Corpus Christi means ‘the Body of Christ’. It is the day when the Church celebrates the promise of Jesus, at his Last Supper with his disciples, that he would be with them in a special way whenever they took the bread and blessed it and ate it together as he did on that holy night. From then on this is what the true followers of Jesus have done. We give this event a number of special names. The Mass from the same word as Mission means the ‘sending out’ event – the event that empowers us to go out and share his presence and love with others. But also we call the actual receiving of this holy bread ‘Holy Communion’, because in and through it we actually receive Jesus and are drawn into ‘Union” with God and with one another, as we heard Jesus say in the Gospel. (John 6:51-58) “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.”

But there is another important word we use describe this event, a word which is less well known. We call it ‘The Eucharist” which means ‘The Thanksgiving’ (Efharisto in modern Greek). For although we may thank God for life and beauty and goodness and love in many ways, this is THE WAY above all ways to thank and praise him for everything he is and everything he does. For the Bread and Wine, as well as being examples of the food and drink that keeps us physically alive, are also transformed by the Holy Spirit into his Body and Blood, so that as Jesus says “Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6:58)  So every Mass is above all a great song of praise and thanksgiving to God. For we will not receive the full benefits of what God gives us at Mass if we just come to receive. No, we must come most of all to give, to give our lives in thanksgiving to God and thus to the world. For the more we give the more we will receive.

Today’s feast is therefore a great reminder of all this. But it has also been the tradition of the Church for hundreds of years to extend our thanksgiving and praise on this day by other acts of praise to Jesus for coming to us in this wonderful way. So today in many many churches throughout the world, we take the holy Bread in which Jesus is present – the bread that we call the Blesséd Sacrament – and place it in something called a Monstrance so that everyone can see it. Then in song and prayer and in procession we thank God for his wonderful gift.

Finally we receive Benediction, or what is called by its full title ‘Benediction of the Blesséd Sacrament’. “Benediction” is actually just another word for “Blessing”, and the normal way the priest gives us all a blessing is by making the sign of the cross as he says the words “May Almighty God bless you etc.” But when Jesus is present in this special way, in the Blessed Sacrament, words become unnecessary, and so he simply makes the sign of the cross with the Blessed Sacrament in silence.

I think we Catholics need to remember how lucky we are to have within our Church this practice of using the Blessed Sacrament in this way as a focus for our prayer and praise. Other Christians mainly think of Jesus as present in a general way, in their prayers and thoughts, and will not accept, despite his words at the Last Supper, that there is a real presence of Jesus in the Bread and Wine. They fear that we are slipping into idolatry, worshipping the Bread, rather than Jesus. When I was a Protestant I thought that was what Catholics did. But then, when I began to meet Catholics, I realized that I was mistaken ; that this focus on the Blessed Sacrament is for all Catholics a focus on the glorious presence of Jesus. For no-one in their right mind spends time worshipping bread!

The other advantage of our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in this way is that we have a special focus for our prayers every time we are in church. There always is the light shining to indicate His presence. But also most churches have times outside Mass when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for us to see in the Monstrance, and then this focus for our prayer is even more explicit. We call these times of silent prayer “Adoration or Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament” and many people find this an easier way to pray in silence than just trying to do so at home, partly because focusing on something that we can actually see before us is easier than just thinking about Jesus in our minds, and partly because in a strange and mysterious way, the power of his presence radiates out to us even when we do not actually receive him in Holy Communion.

So let us give thanks to God today for this wonderful gift.

 

God in his bodiliness

May 27, 2016

Frances writes on the Readings for Corpus Christi :- Isn’t it intriguing that our earliest written account of the institution of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) does not stand by itself, as a carefully crafted piece of theology, but comes as part of an admonition written in the early 50’s AD to the Christians of Corinth. It follows on Paul’s thunderous telling off of that congregation for its abuse of the Eucharist; at that time still set amidst a meal; a feast in which distinctions were being drawn between the rich and the poor. Some stuffed themselves, whilst other poorer members of the house church went hungry. It is within the milieu of this rootedness, in the real bodily life of a community that we find Paul’s recalling of teaching he himself had received from other early Christians. It is here that we find teaching on the heart and centre of the Eucharist, of the personal reception into human bodies of the body and blood of Christ. This emphasises, as perhaps the synoptic accounts do not, set as they are within the Last Supper, just how focussed on our salvation this most pivotal act of the Church’s life is, with its memorable phrases: “On the night he was betrayed” and “Do this in remembrance of me”.

 

It is unfortunate that the English word ‘remembrance’ is usually a fairly empty and backward looking term nowadays. The Greek ‘anamnesis’ has a quite different meaning, and is about the recapitulation of the entire Jewish salvation epic projected into the consecration words, and bringing about their final glory in the action of Christ on the cross. It is precisely the action of this man, this body, smashed to bits, or as Isaiah 52 has it, “Marred beyond human semblance”, which joins our so fickle and misguided bodies and actions into the life of God in Christ.

