The Ascension: Called to Continue Jesus’ Mission

In our Archdiocese, the Feast of the Ascension is transferred to the Seventh Sunday in Easter. The transferring of the Feast has the advantage that it helps to convey one of the points we have tried to make: the Resurrection is a process, a journey. We now have the opportunity to reflect about the last two steps of the journey on the last two Sundays of Easter: the Feast of the Ascension, and the Feast of Pentecost.

During the last week, the gospels had Jesus telling his disciples one message: He leaves them, in order that they can continue the mission. Before he leaves, Jesus promises them his constant presence—a non-physical one—the Holy Spirit, a promise of which we are still partakers today. However, Jesus did not leave because the disciples were ready to continue the mission. Rather, the opposite is true: both Acts and the Gospel this Sunday show (we have said that before) that the initial community of disciples struggled mightily before they understood Jesus’ identity and mission.

Even at the time of his final farewell—after all the teaching, all the miracles, the Passion, the Cross, and the Resurrection—the disciples are still questioning Jesus about the restoration of Israel. They still hold fast to understanding Jesus as a political Messiah who was to free Israel.  The gospel conveys also that something is wrong when Matthew indicates that the disciples “saw him, they worshipped him, but they doubted” him.

Despite their unpreparedness, Jesus in the gospel gives them what we have come to call the great commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” And in Acts, the two men in white garments tell the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”

We, too, struggle to understand Jesus’ identity and mission. We struggle to understand what the Resurrection means, how it is a mission, and what it asks us to become. To become a community of the Resurrection is to do what the ‘men in white’ and Jesus tell the disciples (whether they were ready to hear it or not, just like us):

Go! The same message the women had received at the Tomb at the Resurrection. A community of the Resurrection is a community that does not “stand” but “goes out.” Jesus is telling his disciples—and he is telling us today—to move, to go out, not to stand in simple contemplation.

Not (only) looking at the sky: A community of the Resurrection is not one that “looks intently at the sky” only living the “spiritual” aspects of faith, but one that looks down to earth, where people are suffering and in need of the Good News. It would be so easy to live faith without what faith demands of us in service towards others, especially those most in need.

Call to make disciples of all nations: the greatest good news is that, through his leaving us, Jesus makes us responsible for the continuation of his mission. Making disciples of all nations means for us that we are called to make disciples everywhere, of every race, gender, economic status, ideology, sexual orientation, in any walk of life.

Ours is not an easy mission. We need help. Thus, Jesus promises us today that the help will be the coming of the Holy Spirit. The actualization of that constant promise is what we celebrate at Pentecost—not only a historical event, but a constant presence that we need to learn to discern today.

Blog Pic, Ascension

Sixth Sunday in Easter: Of Love and Command.

As we have explained before, the first reading during the Easter Season comes from Acts of the Apostles. The gospels—with two exceptions—come from the Gospel of John, and especially focus on what Jesus tells the disciples at the Last Supper. The way the Gospel of John is written is especially difficult for us. Not only is John highly theological and symbolic in general, but also the way it has Jesus speaking is highly—let’s say—circular. Jesus states one thing, then moves into a second or a third, to go back to the first one.

As an example of this rhetoric style, this Sunday’s gospel begins with Jesus saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and repeating at the end, “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” By beginning and ending this way, this Sunday’s gospel emphasizes the strong connection between love and commandment, between love and law, rule, norm.

I believe this connection between love and commandment, especially in the context of faith, may divide people into two extreme positions:

(a) Those who believe faith is only about love, without regard for rules or norms. They speak about the love of Christ without a reference to what following Christ implies in practice. Being a Christian may become a “good feeling” that does not entail any obligation—neither in the way we live, nor in the way we practice our faith. Example: I do not need to go to Confession, God already forgives me.

(b) Those who emphasize the rules over love. Religion becomes a set of norms that must be fulfilled. There is no discussion about love; being a Christian is about following a set of rules, without any regard for a personal experience of Jesus. This would probably make us modern Pharisees, in the sense that we share with the Pharisees the ideology that you can experience God by following strictly a set of rules (we feel that not only we have to comply with them, but also make sure others do.)

