(Note: The Archdiocese of Omaha, the author’s home, is one of only six dioceses in the United States that continues to celebrate Ascension Day, a Catholic “holy day of obligation,” on the Thursday that is 40 days after Easter Sunday. (Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark and Philadelphia are the other five dioceses.) All other U.S. dioceses, including the Dioceses of Lincoln and Grand Island in Nebraska, have exercised their option under Catholic Church discipline to transfer their observance of Ascension Day to this weekend, otherwise observed as the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
(These meditations will begin with the Year C Gospel reading for Ascension Day, which changes according to the three-year cycle of Scripture readings. (For the meditations for the Ascension reading in Acts and the second reading from Ephesians, please click on the following usedview.com link: http://usedview.com/article/meditations-on-scriptures-ascension-day-year-a-june-2-or-4-5-2011.) The three readings and their meditations for the Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C will follow.
(This weekend’s Scripture readings are available in the New American Bible translation – the one used in U.S. Catholic parishes – at the Vatican’s English website at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM.)
Ascension Day Gospel (Year C): Luke 24:46-53 (Revised Standard Version)
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to You, O Lord.
Jesus said to his disciples: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditation: Whenever the three-year Scripture cycle reaches Year C, Ascension Day features two accounts of Jesus’ return to heaven from the same author: Luke. After beginning the readings with the opening verses of Acts – the blessed physician’s second book to his Greek acquaintance Theophilus – we end with the final verses of Luke’s Gospel, which ends with a brief reference to Jesus’ ascension.
Most of the reading serves as a short, simple recap of the Gospel as it would be preached by the disciples in the early chapters of Acts. But it immediately follows Luke’s account of Jesus’ appearance to the Eleven (minus Thomas) are in the Upper Room on Easter evening, along with Cleopas and his friend (who had just returned from their “Emmaus road” encounter with the risen Christ) and presumably other disciples (such as Mary).
The chronology doesn’t seem to line up. Did Jesus immediately ascend to heaven on Easter evening, or did He appear to the disciples over 40 days – as Luke tells us in the first Ascension reading – and then rise until hidden by the cloud? Since the same author wrote both readings, this juxtaposition reminds us that storytellers of two millennia ago were not bound by our modern insistence of having exact time references included in the story so we know precisely what happened when.
Compare the first reading with the Gospel, and one must conclude that Luke’s account of Jesus’ Easter evening appearance ended with His eating of the fish. Christ’s instructions at the end of the Gospel line up very well with those at the start of the Acts account. He has been opening the minds of His followers to fully understand all His teachings and the significance of what had taken place during the first Holy Week. They will understand even more and receive “power from on high,” He declares – but they must remain in Jerusalem for that promise to be fulfilled.
Then He leads them from the city and ascends from their midst, leaving them to pray and praise God as they wait for the Holy Spirit. We end as we began: in joyful anticipation of Pentecost. May your waiting be fruitful as well.
Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Opening reflection (taken from Magnificat magazine, www.magnificat.com): Jesus lifts His eyes to heaven and prays to His Father that all will be one. Stephen looks up intently to heaven and sees Jesus – the One who makes that unity happen. Saul – soon to be Paul – was a witness to Stephen’s stoning. Shortly after, when Saul experienced the same miracle – an encounter with Christ from the heavens – did he remember the union of faith that Stephen shared with Jesus? Was it this union that moved him to believe that Jesus is the root and offspring of David, the bright morning star?
(This weekend’s Scripture readings are available in the New American Bible translation at the Vatican’s English website at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM.)
First Reading: Acts 7:55-60 (Revised Standard Version)
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” But (the Jewish leaders) cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: Every reading on this last weekend before Pentecost has its eyes turned toward heaven. The Church begins by revisiting the fate of St. Stephen, one of its first seven deacons and its first “red martyr” (a witness to Christ who dies for his or her faith, as opposed to a “white martyr” who suffers for the faith without giving his or her life).