 

This is graphically conveyed to us in three verbs of action. Jesus ‘took, blessed and broke’ the bread and wine. The fact that all our records of the institution of the Eucharist, recalling Jesus’ actions, have these three verbs is indicative of their age and authenticity; but also by their very physicality in their bodily actions they forcibly bring us all, at every Eucharist, into the presence of one who was himself the blessed, taken and broken for our salvation. By his self-offering and suffering he draws every believer into the life of God himself.

 

Our reading from Genesis (14:18-20) is part of this recapitulating and progressive salvation story. It is part of a long account of the way in which Abraham and his clan journeyed from Ur of the Chaldeans –Southern Iraq- into the Holy Land. During that epic physical trial, he and they set aside their ancestral gods and adopted a form of monotheism (later known as Judaism). In our bit of this epic they went to Jerusalem and met up with Melchizedek its priest-king. Now Melchizedek is a mythical figure and makes very infrequent appearances into Genesis, so that I think we should see him as symbolic, standing for the relationship between God and Israel, and important in the story of its growth towards God. Significantly, he offers Abraham the father of the race bread and wine, staples for survival, and he blessed him and promised him success in the occupation of the land. Melchizedek therefore acts, as it were, to ratify a promise, a covenant between God and his people – something promised and given in physical things – bread and wine and of course for Israel, the promise of territory, seized from its existing inhabitants.

 

This early myth of Israel’s origins and relationship with God is frequently heavily coloured with physical movement – symbolising development of the relationship between the two. Abraham would make a trip to Egypt and discover that deception did not aid his cause, and we all know the story of Joseph, sold by his jealous siblings, and of his relationship with Pharaoh and of his ‘salvation’ of his brothers during a time of famine. It is frequently through physical experiences, especially that of the Exodus, that they/we grow and learn and enter more deeply into the life of God. Throughout, our salvation is heavily coloured by movement and change.

 

This is precisely what we find in our Gospel (Luke 9:11-17) with Luke’s story of the feeding of the five thousand. Here again, this ‘myth’ of discovery, of their deep connectedness is rooted in physical details: “It was late afternoon”: “Give them something to eat yourselves”: “Get them to sit down.” And of course, Jesus uses the three great Eucharistic verbs, “He took, blessed and broke”. Surely all this is a prelude to his saving passion and death for us. What happens here in our Gospel is a sign of God’s victory and of the grace and abundance he brings, here pointing to the final reign of God over the cosmos, the consummation of all things. This is achieved first by the feeding of this huge number, five thousand, and secondly with the mass of the remnants, twelve basketfuls. These not only signify the tribes of Israel, but, with their vision of multiplicity, indicate the going out of the infinite embrace of God to his creation.

 

My guess is that this passage, which prefigures Our Lord’s sacrifice of himself for his creation, is precisely a lesson in the bodiliness of God’s involvement throughout, and the gentle nature of his continual disclosure of himself to us. There is a reason why we call this feast day Corpus Christi, for we are redeemed precisely by the bodiliness of Jesus. In our readings we have witnessed a journey from symbol, in Genesis, to the reality of the sacrament as we follow in the steps of God’s Son, who gives himself for us. In this sacrament we do not just symbolise our salvation story, we receive its fullness, its “Res et sacramentum” – God in his fullness.

I was fascinated to discover recently that tests have shown that sick people recover more quickly if they can see growing things – trees and plants. Seeing them out of the window, or being amongst them, is best, but even a picture of them on the wall makes a difference to recovery times.  Plants, of course, also make a contribution to our health in all sorts of other ways, from what they provide in the way of vitamins and minerals as we eat them, to the drugs that can be made from, or copied from, what the special properties that some of them possess. You probably also know that drinking water is very good for us, and, not least, sunshine – unless we let it burn us.

 

Now why am I saying all this? It’s because today we celebrate that God is Trinity, and what we need to realise is that the Trinity is not a complicated theory but something we experience in our daily lives. So when we pray for God to help us we need to be open to all the different ways this will happen. And the first and most obvious way that God works in us and through us, is in the created world as I have just described. God is the Father, the creative power underlying all things as we heard in our 1st Reading today (Proverbs 8:22-31) – “He made the earth, the countryside… the first grains of the world’s dust..”

 

The second way that God helps us is through one another. When I am sick or sad I do not just need sunshine and medicine, I need people to care for me. We all know the difference between the nurse or doctor who doles out the medicine like a machine, and the one who actually listen to us and shows in all sorts of ways that he or she cares. We are all aware too how the support of family and friends is really important when we are ill or depressed or facing some real difficulty in our life. This surely is why God came to be with us as a real caring human being – Jesus Our Lord. There is a prayer that runs “Christ has no hands but yours.. no feet but yours..”  All the care we humans get from others, or give to others, is an experience of the human face of God.  It is an experience of God the Son, Jesus our Friend and Guide.