Both are extreme positions, and clearly an exaggeration. Mass attendance could be an example of the difference. The first group would probably simply not see the need to come to Mass; the second group may come to Mass but not really engage much, because they have already checked the box of Sunday obligation, and it may just be about getting the obligation out of the way (as soon as possible.)

Virtue is in the middle, as it often is the case. More than taking sides, I believe this gospel is offered to us so we reflect on how to find the healthy balance, knowing that our way of understanding and living out the gospel will always be limited.

I find the balance in establishing priorities. I believe that we cannot legislate and impose laws if we do not love first. A person cannot be expected to follow rules, some of them rather demanding, if we do not make sure that this person experiences God’s love first.

I have a story to illustrate what I mean. We have a school, and we ask parents to check in at the office before they enter the building. Not long ago, I witnessed how a parent was buzzed in, but instead of going to the office went straight to pick up the child. The rule is there so we avoid strangers accessing the building and create an unsafe situation. I wanted to tell this parent something, at least to remind him of the rule. Then I realized that he did not know me, nor did I know him. You cannot love the one you do not know, and I felt I could not tell him about the rule if he did not know me first. Did I want a priest’s scolding to be his first experience of me? I passed, there will be ways to remind him of the rule, and perhaps an explanation about why we have the rule (which is obvious in general but may become difficult in particular, in that particular moment, to that parent who was just picking up his child a bit before the end of the day.)

Being self-critical of the Church I love, we may have done the opposite many times. Namely, impose rules without an explanation of why we have them, or about what value they are trying to protect. We also have sanctioned whole sections of society, without loving them first. Each time we pontificate about something, we should remind ourselves that beyond any issue—sooner or later—there is a real human being who suffers. Loving the person first may help us to convey the meaning of the rule. Apply this to the hot issues of the day, and perhaps something will change in the way we think and how we convey the rule; perhaps even the rule itself would change.

We keep the commandments of Jesus (who were few, he himself speaks about only one at the end of his life!) because we have experienced his love first. We can speak about commandments to others when we have made sure they have experienced God’s love, realizing that they will experience God’s love especially through the way we love them.

But have no doubt, a Community of the Resurrection is a community who loves first.


5th Sunday in Easter, Part II: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

The first post this week was an attempt to give a bit of a summary of Acts of the Apostles, so that we can make sense of the first reading this Sunday (Acts 6:1-7). From the outset, we find out there is a division in the midst of the church in Jerusalem: there is the Hebrew section and the Greek section. The Hebrew section is made up of those of Jewish origin, those who have been with Jesus from the beginning. They are in charge. The Greeks are those who have joined the “New Way” without coming from Judaism. They are also called the Gentiles.

The Greeks complain to the Hebrews about the Greek widows not being attended to. It seems the Hebrew widows are all right. So the Apostles, who are in charge, decide to name the seven deacons, all of Greek origin, because they feel they have to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And that’s it, and we read it and we do not think anything is wrong. The ones in charge are neglecting the less glamorous needs of the community with the excuse that there is praying and preaching to do.

This section of Acts shows a community in “cultural” distress. Those in charge establish a priority of prayer and preaching over attending to the needs of a particular section of the community—the weakest section, the foreign widows. Any group, community, church, any society will be judged by its attention to the weakest members of that society. It is clear that this initial community of disciples is struggling with understanding the implications of Jesus’ life. Jesus focuses on those most in need. They will get it, but not yet.

A troubled heart is at the root of any discrimination. Under the light of this first reading, we may understand the gospel’s opening line in a new way: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” And Jesus keeps on teaching by saying, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Everybody has a place in the Kingdom. A community of the Resurrection will be one made up of people with hearts that are open, hearts which are free and not troubled by the fear of the different one. A community of the Resurrection is one that does not have to choose between prayer and serving the needy—because our taking care of the needy is part of our prayer. A prayer that is the excuse to neglect is not the prayer of Jesus. A community that neglects is not a community of the Risen Jesus.


Fifth Sunday of Easter, Part I: Learning to read Acts.

