Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Prayer for Unity

Seventh Sunday of Easter Year C

The silence of the Upper Room where the Apostles gathered, performing the first Novena ever to be observed in the Church as they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is interrupted only by sound of their praying lips. This is the Sunday within that first Novena. This is the Sunday which precedes the great feast of Pentecost when the Church was birthed. This is the Sunday where our ears and attention are drawn, not only to prayers of the disciples or even to our prayers, but to the prayer of Our Lord Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest who now intercedes to the Father on our behalf, “May they all be one.”

In a world that has grown skeptical to unity, today’s gospel reading is certainly a welcome breath of fresh air. At last! Someone is truly serious about the issue of reconciliation and unity. It’s none other than Jesus himself.  The gospel is an excerpt of a longer prayer of Jesus found in Chapter 17 of the Gospel of John, which is traditionally called the “High Priestly Prayer”. Its name is derived from the action and words of Jesus who now intercedes with the Father in Heaven, as a High Priest, on behalf of his friends on earth. This prayer is not a declaration of what is, not a blueprint for oneness, but intercession for what shall be.

Jesus here prays for the whole world, asking that the love with which the Father had lavished upon him might also be ours, and that through us the Father’s love might be evident to the world. That is what Jesus died for. This prayer is not just empty rhetoric. The prayer puts into words the very mission of Jesus, the project of Jesus. “Holy Father, I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one.” Jesus prayed these words in the Upper Room on the night of his betrayal, knowing that crucifixion would follow with the coming sunrise. The words are part of his final words, and final words have a history of being intense, focused and passionate. So it was with Jesus. You could say that Jesus’ giving himself to die for us was the embodiment of these intercessions; and his resurrection embodied the Father’s answer to that prayer.

On the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Jewish High Priest, in office for that particular year, would offer sacrifice and prayer, first for himself. Jesus’ prayer for himself in the first three verses is a clear parallel to the High Priest’s prayer but, obviously, Jesus had no need to offer sacrifice for personal sin as did his clerical counterpart. In the second section of the prayer, the priest prayed for the community of priests and levites; Jesus’ prayer for his disciples is a corollary to that prayer. But here, the high priesthood of Jesus is far superior and radically different from the high priesthood of the Jewish people. This is the point asserted by the author of the letter to the Hebrews and St Paul in his letter to the Romans (8:34). Here, we have the perfect High Priest, who stands victorious over death and evil. Here is the perfect High Priest who could accomplish a reconciliation between God and His people in a manner that was unrivalled by anything that took place in the past or could take place in the future.

And so the prayer of Jesus, that “all be one,” transcends time and space. Concerned for the future of the Church, the community of his faithful believers, Jesus prayed first for their unity and secondly for the effect their union would have upon the world. This unity is not meant to be sustained by a long history of human endeavour. In fact, just like in the past, human endeavour to preserve unity had often proven inadequate and the weak members of the Body of Christ had been responsible for causing great divisions and injury to the unity intended by Christ.

We need to note here that Jesus asked God to give us unity as a request. That means that unity is given and not achieved. The unity of God’s people can never be fabricated by man. It must be generated by the Spirit of God. Because this unity proceeds from grace, the life of God, it is therefore patterned after the life of God, a pattern of unity unlike anything else on earth. It is nothing less than the unity of the Father and Son. It is not merely a unity of organisation, purpose, feeling, or affection. Neither is it a unity that comes from commonality in terms of interest, nationality, ethnicity, language or culture. Just as the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father, we are to be so united. Christians are drawn to one another because they are drawn to a common center, Jesus Christ Himself. For that is the source of the power of that unity.

According to Jesus’ prayer, the union of believers with God and with one another makes them capable of and ready for their mission to the world. After having looked within ourselves, we must begin to look outwards, outside our petty little world. Too often we are tempted to allow our Christian lives to remain in air-tight compartments, limited only to Christian friends, in a sort of Christian hot-house, from the womb to the tomb. Our Church is big enough to encompass everyone and yet we often struggle with the temptation to make her smaller, forcing everyone into a straight-jacket of conformity that was never part of God’s plan. That is why the Catholicity of the Church is lived out in her missionary character. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who strongly champions a Church who is more missionary in its outlook, notes that “a Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms”. If we confine our discussion of unity within the ranks of the Church or just among ourselves, we may suffer from the self-referentiality which the Pope condemns.

In a world that glorifies independence and autonomy, Christ’s mission and his prayer for his followers would effect a life of mutual interdependence for all peoples. Therefore, for the sake of a confused and sinful world which is facing enormously complex problems, Christians must not, dare not, isolate themselves from that world. No, the church exists in order to reach the world. The church is here to be God's instrument by which human life in every area and at every level is penetrated by the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ, that men may see that in Jesus Christ there is the authentic voice of God to men; that in him is the ultimate issue of human destiny, and in him we come face to face with all that is important in human affairs.