Finally we meet God deep within us. We have resources within that are a powerful part of the way we cope with life and make the best of whatever life throws at us. We all know that we are more likely to get better when we are sick if we have a positive attitude to what we are facing. We also all know how irritating it is to be told this when we feel like death, when we are depressed or facing continuous pain. It may still be true, but finding the positive side of things is immensely difficult.  Here, it is God the Holy Spirit that can and will work deep within us giving us hope even when we cannot feel it for ourselves. As we heard in our 2nd Reading, (Romans 5:1-5) “The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given us.” There it is, that inner strength, and reminding ourselves that it is there even when we cannot feel it, as we pray alone or as we pray together, is why prayer can be so powerful.

 So there we have it. God the Father in creation around us, God the Son in the people who care for us, and God the Holy Spirit in the power within us.

As we hear in that great hymn – St Patrick’s Breastplate – which is based on his prayer:-

 I bind unto myself today The strong name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same, The Three in One and One in Three,

Of whom all nature hath creation, Eternal Father, Spirit, Word.

Praise to the Lord of my Salvation Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

 

 

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings:- It appears that the compliers of our lectionary deliberately selected readings for Trinity Sunday which turn our thinking about God in a very Jewish direction. We can all too easily think of God in Trinity in three distinct ways, even, following the Greek sense, as three ‘persons’ in one unique being or essence. But the choice of our first reading from Proverbs (8:22-31) harks back to the personified wisdom of God powerful and active in creation. Wisdom is God’s companion and always party to God’s actions in creating the cosmos. Proverbs appears to have been compiled from very early material assembled together in the late 6th century to the 5th century BCE. As the historians among you will recognise, this places this important Jewish affirmation of the One true God around the time of the Babylonian captivity. As it shares ideas with Second Isaiah and Jeremiah, both prophets of the exile, we can assume it too used thinking gleaned from that experience and the people of the Fertile Crescent, or even demonstrates the insistence of the Jewish exiles in keeping God as One against the plethora of the gods they met there. Our passage from Proverbs aims to stress the solidarity, the unity of the divine purpose, and the solidarity of what might appear different elements in the divine. This is drawn out by the frequently repeated “When he (God) fixed the heavens; the surface of the deep; the springs; laid the foundations of the earth” and so on. Wisdom is, like the Christian understanding of God the Son, ‘from the beginning’ before any created thing, indicating that it is part of the divine himself, intimate and in perfect union with him. Indeed, so intimate is the relationship between God and Wisdom that in reality it appears almost impossible to separate them. Yet this is precisely what Proverbs seems to do, both by emphasising their unity and by indicating that Wisdom is in some way distinct.

 

This manner of speaking acts both to emphasise the unity of God and to allow for distinctive ways of thinking about God’s actions, the creation of things other than himself, and thereby keeping God aloof and separate from the creative action itself, yet its master and Lord. This can be a real help in thinking about the Christian Trinity which often seems so complicated and near impossible for many believers ever to grasp. If we think about the way in which St John for instance uses this concept, we can find both Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit reflected in the wisdom concept. John will speak of Jesus as the creator, saviour and redeemer and also, as we have in our Gospel (Jn 16:12-15) as the Holy Spirit, his spirit, present in the universe after his physical withdrawal to the Father. There, the distinctiveness of each of the persons of the Trinity is emphasised, while at the same time their perfect unity and solidarity is maintained. What we have is always the fullness of divinity, emphasised through different tasks, redemption on the cross by the Son, continual succour and support of the Church by the Spirit.

 

What is significant, I think, is the very antiquity of this way of speaking about God. Some distressingly difficult modern writers on the Trinity seem to give the impression that it was gleaned entirely from Greek philosophy. But if the appeal to Proverbs is right, it appears we are entering a territory altogether more ancient, going right back to the origins of Judaism, in which, far from witnessing a remote and detached deity, Wisdom gives us a picture of God delighting, involved in his creating of the universe, an experience so exhilarating that somehow it had to be shared.

 

Perhaps this is why we are also given the passage from Romans (5:1-5). This brief summary of the relationship between Father and Son, and of Our Lord’s continuing action in us which is the work of the Spirit, is a masterly summing up of the whole purpose of the Trinity. The Greek, rather than the Jerusalem Bible makes rather clearer the Trinitarian nature of this passage. Paul does not claim that we are ‘judged righteous’, suggestive of our behaviour, but instead, “Having been justified by the faith of Jesus Christ”, emphasising that this is not our work, but that of Jesus the Son. Because of his work, we are now able to enter into the glory of God the Father. The certainty of this new and heavenly inheritance is continually affirmed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. In this then, we meet not simply God in Trinity, God as he is, threefold, but also God in Trinity working continually for our salvation. This seems to be why St Paul pops the rather odd bit about our sufferings into the picture amidst all his talk of the divine glory. Perhaps he is emphasising our human solidarity, the solidarity of the redeemed by Christ who won this great glory by suffering himself. Through the work of the Spirit of Christ in us, our human sufferings take on a different hue. It is not that we in any way save ourselves, that is entirely the work of God; yet in solidarity with Christ, our sufferings take on a greater and perhaps eternal dimension, conforming us to the divine outlook and mindset. Indeed, in Colossians 1:24, Paul will even go so far as to claim that in his sufferings “I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” For sure, we are not sharers in the Trinity, but we are sharers in God’s glory.

