Imagine the emotional turmoil inside the disciples.
• First he was here then he was gone.
• Then he was here again.
• And then he was gone for good.
• “First he was here then he was gone.” They lived with Jesus in his public life and they loved it. They thought it would last forever. But abruptly he was gone. They were not at all prepared for the enormity of his torture and killing, the destruction of their lives, of their friend and their Lord. Gone, gone, gone, gone.
• “Then he was here again.” We know how hard his resurrection was for the apostles. They doubted it and rejected it, even as the women welcomed it with full hearts. He appeared many times and kindly helped his followers to accept the fact that he was alive again.
• “And then he was gone for good.” When they had gotten used to his new presence, guess what. The Ascension took place.* This presents the obvious question. Does the story really end with Jesus “gone, gone, gone,” ascended to heaven? The point of God's taking flesh had been to show how completely present he always is to us, living in our material world. So now he has absented himself forever? Are we back to where we started?
You and I must really look for the answer, because it contains the entire Christian reality. We can do it using the readings for this Sunday.
The First Reading is a continuation of Jesus' frequent talks about how he will send the Holy Spirit to us (Paraclete, Teacher, Comforter), after he has ascended to the Father. All who believe and who open their hearts will receive the Spirit.
Stay with this line of reasoning. What is the Spirit? Is it simply a dose of “grace” that we receive or earn in order to be holy? Or that Jesus and the Father send to give us a break? Or a “help”? Or some kind of power coming from God?
Listen well: the Holy Spirit is:
Not a representative of God, not a dove that descends on us, or even a point of fire over our heads. It is the complete, true reality of God. And it is marked by Jesus' entire life, death and resurrection.
The Spirit quietly makes us able to say yes to faith, but not by brutalizing us or overriding us. The Second Reading and the Gospel are all about what I call “respectful love.” I define it as that love which never over-powers us but always respects our choice. Rather than a dictator, the Spirit wants to be a companion in our lives, respecting our self, not contradicting it.
So Jesus is with us by means of the presence of his Spirit in us. He hopes we will accept the offer of this Spirit. If we do, our souls mingle with God's own reality and we become new flesh for the incarnate God.
This is called the mystical body of Christ on earth.
You reply, well great, but why am I so weak in belief, so far from Christ, so prone to sin? This Holy Spirit must be pretty anemic.
No, and here again is the reason.
The Spirit always waits, waits, waits for you to receive Jesus' life. Jesus is not gone, he is inside us, knocking at our inner door. We can say no. But we can also say yes with our lives.
Through respectful love.
*The Church provides an embarrassment of richness in the readings this week. Some few dioceses (the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and Omaha) celebrate the feast of Ascension on Thursday, and therefore on Sunday will use the readings from the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Most others have the Ascension feast on Sunday and use the Ascension readings instead of those from the Seventh Sunday. In either case there are a number of possible second readings for Ascension. So let us simply talk here about the Ascension itself.
John Foley S. J.
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