July 28, 2004

O Stay, O Stay, Emmanuel!

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

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St. Matthew Weighs in on the Question
Other Assurances of Jesus' Presence

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!

St. Matthew Weighs in on the Question

A good way to counterbalance this way of thinking is to contemplate the end of Matthew’s Gospel. At the end of Matthew’s 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 Untener’s audiotape, even though the following words are mine and not his.

Let’s revisit the final lines of Matthew’s 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,
“Go…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 Father—and he had no intention of denying that. But he wanted to stress that Jesus stays with us. It’s good to remember that in the beginning of Matthew’s 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.

Other Assurances of Jesus’ Presence

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 Matthew’s 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 true—if not truer—after 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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