 

In our Gospel (John 16:12-15) taken from the great teaching passages of Jesus in Jerusalem prior to his saving passion, we see him instructing the disciples about the fullness of understanding to be given us through the work of the Spirit after the death and resurrection of Jesus to the Father. At that time, their knowledge, or perhaps understanding, of what Jesus would achieve for them was limited. Later, he says, they will know, and this knowledge and joy will be the work of the Holy Spirit assuring us of the unbreakable union of Father and Son, a gift given to every Christian, to you and to me, through the continual presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

 Most of us have had some kind of Pentecost experience in our lives, probably more than one, even if we haven’t given it that name. Times when we felt the presence of God working in us in a way that we could actually feel. It may have been during times of prayer, or during Mass, or it could have been in our ordinary life when a sudden illumination, about something or someone, gave us a clear idea what God wanted, or gave us the courage or inspiration to take some decision or action that made a big difference in our lives, or in someone else’s life. Even if we didn’t immediately acknowledge that it was from God, we would say, looking back on it, “At that moment, I suddenly knew that this was the right thing to do.” And if this feeling has worked out for you as “a good purpose”, as St Paul says in our 2nd Reading, (1 Cor 12:3-13) then be assured it was the Holy Spirit working in your life.

 

Most of you will know that there are some non-Catholic Churches generally called “Charismatic or Pentecostal” that place these experiences at the heart of their worship, and try to encourage a highly-charged emotional atmosphere where Pentecostal experiences are more likely to happen.

And some of you may also say, “Why isn’t the Catholic Church more like this? Why is Mass so quiet and restrained? And why is the Catholic Church so cautious about those who claim   personal experiences of God?”

 

The first thing I would like to say in response to this is that the Catholic Church is more “charismatic” than many people realise. All over the world, there are groups of Catholics who meet to pray and sing in a more charismatic way. They also run Days of Renewal as well as residential Conferences where Catholics can go and spend time deepening their faith and their relationship with God. Ask me if you want more details.

There is also the great tradition of pilgrimages to Holy Places where again worship of a more intense and emotional kind, often with prayers for healing takes place. Finally there is our great tradition of saints, holy men and women who have had a particularly close relationship with God, often accompanied by personal visions, and healing miracles.

But, and it is a big BUT, the Catholic Church has also, in our 2000 year history, seen many many examples where people or groups have been led into all kinds of evil by such activities. Remember what I said earlier, quoting St Paul. Such things must be for a “good purpose”, and as St Paul says in the Chapter that follows, unless these activities are based in love, then they are “nothing at all.” It is a tragedy to watch good Christians being dragged into such things only to boost the ego of some personality who likes the sound of his voice and is good at playing with people’s emotions, or is using this skill to make himself a lot of money.

 

New churches are often created by such people, especially if they are supported by rich Westerners, as in South America at the moment. Here the prayer of Jesus for unity, is ignored in the desire for liveliness, and more and more different groups spring up, all of whom claim to be the true Christian church. In the Gospel of St John (20:19-23) we need to note that Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit at the same time as he shares his Peace with them. Just so, St Paul speaks of the need for the Church though “made up of many parts” to also be “a single unit”.

We Catholics have seen groups like this, claiming to be the true Church, springing up over the centuries, and we have to warn people who are attracted by them to recognise the downside too. Of course the Church rejoices when anyone says “Jesus is Lord”. Yet we long for all such people to find the full understanding of that expression within the one Church. This is why the Pope John Paul II always encouraged what we call “the new Movements” within the Church and often gathered them together in Rome for great celebrations. Perhaps you have heard of Cursillo or the Neo-Catechumenates, or the Charismatic Renewal that I mentioned earlier?

 

In ordinary parishes we have to be careful about this. People respond to God in many different ways, and some people find worship that is too emotionally charged actually leaves them feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. They may rightly point out that it can mislead people into thinking that faith is just some surface emotion. They stress the quiet ways of responding to God in silence and dignity. Finding the balance for any Parish is a difficult act… think for example of the conflict between those who like jolly noisy music with lots of hand-clapping, and those for whom that is a complete turn-off . We are all different and God’s Holy Spirit comes to us in many different ways. That is St Paul’s message to us today. Be open to God’s Holy Spirit, yes, but always so that the Church may be one body worshipping one Lord.