It is time for us to turn our attention to the first readings during Easter, which all come from Acts of the Apostles. Acts can give us great insight into our Easter theme of Becoming a Community of the Resurrection. However, the problem with Acts is that it is generally not understood correctly. How can Acts be explained in one single blog post? At least we can try. So this week we will have this first post about Acts, and then one dealing with the homily more specifically.

It is now generally accepted that Acts was written by the same author that wrote Luke’s gospel, and should be understood as the second part of one single work (Gospel-Acts). We have traditionally made the mistake of reading Acts too literally, as if it were a book of history. Thus, Acts is understood like a detailed, historical explanation of the beginnings of the Church.

Acts does deal with what happened to the first communities of disciples after the Resurrection, but the style, the genre, the way to read it is much more theological than historical. In other words, we should read Acts the same way we read the Gospel of Luke… the problem being that we tend to read the gospels historically, like “biographies” of Jesus, when these texts are mainly theological and catechetical.

Luke presents us with a contrast between two ecclesial communities, the church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch—the place where the disciples were called Christians for the first time. The church in Jerusalem is the “official” church, but if we pay close attention, we see how this church is too close to the mindset of the Pharisees and to the institution of the Temple (who, remember, just executed Jesus!) This church is constantly immersed in a power struggle and maintains that you have to follow Jewish laws and rituals to become a follower of Christ. Thus, the community gets divided into the Hebrew section and the Greek section, as we see in the first reading this Sunday (a second post will address this more specifically.)

The fact that the community in Jerusalem is struggling should not be news to us. This struggle is very clearly described in all the gospels that deal with the Resurrection—and we have read them at Mass, and we have reflected about them. Remember: after the Resurrection, “the disciples were locked for fear of the Jews”; Thomas was not with them; the two disciples of Emmaus are fleeing Jerusalem, leaving the community behind—we have read many examples of what we are saying at Mass during Easter, but we have not been taught this way and it is very difficult to change the way we approach both the gospel and Acts.

In the background of this comparison between these two opposite ways to understand church (Jerusalem vs. Antioch), Acts follows the slow and difficult conversion of three characters: Philip, one of the Greek deacons, in charge of the group after the execution of Stephen; Peter, who is, in theory, in charge of the church in Jerusalem; and Paul, who goes from persecuting Christians to becoming the Apostle of the Gentiles, and who captures the universal scope of Jesus’ mission, but only at the end of his life, after many, many mistakes.

If this attempt to an explanation has succeeded in any way, we may understand some of the texts we have read during Easter a bit better. For instance, in the first reading of the Second Week in Easter, we read a glorious description of the church in Jerusalem, “All who believed were together and had all things in common…” Only that then Luke adds, “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the Temple area”—or have we forgotten that the Temple executed Jesus? Or how can you go from having your leader crucified, the worst possible public execution, but then enjoy “the favor with all the people.” Or perhaps we can be a bit more suspicious when the first reading last week tells us that after Peter exhorts the people, “about three thousand persons were added that day,” when Jesus had been rather wary when too many were following—as he called his disciples to be community and not a “crowd”. Each time too many follow, Jesus would turn around and remind them of the need to carry one’s own cross.

Perhaps now we will be more able to understand what happens in the first reading this Sunday, as the deep division between the Hebrew section and the Greek section of the first community of disciples comes to the fore.



Fourth Sunday of Easter: The Good Shepherd (inviting us to live fully)

This Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday and the gospel reading on all three cycle years addresses this particular “image” of Christ, the strong but gentle shepherd who calls us by name to be part of the flock.

Not only is the image of the Good Shepherd a powerful one, but also we know that historically, it was the most important one for the first Christians. It took centuries for the Cross to become the main symbol of the Christian church. Thus, one of the images represented the most in the art of the catacombs in Rome is that of the Good Shepherd. Christ is represented as a humble shepherd carrying a young lamb on his shoulders as he watches over his little flock. Perhaps the most famous of these representations is the Good Shepherd found in the Priscilla Catacombs (see picture attached).


