It is always difficult to say, “Goodbye.” Having arrived at the end of the Easter season, the Paschal candle, following the chanting of the Gospel of the Ascension on Thursday, was extinguished, signifying the end of Paschaltide. Each year, these days, though they bring great joy in the celebration of these central mysteries of our faith, if the Easter season has truly been celebrated with joy and intensity, also bring a tinge of sadness as they signify the end of the Easter season. We can easily imagine that the Apostles must also have felt such a sadness at the departure from this earth of their Lord and master. For three years they have been his constant companions, always together with him, roaming through the countryside of Galilee. Their relationship with our Lord was not like that of students to their teacher or athletes to their coach. They were constantly together, usually with no roof over their heads and often without a good idea of where they were going to get their next meal. He was their mentor, their teacher, the One on whom they sought to model their lives, for whom they had professed their willingness to die. Remember how he prayed to the Father at the Last Supper, “I do not pray for the world, but for them?” Can we even begin to imagine how the Apostles would have felt about our Lord after hearing those words? Even after they all fell away, save St. John, during His passion, He forgave them and welcomed them back into His company for what must have been the most joyful 40 days of anyone’s life. And yet, after 40 days, as He had foretold at the Last Supper, he departed from them to take up his seat at the right hand of the Father, reigning forever over Heaven. What then must have the Apostles’ reaction been? Our human reason would tell us that they must have been thrown into the most bitter despair, the most profound sadness and depression.
But this, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is precisely not what the Evangelists report that the Apostles did! Rather, St. Luke tells us that the Apostles went back to Jerusalem with great joy, and that they were constantly in the Temple praising God! And St. Mark tells us that they went forth and preached everywhere, fulfilling the Lord’s command to baptize all nations. How could this be? How could the same group of men, who previously had fled full of fear when the Lord was taken from them, who did not believe the witnesses of the Resurrection, now respond with joy to His Ascension? What changed in them? *pause* What changed? The answer … Is faith.
Faith is the core of the Easter season. St. Mark’s Gospel last Thursday told us that the Lord “appeared to the eleven as they were at table: and he upbraided them with their incredulity [that is, their lack of belief] and hardness of heart, because they did not believe them who had seen him after he was risen again.” There are two curious things about our Lord’s appearances after His Resurrection: He appears only to His disciples, and he hides His glory. Earthly reasoning would tell us that Christ should have dramatically entered the Temple, shining in the glory of His resurrected body, in order to show the religious and civil authorities that their schemes and plots could not hold Him in the grave, even though they bribed the soldiers at the tomb to say that the disciples had stolen His body. No, He appears in an upper room, to a small number, and again to a larger group of the disciples, but only to those who have believed. Again, we ask why? And again, the answer … Is faith.
Christ could have appeared in shining glory to the inhabitants of Jerusalem of the year 33 A.D., but then the effect of one coming back from the dead would have only lasted so long. Rather, He wants to teach us about the importance of faith.
Faith is the virtue, given by God at our Baptism and sustained by the other sacraments, by which we believe in God’s Revelation on the authority of God Himself who reveals. By it, we believe everything contained in the Scriptures and everything taught by the Catholic Church. Most importantly of all, though, we believe not only in a content of teaching, but in a person, who is our Lord Jesus Christ, who was, is, and will always be real, who really did live on this earth in our mortal flesh for 33 years, and who truly did ascend into Heaven 40 days after His glorious resurrection. It is on the authority of this person, who promised to be with us always until the end of the age, that we believe all that is taught about Him and about faith and morals by the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.
Modern culture would have us think that it is possible to live without belief, without faith, but this is simply not true. It is impossible to live our lives without some authority on the basis of which we believe the basic tenets or ideas that hold up the system upon which we build our lives. For the world, those principles are pleasure, power, and tolerance — which is a modern way of insuring that we do not infringe too much on others’ pursuit of pleasure. For the Christian, though, those principles are the love of Christ on the Cross: self-sacrifice and self-denial at the service of losing yourself so that you can gain a prize far greater than any the pleasure offered by the world: eternal life with God in heaven, where Christ has gone before us. It is impossible to live without belief, and in the end, the choice is clear: We can believe on the authority of God Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, or we can believe in the authority of the world.
As Christ has made clear in the Gospel, though, we must believe on the authority of witnesses, which is why He instituted the Catholic Church, to bear witness to His name until the end of the world. There is, however, something deeply ironic about the witnesses that Christ sends out to teach all the nations about Him: they are precisely those men, the Apostles, whom he scolds for not believing the witnesses of His Resurrection. Why, then, would the Lord send them and not the first witnesses of the Resurrection — Mary Magdalene and the disciples to whom He appeared on the road to Emmaus — as His witnesses to all the world?
The answer to this paradox lies here: in order for us to believe today’s witness to the Resurrection, today’s witness to Christ’s saving truth, the Catholic Church, we must ourselves become witnesses. Christ sent the Apostles to all the nations, of course, say that they might come to believe and be saved, but also so that the Apostles themselves would come to a greater faith. While we know now of the great success that the Apostles’ preaching would have in converting so many nations and peoples to Christ, today’s Gospel also tells us that, “They will put you out of the synagogues: yea, the hour cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doth a service to God.” We too live in a world where following Christ’s command to preach the Gospel to all nations is not easy. Our contemporaries have largely heard the Gospel — or what they thought was the Gospel — and rejected it. And so often our efforts, sincere as they may be, often times come up short, and we are tempted to fall into the the sadness that marked the Apostles after the Lord’s Passion, before coming to believe in His Resurrection. But even when our apostolic activity, our efforts to spread the true faith both within and beyond our Church, seem to come to naught, we should not forget that Our Lord has given us this mission to participate in the work of the Apostles not only for the salvation of the world, but also for the salvation of our own souls as well. Our Lord desires for us to undertake this task so that we too will come to believe with more fervor and know our faith with more precision.
This, then, is the key to the Apostles’ joy: Because they have been with Christ, come to know him and were filled with his grace, they rejoiced to have been given such a great mission. Again, today’s Gospel says, “And you shall give testimony, because you are with me from the beginning.” The Apostles’ evangelical witness comes from their friendship with the Lord. And so, to have the chance to draw even closer to Christ by proclaiming His name to the whole world they rejoiced and praised God. This ought to be our response as well: we must rejoice and praise God for having been able to draw close to Him in the celebration of the mysteries of His life, death, resurrection, and Ascension, and for having been entrusted with this great mission of the Apostles to spread the glory of His name to all peoples, all times, and all places.
There is another important reason for the Apostles’ joy: their confidence in Christ’s promise to be with them always. That promise is made to us as well, and fulfilled in Christ’s presence through the successors of the Apostles, the bishops of the Catholic Church, the holy priesthood, and through it the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist. Just as the Apostles were always in the Temple praising God, so should we constantly seek out the Lord’s Eucharistic presence to praise Him for the immense gift He has given us, our faith in Him, and the mission to spread that faith to all peoples, all places, and all times. In the grace of receiving the Eucharist He will give us the strength to accomplish that great mission.
Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Church of St. Augustine, Copenhagen
Sunday after Ascension, MMXVI