 

 

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings: The description in Acts (2:1-11) of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is, I think, always something vaguely wafty and esoteric for us today. Yet the Greek, rather than speaking of a ‘powerful wind’, speaks of a violent wind, something like a tornado filling the house as it came upon the disciples. We in the west, for whom so much of our faith has become ‘spiritualised and sanitised’, need to try and recapture something of the life changing event, even the savageness, this bestowal brought.

 

I think we can attempt to do this by looking at Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Rom 8:8-17). St Paul frequently uses the image of slavery, that most despised group in the ancient world to convey our relationship to God, often to allude to the utter difference between us and God (we are God’s slaves). But here, he speaks of our transformation from slaves to sons and heirs of God. Anyone hearing or reading these words originally would have understood perfectly the enormity of what he was talking about. By the gift of Christ, in the Holy Spirit, we are transformed from a slave to a son.

 

In Greco-Roman society the slave was socially dead, a non person. Because of this they could be bought or sold, worked till they dropped, sexually exploited, and frequently saw their children either sold off or under threat of sale. They could not marry or join in society. Just imagine therefore what being freed implied; suddenly, at the say of one’s master, one became a human being. Masters freeing slaves were said to create them, give them life. Now they were citizens of the empire, albeit frequently still tied to their former master, now patron by business ties. Any children they had who were born in freedom could stand for public office and enter the coveted Roman political system, and aim to improve their status and class. It even affected where you could sit in the amphitheatre and at the races. They could make wills, marry, and some might even be adopted by former masters who were childless, and would thus carry on his family name so that it did no die out. The numbers of Julii all over the empire was enormous, recording ties to the house of Caesar.

 

As if this were not enough of a mind altering and radical shift in actual public prospects, Paul also likeness the coming of the Spirit to adoption. We are now God’s heirs along with Christ. Adoption was quite a common thing in ancient society, and again full of vitality and significance. In elite senatorial or equestrian circles, having an heir was essential, not simply to prevent the death of an all important and powerful and honoured name, but also to protect ones assets. But early death rates, appallingly high in the ancient world, meant that thousands of children did not live to adulthood. Adoption from one elite family with a lucky surplus of sons into one lacking an heir could be the only way to safeguard an important heritage. Julius Caesar adopted Octavian, his nephew as his heir; earlier, the powerful Scipionii gave a son to the Amelii-Paulii and we find this transaction recorded in his name. All classes participated in this system. It was not just about cash, it was about preventing the death of a name and all it implied. Being made a son by adoption had real and tangible effects on all concerned; it was a life changing moment for all of them. St Paul quite deliberately took these images from daily life to illustrate the significance of the Spirit in the lives of recipients. It was real, bodily and tangible; one’s life was never the same again.

 

When therefore, in translation, we read these rather limp passages like the one in our gospel (John 14:15-16.23-26) we need to do so with these powerful images in mind. It was what irretrievably altered lives. The promise by Christ of the Advocate, the Paraclete, of his stand-in, his abiding presence for ever in the world, meant that hereafter the believer is at one with the divine, here expressed most comfortingly by that phrase ‘at home’. It means that the follower of Christ is party to God’s ideas and ways of being, his intimate, his friend and a sharer of his inmost thoughts and dealings, hence, “He will teach you everything.” This is an enormous honour and a great responsibility, and just as freedom or adoption brought a person into a new and demanding status to others and the world about him, so the same is implied here. We are new-made, God-made and the environment we inhabit is forever a changed reality. The advent of the Holy Spirit then is not about being surrounded by some cotton wool comfort blanket, but about our empowerment by God himself and just as these experiences radically altered the disciples, sending them off on missions to convert the world, so too, his presence in our lives is meant to be dramatically transforming, equipping us to work in unison with the creator-redeemer God.

What would you say is the hardest thing to do as a Christian – the hardest thing that Jesus asks us to do? Perhaps it’s “Do this in memory of me” – the Mass? But for most of us, getting to Mass on Sunday may be a challenge, especially when other apparently more interesting things coincide with Sunday Mass times,  but it isn’t that hard…….. once you get into the habit!

Perhaps the more difficult request is, to “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Yet many people tend to think this is fairly easy, to be kind and loving to others – well, at least most of the time! Of course, they are wrong, aren’t they? Because they conveniently miss out the second bit of that phrase – to love “As I have loved you”. Ah yes, that’s the difficult bit! – to practise real sacrificial love – all the time – to cope, for example, in a kind way with irritating people, as Jesus did with his silly disciples today. They wanted glory now. “Has the time come?” they say. And he gently replies “It is not for you to know times and dates” . Whereas, you and I would probably have said  “You stupid idiots! Why do you never listen to what I say?”  !!!

So yes, real love is very hard. But no, I don’t actually think it is the hardest thing of all. For I think the hardest thing of all is something we hear Jesus asking us today in both the 1st Reading and the Gospel. (Acts 1:1-11/Luke 24:46-53)  He says, “You will be my witnesses….to the ends of the earth.”  