Particularly looking at the gospel chosen to reflect about the Good Shepherd, I am especially moved by the last line: “I came so that the sheep might have life and have it more abundantly.” The purpose of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is to lead us to live abundantly, to live fully. We have preached often that one way to live more fully is to live our faith more fully—and we have called this faith a “Faith That Matters.

For a variety of reasons, many people do not live, but survive. Many do not live fully. Sometimes, because of poverty, injustice or violence, people are denied their basic humanity and therefore they cannot live fully. Others do not live fully because they lead lives filled with fears, anxieties, worries… Others do not live fully because they make a more or less conscious choice for comfort, a comfort that requires deep-seated indifference.

Going back to our Easter theme, a Community of the Resurrection will be one made up of individuals who have chosen to live fully. It still sounds like a contradiction, but Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will continue teaching us that the key to happiness is to care about others. One way to witness and announce the Resurrection is to do all we can so that others also can live fully.

The gospel this Sunday also states, “the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” The Good Shepherd “calls us out,” in contrast with the first post-resurrection community, who were found “locked for fear of the Jews.” A Community of the Resurrection is one made up of individuals (disciples) who go out to live out their faith. Going out and fighting all these social evils that keep others from living fully.

Finally, this Sunday’s gospel also contains a promise. Jesus promises that, if we go out he will lead us. The text says that he will “walk ahead” of us and we will “find pasture.” Jesus promises once again that he will be with us always, until the end of times, so that we will able to have life and have it more abundantly—going where he leads us.

Third Sunday in Easter: On the Road to Emmaus

This Sunday’s gospel presents to us the famous story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35.) Despite having heard it so many times, or perhaps because we have heard it so many times, this reflection begins with an explanation of what is really happening on the road to Emmaus.

These two disciples are abandoning the first community of disciples of Christ. They initially experienced disappointment at the death of Christ—we all see that. However, this is not all. The text clearly indicates that it is when they hear the first news of the resurrection that they actually leave Jerusalem and the community there. Despite Jesus continually telling his disciples that he had to die, and that he would die like a criminal, and that only then he would be risen from the dead, the disciples—especially these two—have failed to understand. To the disappointment of Jesus’ death, they have added the fear of Jesus’ resurrection.

These two disciples are on the road to Emmaus, which is a road to nowhere—Emmaus does not exist on the map (there is disagreement among scholars about this.) They are disappointed and fearful, they have misunderstood Jesus, his message and “everything that has happened,” and this is why they do not recognize him when he joins them on the road. The Jesus they do not recognize asks them what has happened, and their answer gives us clues about how badly they had misunderstood him. They tell him that he was just a prophet (they do not say the Messiah of God–recall the time Jesus asked them, “But Who do they say I am?” People thought he was a prophet, whereas disciples began to know he was the Messiah; see Luke 9:18-20); they say that he has been handed over by “our chief priests and rulers”—when Jesus had broken with that oppressive religious/social system; and they tell him that his mission was about redeeming the people of Israel, failing to see the universal scope of Jesus’ mission. No wonder why they failed to recognize Jesus, because they did not know who he was.

Without community there is no resurrection. Despite their lack of understanding, their disappointment and their fear, they still invite Jesus to stay with them—they have felt something about this stranger. It is in the breaking of the bread, an act of a community (in the evening, like the Last Supper) that they get to finally understand Jesus. Only then do they realize what Jesus had taught them—on the road, but also during his life—and when they return, they are literally “turned around.” Jesus has restored them as disciples charged with the mission to announce the Resurrection.

How does this story apply to us? It applies to us in many ways… Like the disciples towards Emmaus, we may fail to recognize Jesus, who encounters us on our road—but whom we may be unable to recognize. Because he will not look as we expect him to look; he will not do what we expect him to do; he will not tell us what we expect him to say.

The story also tells us what we have been beginning to reflect on this Easter: the Resurrection happens in the context of a community of faith—thus, we are calling our Easter theme, “Becoming a Community of a Resurrection.” When our faith is just fulfilling the obligation to come to Mass, we are not being a community. When I do not care about those around me, in the church building or outside, I am not a member of a community. To be a community of the Resurrection, we will have to start by being a community—a group of disciples that loves, serves, and gives.