Christ prayed for a union based on gratuitous love, a union that could forgive the worst in others while always expecting the best of them. The realisation of his prayer remains the constant challenge of His Church. The prayer of Jesus that “may they all be one” still haunts as well as inspires. It is wearisome, deadly wearisome, to endure the tension, the conflicts, the hate speech and demonising that continues to plague our society. The blight of triumphalism, of power games, and the obsession with always being right still throw up huge, offensive roadblocks against Jesus’ prayer. Such sin drags us back to the Upper Room, to dull disciples among whom we now sit, to the grief of our Lord over our tearing apart the seamless robe of unifying love in which he would wrap us. Yet he comes to us with Easter’s treasure. Despite the sins which continue to splinter, to separate, and to divide, we are comforted to know that there is One who is not only praying for our unity, but who assures us that he is protecting “not only these, but also those”, and he does so in the Father’s name. The outcome of the prayer, “May they all be one”, will never be just left to us. It will always be in his strong hands. Thank God for that!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016









Absence and Presence

Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord Year C

It is never an easy thing to experience the departure of a loved one. Those of you who have lost someone in your life, through death, through migration, through separation, through unavoidable circumstances, will understand the experience – it feels like something is wrenched from within, a part of us dies and leaves with that person and we never seem to recover it. Today, as we read the account of the Lord’s Ascension, our hearts also go out to the disciples who stood by gazing into the heavens. They had already suffered the pain of experiencing the death and loss of their Master, and now they have to endure a second parting. After the resurrection, Jesus had returned to his disciples on many occasions, breaking bread with them and instructing them. Their hopes were raised in believing that this time, things would be different; he would never leave them again, but he did. We know something of their loss.

But wait a minute, the gospel taken from St Luke’s account ends on a strange note, “they worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.” It is strange because this sort of behaviour would usually not be associated with those in a state of grieving. This little observation is not just an insignificant contextual footnote or editorial error. It points to the very heart of today’s feast and its significance for us Christians. You see, the Ascension does not mark the end of Our Lord’s relationship with His disciples or with His Church but the beginning of a new way of His relating to the world - in and through His Church.

Think about why Our Lord left in the first place. It’s not because he was tired of his friends or was looking for new excitement in his life. No, Jesus left in order to finish what he had come to do in the first place. Jesus had come down from heaven in order that heaven might be opened to us, because through our sin we had effectively shut ourselves out. Our Lord Jesus Christ is now the bridge that links heaven and earth. When He ascended into heaven, he took with Him the human nature that we all share, but that He redeemed through His death and resurrection. This means that because Our Lord Jesus Christ is now in heaven, you and I can hope to join Him in heaven. Now, we understand why the disciples were filled with joy. This should also fill us with both joy and hope.

The notion that Jesus, by ascending into heaven, has gone away and is now somehow distant from mankind, needs to be corrected. The ascension did not translate into his perpetual absence until his return in glory, but rather it is an event which allowed him to be present to his disciples and to all of us in profound way that goes beyond our experience of time and space. Jesus did not ascend into the presence of the Father to “get away” or to be silent, but so he can give himself continually and in perfect love to his bride, the Church. “Ascension does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but, rather,” observed Pope Emeritus Benedict, “the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.”

At his ascension into heaven – far from leaving us behind to fend for ourselves – the Lord has made concrete the fruits of his resurrection, and continues to abide with us, both through his intercession for us in heaven, and in his presence in the sacraments of the Church. In a very particular way, of course, Christ’s presence continues in the very thing we are here to do this morning. In the Eucharistic sacrifice, in the celebration of the Holy Mass, we find Christ really and truly present under forms of bread and wine. In our worthy reception of Holy Communion, we receive the Body and Blood of the same Lord who underwent the passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification which we now celebrate. In this way, Christ gives himself for us and to us, so that we might continue to be united with him in our lives here on earth, and so be made ready to spend eternity with him in heaven.

The Ascension, therefore, names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the centre of life, absence can lead to a deeper and more intense and profound presence. Absence does make the heart grow fonder. But in the case of Christ’s ascension, it does so much more. Hence the feast of the Ascension is not to commemorate a departure but the celebration of the living and lasting presence of Jesus in the church.  He the Lord, the living head of his Body, the Church, remains always with us as he promised, but now in a new way. His “old” presence was limited by time and space.  But now with the Ascension this gives way to a new presence that will reach the whole world in every age. 

This is what Blessed John Henry Newman speaks of in his sermon on “The Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Church.”

“Christ’s going to the Father is at once a source of sorrow, because it involves his absence; and of joy, because it involves his presence. And out of the doctrine of his Resurrection and Ascension, spring those Christian paradoxes; often spoken of in Scripture, that we are sorrowing yet always rejoicing; “as having nothing, yet possessing all things.” (2 Cor 6:10) This, indeed is our state of present; we have lost Christ and we have found him; we see him not, yet we discern him. We embrace his feet (Mt 28:9), yet he says, “Touch me not” (Jn 20:17). How is this” It is thus: we have lost the sensible and conscious perception of him; we cannot look on him, hear him, converse with him, follow him from place to place; but we enjoy the spiritual, immaterial, inward, mental, real sight and possession of him; a possession more real and more present than that which the Apostles had in the days of his flesh, because it is spiritual, because it is invisible.”

On this great feast of the Christian year, we are drawn once more to consider the abiding presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We see within this Eucharistic celebration, the true meaning of the words we’ve just heard in the gospel, “they worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy; and they were continually in the Temple praising God.” Just like the early disciples, whenever we worship here at the altar of the Sacrifice of the Mass, we already anticipate the eternal worship of the altar of heaven. Just as our earthly worship is bound to the worship of heaven, so our earthly lives are – through our baptism – tied to the eternal life offered us in Christ.

May this solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, then, be a feast of joy and renewal for us. If we seek also to enter the heavenly kingdom – as is our destiny – we must begin to live the life of heaven here and now, to be saints not after death but in our lives. If we wish to live in His abiding presence in all eternity, we must first learn to focus our lives on his abiding presence here on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. Here we live in hope; may that hope become a reality.