That’s it, isn’t it? We are fine being Christians…. not very good Christians maybe – but still trying our best- until someone finds out about us! Then we wait for one of those difficult questions we so dread! “So why on earth do you believe in God?… or in Jesus?…or in the Bible?… or in the Church with all its failings?”  What makes it doubly difficult is that the person asking these hard questions has usually already got fixed ideas about what God is like. It’s hard enough explaining to a sympathetic person why we believe, but how do we cope with someone who thinks we believe God is like a superman in the sky. Usually we struggle out some kind of an answer – perhaps “Well I just believe there must be something behind all this.. some underlying power” or even “Well I just do, but I can’t explain it.”, and then think later of all the intelligent things we could have said, but we just couldn’t find, when cornered like that!

It is comforting however to remember that the disciples way back then had similar problems – that the hard questions we are asked in the 21st Century are not any harder than those they had to face. They too had to face laughter and scorn and mockery when they tried to explain what Jesus, what God, meant to them. Remember how they despaired when Jesus died on the cross, and how bewildered they were when they began to meet him in a new way again at Easter. Can you imagine people mocking them? “So where is this Jesus then? If he is alive in this new way, why can’t we see him?  And then they had to explain that they could no longer see him, that somehow he was with God and yet still with them in an invisible way. And so we have the stories of the Ascension that we celebrate today, when they use images of Jesus disappearing into a cloud or on a high mountain to convey something far more mysterious than that. “Oh so he literally shot up into the sky? they say, laughing at us. “No” we say “That’s only a way of explaining that he is with God in glory.”

St Augustine said that when Jesus went to heaven he did not leave us, but how can you explain that, or even remember that, when someone questions you? How hard to explain things that cannot be seen, only believed!

In the end, it’s hard, because it’s something we cannot really put into words. because it’s something deep in our hearts. not just a theory in our minds. And we struggle with it too, don’t we? We believe, yet we doubt. With the world, we wonder how can there be a God, a loving power, when there is so much pain and suffering! Explaining why, deep down, we believe, despite all these questions, seems an impossible task, just as we cannot really explain love or beauty to others. They have to find it for themselves.

But be comforted! However ineffective we think our feeble attempts to explain ourselves may be, they are still worthwhile, and sometimes, when we least expect it, it helps. That’s why I leave you with a phrase from one of the Psalms. The Psalmist says “The Lord takes delight in his people”   And we might reply, “What me? God is working in me?” God is working in us stupid stumbling humans as we try to follow him? And God says “Yes, despite all that. You will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth”

 

Frances writes :-  There is often a tendency to wonder precisely why Jesus left us at the Ascension, why at the moment of his resurrected triumph over death he did not stay put. It is only when we really spend time with the implications, both of what his remaining would have meant, and what his departure implies, that we can begin to experience the enormity of his ascension gift to humanity.

This is an issue explored by our reading from Acts (1:1-11). It appears that the disciples, so like us, want to cling onto the risen Jesus and, despite all his talk to the contrary, are still thinking in earthly and very Jewish terms. “Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Despite all his teaching on the nature of the kingdom of God they, like their fellow Jews who rejected Jesus’ teaching and understanding of the Father, are still stuck with him as a Roman basher; someone who would gather a huge army and come in power once and for all to throw any would be conquerors out of Israel. In their thinking, the reign of God on earth would still be a very worldly thing, about power and control, and making sure that Israel finally came out on top. The disciples, like us, cling to familiar concepts, and what they think they know, and they cast God in this image too.

This is precisely why the risen, glorified Jesus must leave them. It was time to move on – their time to move out into the great adventure which was to be Christianity. Had Jesus remained they and we would be incurably handicapped, forever overshadowed by the risen Lord, trapped in a world in which his power would have become absolute. There would be no need for any to search for God, for there he was, no need for us to think for we would be trapped; infantilized by his very presence. Instead, we notice that Jesus is looking forward to their baptism in the Holy Spirit, the coming of age of the disciples, and all that that will mean.

In Luke’s gospel (Lk 24:46-53) we get a rather clearer picture of all this, as Jesus instructs the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they had been “Clothed with the power from on high.” Significantly, he reminds them of his death and resurrection, and their task, “That, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Our, and I suspect the disciples’, problem was and is that few of us really take on board the gift of the Father to us. Sure, we have that wonderful promise of eternal life, of even sharing divinity with him in heaven, but in general, we fail to discern the real meaning of the ascension of Jesus.

