peter “were baptized.” And “they continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of bread and in prayers . . . praising God and being in favor with all the people” (Acts 2:41-47). From that time onwards the Church has never failed to come together to celebrate the paschal mystery: reading those things “which were in all the scriptures concerning him” (Luke 24:27), celebrating the Eucharist in which “the victory and triumph of his death are again made present”, and at the same time giving thanks “to God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15) in Christ Jesus, “in praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12), through the power of the Holy Spirit” (SC, n. 6b).
“To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations” (SC. n. 7)
Jesus is present in the sacrifice of the Mass: He is present in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross”.
Jesus is especially present under the Eucharistic species.
By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes.
He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church.
He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20” (cf SC, n. 7) .
Today we look at you and to you, Fr Ivan, and our hearts are filled with joy because the Lord has looked upon you with great favour in constituting you a priest of the Catholic Church by the laying of hands of the Bishop and has designated and ordained you to be a minister of his presence among us through word and sacrament.
We rejoice with you and with your loved ones because by sacred ordination and mission you are promoted to the service of Christ the Teacher, Priest and King.
You share in His ministry, a ministry whereby the Church here on earth is unceasingly built up into the People of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit” (Vatican II, Presbyterorum Ordinis 1).
May you continue to cooperate with the special grace God has given you to be a minister of Christ among the people, as you bring with you the fruits of your loyal and true service in the Anglican Communion, as you humbly offer the witness of a Christian husband to your loving wife, Claudia, and of a dedicated father to your children, Domenico and Maria Pia.
May you continue to perform the sacred duty of preaching the Gospel, so that the offering of the people can be made acceptable and sanctified by the Holy Spirit and the People of God are called together and assembled.
Follow the example of the many holy priests who through their saintly ministry rendered the face of the Church beautiful and her bridal gown radiant with virtue. Remember the cherished witness of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, patron of this parish in Sevenoaks, Saint Dominic, of Saint George Preca, the first Maltese priest to be canonized, and of Blessed John Henry Newman, the heavenly patron of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
Never forget, dear Fr Ivan, that your ministry, which begins with the evangelical proclamation, derives its power and force from the sacrifice of Christ. Its aim is that “the entire commonwealth of the redeemed and the society of the saints be offered to God through the High Priest who offered himself also for us in his passion that we might be the body of so great a Head” (cf Vatican II, Presbyterorum Ordinis, 2d).
Full of gratitude for the gifts which Our Crucified and Risen Lord has given us at Easter let us remind ourselves of the beautiful exhortation of the Apostle of the Gentiles we heard today at the Second Reading: “May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed, to bring you to full knowledge of him. May he enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see what hope his call holds for you, what rich glories he has promised the saints will inherit and how infinitely great is the power that he has exercised for us believers” (Eph 1, 17-18).