We have attained during the week the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord and this is the Sunday that falls between that mysterious event and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
All the events of the life of the Lord are mysterious, but some are more momentous than others. This is certainly the case with His Ascension to the Father. Before diving into our Epistle for this Sunday’s Mass, which is our task each week this year, permit me to make a few too brief points about the Ascension.
Firstly, when the Lord ascended to the Father, ourhumanity ascended into Heaven. Our humanity, body and soul, was taken by the Son into an unbreakable bond with His divinity. When Christ rose from the tomb, our humanity rose in Him. When He ascended to Heaven, so also did we. In Christ our humanity now sits at the Father’s right hand. His presence there is our great promise and hope, a promise and a hope already fulfilled but not yet in its fullness of fulfillment. That hope and promise informs our trials in this life as Christians, members of Christ’s mystical Person. Preaching on 17 May 445, St. Pope Leo I “the Great” said of our faith,
This Faith, reinforced by the Ascension of the Lord and strengthened by the gift of the Holy Spirit, has not been terrified by chains, by prison, by exile, by hunger, by fire, by the mangling of wild beasts, nor by sharp suffering from the cruelty of persecutors. Throughout the world, not only men but also women, not just immature boys but also tender virgins, have struggled on behalf of this Faith even to the shedding of their blood. This Faith has cast out demons, driven away sicknesses, and raised the dead.
The knowledge that our humanity is now enjoying Heaven can work wonders for us in the hour of need. Keep this in mind in time of trial.
Secondly, after His Resurrection, Christ had to begin teaching His disciples who knew Him in the flesh and, through their instruction, inform us who have not seen and have yet believed (John 20:29) a new way of relating to Him. He would not let Mary Magdalene cling to Him on the morning of the Resurrection. When He broke bread at Emmaus and the disciples recognized Him, He disappeared. Christ would then come and go, suddenly appearing to the Apostles and then un-appearing, rather than stay with them most of the time except to go apart to pray. We must have a relationship with Christ as He is, not how He isn’t. Now, He is gloriously risen. Now, we meet Him not in the flesh and worldly clothing so easy to grasp, but rather in the person of the poor, the person of the priest, every word of Scripture and, especially, in the Eucharist. His being with us is a real and true “with us,” but it is mediated, sacramental. We are intimately bound to Him and He to us in the Church. Our faith in this unbreakable bond of Head and Body calls us to be clean and worthy of this saving intimacy.
Thirdly, and this is what really makes my socks roll up and down, is that with His Ascension to Heaven, Christ, the High Priest, is now at the heavenly altar eternally offering His Sacrifice to the Father. This means that His High priestly action is in eternity and not just in points of historical time. This is an implication of the “new way” of relating to Him, not just in the worldly sense. The immense implication of all of this is that, by having our High Priest in Heaven and eternity, what He does is still present to us. By the Ascension, all the transformative mysteries of the Passion and Resurrection are still available to us. The action and effects of the Last Supper continuous with Calvary and the empty tomb are not bound by clocks, calendars or by geographical location. The High Priest in Heaven now guarantees that we can have many Masses at many altars at the same time, many Communions. Christ is not just in this Host and then that Host but in every Host, not just on this altar but now every altar. There isn’t just one priest now acting in Christ’s person, but many. This is what Christ accomplished in His Ascension to the Father.
Do we have space for our Sunday reading? Yes, if I don’t try to tackle too much.
Once we heard from the Apostle Jesus loved, John, on the Sunday after Easter, Dominica in albis (1 John 5:4-10), we heard from the Apostle who loved Jesus most, Peter, on the 2nd (1 Pet 2:21-25) and 3rd (1 Pet 2:11-19) Sundays after Easter. Peter turned us over to another of the Apostles, James, for the 4th (Jas 1:17-21) and 5th (Jas 1:22-27) Sundays. On this 6th Sunday after Easter, Sunday after the Ascension of the Lord, we are back with Peter (1 Pet 4:7-11).
Beloved: Keep sane and sober for your prayers. Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God; whoever renders service, as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies; in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
I keep rattling on about context. In reading around for this week’s attempt at keeping your attention I found an interesting observation by Bl. Ildefonso Schuster, the great liturgist, Benedictine Abbot and then Cardinal Archbishop of Milan. Schuster opined that Peter wrote this
on the morrow of the burning of Rome under Nero and on the eve of the human pyres in the Circus Vaticanus.
“On the morrow.” That’s either the “day after” or at least “soon after.” The “Circus Vaticanus” is the stadium built by Caligula where Peter would die, next to where St. Peter’s Basilica now towers.
You know the tale, probably true, of how the weirdo Emperor Nero had Christians burned as touches after the great fire of 64 AD. Christians were blamed for the fire which destroyed in particular the part of Rome on the Oppian Hill where Nero just happened to want to build a vast new palace, his “Domus Aurea… Golden House.” Parts of it still exist today and can be seen because the subsequent Emperors covered it over and built other things on top of it. The point is, however, that the Letter of Peter, which as we have seen in weeks past, concerns Christian faith, hope and charity, conduct of life, under persecution. In fact, Sunday’s reading in the Vetus Ordo begins not with 1 Peter 4:7, but rather 1 Peter 4:7b. What is v. 7 in its entirety?
The end of all things is at hand; therefore keep sane and sober for your prayers.
For those Christians of Rome in the time of Nero, it was the end of all things, but the beginning of everything. As St. Augustine wrote, and as we pray in the Preface for the Dead at Requiem Masses, “life is changed, not ended.”
By the way, this pericope we are looking at is not read in the Novus Ordo on any Sunday. The next bit is, however, read on the 7th Sunday of Easter (6th Sunday after Easter, right? 1 Peter 4:13-19) but skipping the intermediary verse 12. Why? Perhaps it isn’t quite abstract enough.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.
Fire is scary. In 1 Peter 1:7, the Vicar of Christ and Bishop of Rome wrote of our trials:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
In 2 Peter 3:10, the Apostle says that, at the end of things and at the return of the Lord,
the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.
The still lacerated Heart is still a “burning furnace of charity” (cf. Litany of the Sacred Heart).
At the beginning of the Epistle reading we hear:
Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.
What is the “love” spoken of here? In Greek it is ἀγάπη (agape) which is the highest form of love, that is, God’s love for us and our love of God and our sacrificial love, charity, for our neighbor.
It could be that Peter is drawing on his own knowledge of the Scriptures he had in his lifetime, which we identify mostly as the Old Testament. In Proverbs 10:12 we have: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” In Ps 32:1: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” And I want to draw in the image used by Paul in Romans 12:20, which also is concerned with how people should treat each other, stressing the very things that Peter addresses in his letter. Paul tells the Romans (where Peter was?):
If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In ancient Egypt, for example, those who did penance carried a container of hot coals on their heads. So, this isn’t just a poetic image. It is connected directly to recognition of wrong having been done and doing penance for it. “Heaping hot coals” on someone’s head isn’t an admonition to vengeance. It is a call to charity.
Charity does not excuse sin or make it non-sin. In fact, go to confession. Seeking the true good of another with sacrificial love urges us to find the right way to deal with the offenses others commit against us and those offenses which we ourselves have committed. This is not a shallow cover-up or white-washing of sin and its origins and implications. It is a radical overturning of our reaction toward offenses which has as its perfect model the Cross of Calvary.
Cover the hurts and those who hurt and have been hurt and who will be hurt again with the cleansing coals ignited from the wound in the burning furnace of charity.
Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.