The whole purpose of the incarnation, of the sending of God the Son in flesh and blood like ours, was to reveal to the world the true relationship between Father and Son and their intention for us. This is made clearer precisely by the ‘loss’ of the physically present Jesus. For in that we experience the full extent of the divine trust in us, in the human creatures God has made. Jesus’ mission is completed by his saving death and resurrection; the divine invitation to believers is that they trust us to make it known, shared and lived out in the world. Had Jesus remained, such a trust, any such call, would have been superfluous, void of meaning; humanity would have remained at best willing and obedient followers, at worst, puppets. But by his ascension, Christ gives this supreme honour to the disciples. That it is our task, our mission, our great act of willing and freely given collaboration with him, to make it known and available to the whole of humanity. God, it appears, is supremely optimistic about humanity. We may not be so, and from our perspective on the world, things can look pretty bleak, but we must remember that God has placed his trust in us, and knows that we will not fail.

The writer of The Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 9:24-28.10:19-23), written for what was obviously a predominantly Jewish convert audience, was at pains to take his readers beyond their commitment to God through Jewish temple worship. He may have deliberately seized the opportunity of the Roman destruction of the temple at the end of the great revolt in AD 70, when the void this created gave him an invitation to show how belief in Jesus could transcend the Jewish faith. He points out how the Jewish priests had to offer atonement sacrifices continually, because the sins of the people were constantly reoccurring, and shows how Jesus’ sacrificial death occurred only once and reconciled the entire creation to God for all time. In a spectacular piece of imagery he speaks of Jesus’ sacrificed body as the curtain of the temple, which has now been symbolically torn down, as God and humanity are now inexorably joined. Under the old and now defunct temple system, a huge embroidered curtain hid the people from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. In the synoptic gospels this curtain is ripped apart at the death of Jesus; God and man are now no longer veiled, cut off from each other, but open, redeemed and accessible to each other. The writer of Hebrews picks this up, insisting that every Christian has the free access to God formerly only accorded the High Priests, that our access to God is open, and only limited by our own bad conscience. In principle, he says we are at home with God, familiar with him and he to us, that is the gift of the ascension.

 

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I suppose the search for perfection, for the ideal, for a life not continually messed up by our own and others inadequacies and the problems of the world, is something which in some shape or form occupies most of us during our lives. Certainly it seems to be a prominent feature of most religions, as it was the occupation of so many ancient philosophers. We now accept that such absolute perfection is impossible this side of the grave, but nonetheless its pursuit to some extent shapes our lives as Christians: in the search for God; in our moral life; and indeed in many of our human undertakings, whether that be in parenting our children, in our studies in the academic field, in artistry, or what you will.

 

This is certainly the vision of the writer of the Apocalypse (Apoc 21:10-14.22-25) with his picture of the new and heavenly Jerusalem. It is a description of perfect symmetry in complete contrast to his description of the failures of the seven churches of the Province of Asia, which he clearly knew so well, and his harrowing account of the world as he saw it and its catastrophic destruction. The writer saw the Christian message as one of great battle between the powers of God and the good, and those of evil, here represented by the human city and the opportunities they gave for the corruption and exploitation of the human being. For him, things are seen in very black and white terms, and there seems to be little room for leeway between the two.

 

With Luke-Acts (Acts 15:1-2.22-29) however, we are hearing the story of the spread of Christianity by Paul and Barnabas in the decade after the crucifixion i.e. in the 40’s AD. According to this account, the disciples began their work from within Judaism and with its following of pagan sympathisers. Their search therefore for the God of Jesus Christ was to follow in the Jewish tradition, but with radical and significant differences. The first, as we see in our reading, was the renunciation of the need for male converts from paganism to be circumcised. This was a significant issue holding back ‘Godfearers’, that is pagan sympathisers with Judaism, from full conversion. We know that some in ancient cities were attracted to the high moral life of Jews and their ethical teachings, but that they rarely converted precisely because circumcision would have made them highly visible at the public baths and in the gymnasia, and could have courted trouble. Moreover, full adherence to Judaism, with its call to rigid separatism from pagans would have made the lives of converts near impossible.

 

Our account of what we call the Council of Jerusalem, around 49AD demonstrates a remarkable convergence of views in the Early Church, as they lay down quite limited parameters for convert practices. In Leviticus 17 in the Old Testament, we find a set of instructions about the slaughter and eating of meat, and the early church was at pains, as were the Jews, to separate themselves from pagan worship, in which the drinking of animal blood may have been significant. Strangled animals of course are those not drained of blood, indeed we know from all those now pristine and white Greek edifices that originally they would have run red with blood from the slaughter of animals. The temple of Zeus at Agrigento in Sicily had 100 altars for the slaughter of bulls. The other rule was against what the Jerusalem Bible calls ‘fornication’, in Greek, porneia, and a much wider term than we understand it today. In the first and second centuries AD, well before the development of extreme Christian ascetic practices, porneia had a wide meaning, from prohibiting abortions and infanticide, to guidance given to the thoughtful on the correct attitudes of mind and body required in the procreation of children. Naturally it also included teaching on the appropriate attitudes men and women should adopt generally towards their bodies, and this did include moderate and careful approaches to sex. What we witness here then, is the gentle teaching of the early church as it tried to aid its new converts in their growth in the faith, and as they went about their daily lives. Conversion, and the search for perfection, is a process, a long journey, and clearly not to be accomplished fully in this life.

