All of us who call ourselves Christian live in the post-Resurrection and
post-Ascension era of the Church. The Jesus of history, we believe, has ascended
to the right hand of God the Father. We also believe that the risen Jesus
is within us and within (and among) all believers gathered in his name.
But this split-level sense of Jesus presence puzzles us at times.
Something in us keeps asking: Is Jesus up there in heaven with God?
Or is he with us on earth? Deep down, we know that Jesus is really present
on both levels, but we sometimes fall into the mindset that he left us.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to an audiotape recording
of a talk (Treasures of the Church) given by a remarkable American bishop,
Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan. Bishop Untener died on March 27, 2004.
In his recorded talk, he recalled the custom in churches before Vatican II of
the server at Mass extinguishing the Paschal candle after the reading of the gospel
on Ascension Thursday. The little ritual seemed to signal that, truly, Jesus had
left the arena of earthly life!
A good way to counterbalance this way of thinking is to
contemplate the end of Matthews Gospel. At the end of Matthews account,
the risen Jesus does not leave the earth. He stays! (At least, there is no explicit reference to his leaving the earth.) This insight came also
by way of Bishop Unteners audiotape, even though the following words are
mine and not his.
Lets revisit the final lines of Matthews Gospel. The 11
disciples have gone to the mountain in Galilee, as the risen Jesus has ordered
them. There they worship Jesus. Jesus tells them,
make disciples of all
nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the
Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you
(Matthew 28:19). Then, instead of any words describing Jesus departure from
this earth, Matthew has Jesus say immediately: Behold, I am with you always,
even to the end of the age (29:20). According to Matthew, Jesus simply says he
is staying with them!
Now surely Matthew knew that other disciples were teaching
that Jesus ascended to the Fatherand he had no intention of denying that.
But he wanted to stress that Jesus stays with us. Its good to remember that
in the beginning of Matthews Gospel, Matthew refers to the child to be born
of Mary as Emmanuel, which means God is with us (see 1:23). Matthew set this
theme early in his account.
After Jesus rose from the dead, the gospels indicate, he is
much freer and has fewer space limitations than when he historically walked the
earth. In his risen form, he seems to appear and disappear wherever he
wishes. He now seems much freer to be present to all of us. In Matthews Gospel,
we hear again that Emmanuel theme: Wherever two or three are gathered together
in my name, Jesus affirms, there I am in the midst of them (18:20). This is
surely equally trueif not truerafter Jesus is in his risen state. The great
apostle Paul was aware of Jesus presence in himself and in all believers. Paul
says in Galatians, for example, I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me
(2:20). In Revelation, too, the risen Jesus is portrayed as immediately
accessible to those who are awake and open to him: Behold, I stand at the door
and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house
and dine with him and he with me (3:20).
The strongest assurance we have that Jesus is with us
always also has to do with the act of dining. If the Eucharist means
anything, it means that Jesus is with us in that sacred meal, which he asks
us to celebrate in his memory. And when the Church stresses the real
presence of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine, it is also reminding us that Christ is not only in heaven with the
Father. He is also really, really present with us on our earthly journey.
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