The passage about Stephen’s stoning of course is at the forefront of his feast day on Dec. 26 (the “Feast of Stephen” immortalized in “Good King Wenceslaus”). As the exact day of his death is not known, it’s quite fitting that the first martyr is remembered annually on the day after the Church celebrates the birth of the Lord he died for. For Stephen, on trial for his life before the Sanhedrin, looked up toward the heavens from which Christ came and to which He had returned to His Father. And though it’s likely he never knew Jesus during His earthly life (as a Greek-speaking Jew, Stephen may have come to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and stayed after Pentecost), he sees – through the eyes of the Holy Spirit – the exact vision about which Jesus had prophesied before the same Jewish ruling council: the other two Persons of the Blessed Trinity, the Father and the Son, in their rightful place ruling over all creation.
There can be no doubt that Stephen’s vision enabled him to endure the mental rejection and physical beating that followed as the Jewish leaders stoned him. He finds the words to ask Jesus to take his spirit to Himself, and he finds the strength to verbally forgive the misguided leaders of his people as his Lord also had done at Calvary. And one also must take note of the young, zealous Pharisee holding the cloaks: Saul of Tarsus. He heard Stephen describe his vision; soon, on the Damascus road, he would have his own vision of the risen Jesus. Stephen’s voice may have been silenced, but it would soon be replaced by one even more powerful.
May the visions of heaven we read about this weekend sustain us if and when we also are called upon to endure all, even death, in witness to our Lord and the Good News that liberates and saves us from ourselves if only we will permit it.
Second Reading: Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20
A reading from the Book of Revelation.
I, John, heard a voice saying to me: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star.”
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: We also leave St. John on Patmos, having shared his majestic vision of the age of the Church, the heavenly glory of the Mass, the persecutions and the triumphs that one day will end in the judgment of all people and the Second Advent.
In these last verses of the Scriptures (as they came to be organized), John leaves us with the risen Lord’s assurances of the truth of his visions. The age of the Church will end in triumph. Jesus will return in triumph. We who are true to the end – we who “wash their robes” – will have “the right to the tree of life.” And He who tells us these things has the right and the authority to do so – He who is the Son of David and the Morning Star.
He invites us to follow Him. The Holy Spirit, whom He sent to us at the first Pentecost, invites us to follow Him. And so does the Bride of Christ, His Church, which He founded as His Body to preserve His teachings and make disciples of all nations until the end of time. The question comes to us as it has come to all the generations since the Garden of Eden. Will we listen? Will we repent? Will we take up the invitation to follow Him? Maranatha – come, Lord Jesus!
Gospel: John 17:20-26
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John. Glory to You, O Lord.
Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed, saying: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee; and these know that thou hast sent me. I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditation: In light of these visions, just how does our Lord’s high-priestly prayer – and in particular, his prayer for Christian unity – fit in? We know how fleeting has been His Church’s visible unity on earth. Dissent set in even before the end of the Acts of the Apostles. Perhaps heresies were relatively few in the age of Roman persecution, but schisms and even bloodshed between Christians set in almost as soon as Constantine legalized the faith in the 300s. What of the formal divisions that date back 1,500 years to Chalcedon, 1,000 years to the East-West split, 500 years to the Reformation and even a mere 25 years to the schism involving the Society of St. Pius X?
Fortunately for all of us, the unity of the Church does not depend on human beings. It depends on God. This reality can never be taken as heavenly sanction of division among those who claim to follow Jesus. But it also is reality that Christ left sinners in charge of His Church. How, then, can we trust the teachings of such an institution and its teachers? Because He bestowed His glory, His love and His teaching authority upon the Church. Those gifts cannot be exercised by sinful human beings through their own powers. They can only be exercised by God Himself – and so they are, through the presence of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity in the hearts and minds of all who believe and are baptized.
We can hinder the work and cloud the vision of the Holy Spirit in our lives – and so we and many generations before us have done. May God forgive us for our failings. But in looking about us, at the sad divisions among Christians and the willful failures of us all to “love one another as I have loved you,” let us join in the prayer of the disciples in the Upper Room. They knew they could not keep Christ’s Great Commission on their own. They wanted and needed the gift of the Comforter, the one Christ promised to send to teach them all things. Come, Holy Spirit. The world needs You. We need You to follow our Lord to the end of time. Come down upon us as next Sunday approaches and in every day of our lives.
Close with individual prayer, followed by Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be