 

Not long after Luke wrote his great opus, St John was at work on the Fourth Gospel, sharing with us his memories and reflections of the life of Jesus. It is significant that he too presents a gradualist understanding of our growth in God, of our journey to perfection, which I presume also reflects the values of Jesus himself. In our portion of the Gospel (John 14:23-29) he says that subsequent to his (Jesus’) departure, the Father will send the Holy Spirit who ‘Will teach you everything’ (and that this teaching will be in accord with Jesus’ own teaching whilst he was with them).  The real appreciation of who Jesus is, and of what he stands for, therefore appears to be something we both already have, and which will be illumined by his departure, that is both his death and resurrection and his ascension to the Father. Significantly, he promises them his peace; “A peace the world cannot give”, reminding them that there is perfection only achievable beyond the grave, beyond his and by implication our own death. For we live, as always, in very uncertain times, and in the frailty of the human condition. It appears then, that the Gospel writers, unlike the writer of the Apocalypse, do not get hung up over the issue of our human perfection, and are comfortable with seeing it as within God’s remit, and can approach it with the gentleness of our Saviour.

 

We Christians quite rightly talk a lot about love, and we try to put into practice what Jesus taught us in today’s Gospel, (John 13:31-35) to “love one another just as I have loved you.” But very easily we turn that into something that we must do. I must be kind to those I meet. I must get on with those I work with. I must help the poor of the world. I must try to tolerate those who I do not like etc etc. Now this is all very fine and good, but there is one thing wrong with it. In order to love others, we must allow ourselves to be loved by them. If I fail to let others love me, even to do things for me, or fuss over me, in ways that I do not much like, I have not yet learnt to love the way Jesus loves.

I notice this particularly when, as today, I encourage people to come forward at the end of Mass for Prayers for healing. Oh yes, lots and lots of people come forward, and it’s very moving to see this ; but few of them ask for prayers for themselves, and if they do it is often as a modest afterthought – “Oh, and a little prayer for me too Father.” Now it is wonderful to know that in the heart of each Christian is so much concern for those who are sick or sad in some way; but we must not make that mean, that we are too modest to mention our own needs and ask for prayers for ourselves.  I even know of some people who like to keep their sickness a secret. Somehow they have got it into their heads that although they will pray for others, they would prefer others not to pray for them.

My guess is that they don’t want people to fuss, and I do understand that, because I find that difficult too. A priest has only to limp a little, or cough a bit too much, and endless people are coming up after Mass to show their concern and offer solutions. My instinct then is to minimise the problem – to say “Oh it’s nothing really.” –whatever it is – probably because I don’t want to be accused of being one of those irritating people who goes on and on about themselves and all their ailments! What I should do is simply accept their love.

Jesus has this problem too. The disciples fuss over him when he disappears early in the morning up in the hills to pray. He simply tells them, without criticising them, that they must all move on. The woman with the ointment comes into a public place and anoints his feet and dries them with her hair – so embarrassing! When others say he shouldn’t have allowed this, especially as the woman has a bad name, he gently defends her action. At Gethsemane he, Jesus the Son of God, with a unique relationship with God the Father, asks his weak disciples to pray for him. What good can their feeble prayers do, compared with his, especially as, just as he suspects, they fall asleep! And yet that is what he does.

Yes, Jesus loves us by allowing us weak silly humans with all our faults to love him, even to pray for him. God chooses to become a human being, and in so doing encourages us into a quite different relationship with him. Instead of simply loving us from a position of superiority, and expecting gratitude and praise and worship in return, he allows us to love him. We then must try to be like that. We must not just allow, but encourage others to pray for us, to love us. When we are sick or sad or facing some medical treatment, we have to overcome our shyness, our modesty, and ask others to pray for us. How dare we do otherwise? How can we spend time praying and caring for others, as if we are some special person distributing God’s love, and not allow them to pray and care for us?

True love is always a mutual thing – a giving and a receiving. We, the Church, must first of all be a community where that mutual love is shown. Have you the courage to turn to the person sitting near you at Mass, someone you may not know, or may only know a little, and ask them to pray for you? Do you ask to be put on the church’s prayer list when you are in need of prayer, or do you hide your problems because you do not want to make a fuss? Some people even say nothing, but are then upset when nobody appears to notice that they are suffering and need prayer. Jesus said “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.”

Love is an immensely powerful force and when linked to prayer it becomes even more powerful, always bringing comfort and support and sometimes also bringing an amazing result for the person prayed for. But if we do not allow ourselves to be loved, if we do not ask for prayer, then we are failing to allow God’s love to come to us through others, and that’s sad, isn’t it?