"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Saturday 31 May 2014


The Ascension and the Eternal Liturgy

''The river of life, rising from the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Rev 22:1), flowed hidden in the passage of the time of the promises and God's patience. But "when the completion of the time came" (Gal 4:4), that is, when the incarnation occurred, the river entered into our world and assumed our flesh. In the "hour" of the cross and the resurrection it sprang forth from the incorruptible and life-giving body of Christ. From that moment on it has been and is liturgy. A new period thus began within "the present time" (1) in which after its decisive defeat death carries on its war on all fronts but in which, at the same time, the Passage of the Lord continues to penetrate the depths of humanity and history. We are in "the last times." (2)

Just as the hour of Jesus has his cross and his resurrection as inseparable phases, so too the "moment" or "date" (kairos) (3) which begins the "last times" has the Lord's ascension and the outpouring of his Spirit as inseparable phases. The relation between the "hour" and this special date or moment is to be looked for not in their chronological succession (to look for it there would be to remain at the level of dead time [4]) but in the exercise of the divino-human energy whereby the river of life becomes liturgy. 

Jesus died and rose "once and for all," and that event now lives on through all of history and sustains it. But when in his humanity he takes his place beside the Father and from there pours out the life-giving gift of the Spirit, he does not cease to manifest and carry out the liturgy. There is but a single Passover or Passage but its mighty energy is displayed in a continual ascension and Pentecost.

It is highly regrettable that the majority of the faithful pay so little heed to the ascension of the Lord. Their lack of appreciation of it is closely connected with their lack of appreciation of the mystery of the liturgy. A superficial reading of the end of the Synoptic Gospels and the first chapter of Acts can give the impression that Christ simply departed. In the mind of readers not submissive to the Spirit a page has been turned; they now begin to think of Jesus as in the past and to speak of what "he said" and what "he did." 

They have carefully sealed up the tomb again and filled up the fountain with sand; they continue to "look among the dead for someone who is alive" and they return to their narrow lives in which some things have to do with morality and others with cult, as in the case of the upright men and women of the old covenant. But in fact the ascension is a decisive turning point. It does indeed mark the end of something that is not simply to be cast aside: the end of a relationship to Jesus that is still wholly external. Above all, however, it marks the beginning of an entirely new relationship of faith and of a new time: the liturgy of the last times.

We can only wonder at, and try to recapture for ourselves, the insight shown by the early Christians and by Christians down to the beginning of the second millennium, who placed the Christ of the ascension in the dome of their churches.  When the faithful gathered to manifest and become the body of Christ, they saw their Lord both as present and as coming. He is the head and draws his body toward the Father while giving it life through his Spirit.

The iconography of the churches of both East and West during that period was as it were an extension of the mystery, of the ascension throughout the entire visible church. Christ, the Lord of all" (Pantocrator), is "the cornerstone which the builders had rejected"; (5) when he is raised up on the cross, he is in fact being raised to the Father's side and, in his life-giving humanity, becomes with the Father the wellspring of the river of life. (6)

In the vault of the apse there was also to be seen the Woman and her Child (Rev 12); that single vision embraces both the Virgin who gives birth and the Church in the wilderness. In the sanctuary were to be seen the angels of the ascension or other expressions of the theophanies of the Holy Spirit. (7) Finally, on the walls of the church were the living stones: the throng of saints, the "cloud of witnesses," the Church of the "firstborn" (Heb 12:23). 

The ascension of the Lord was thus really the new space for the liturgy of the last times, and the iconography of the church built of stone was its transparent symbol. (8) In his ascension, then, Christ did not at all disappear; on the contrary, he began to appear and to come. For this reason, the hymns we use in our churches sing of him as "the Sun of justice" that rises in the East. He who is the splendor of the Father and who once descended into the depths of our darkness is now exalted and fills all things with his light. 

Our last times are located between that first ascension and the ascension that will carry him to the zenith of his glorious parousia. The Lord has not gone away to rest from his redemptive toil; his "work" (Jn 5:17) continues, but now at the Father's side, and because he is there he is now much closer to us, "very near to us," (9) in the work that is the liturgy of the last times. "He leads captives," namely, us, to the new world of his resurrection, and bestows his "gifts," his Spirit, on human beings (see Eph 4:7-10). His ascension is a progressive movement, "from beginning to beginning." (10)

Jesus is, of course, at his Father's side. If, however, we reduce this "ascent" to a particular moment in our mortal history, we simply forget that beginning with the hour of his cross and resurrection Jesus and the human race are henceforth one. He became a son of man in order that we might become children of God. The ascension is progressive "until we all ... form the perfect Man fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself" (Eph 4:13). 

The movement of the ascension will be complete only when all the members of his body have been drawn to the Father and brought to life by his Spirit. Is that not the meaning of the answer the angels gave to the disciples: "Why are you Galileans standing here looking into the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way as you have seen him go to heaven" (Acts 1:11). The ascension does not show us in advance the setting of the final parousia; it is rather the activation of the paschal energy of Christ who "fills all things" (Eph 4: 1 0). It is the ever-new "moment" of his coming.

The Heavenly Liturgy

What, then, is this "work" by which the conqueror of death pours out his life in abundance? What is this energy with which the Father and the risen Son henceforth "still go on working" (Jn 5:17)? It is the fontal liturgy in which the life-giving humanity of the incarnate Word joins with the Father to send forth the river of life; it is the heavenly liturgy. (11) In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, "the principal point of all that we have said is that we have a high priest [who... has taken his seat at the right of the throne of divine Majesty in heaven, and is the minister of the divine sanctuary and of the true Tent which the Lord, and not any man, set up" (Heb 8:1-2). (12) This liturgy is eternal (inasmuch as the body of Christ remains incorruptible) and will not pass away; on the contrary, it is this liturgy that "causes" the present world "to pass" into the glory of the Father in an ever more efficacious great Pasch.

This mystery could not be revealed until its consummation was at hand. That is the meaning conveyed by the final book of the Bible, the Apocalypse or "revelation" of the complete mystery of Christ. To us who are living in the last times this book makes known the hidden face of history. There are many hypotheses to explain the book in its final form, but none denies the noteworthy fact that the vision of faith expressed in the book develops consistently on two levels. 

It seems at first glance that, as with icons, we have a lower level (earth) and a higher level (heaven). But we must not let ourselves be misled by the literary device. In the increasingly dramatic movement of the last times these two levels are co-inherent. The one that is more obvious unveils the carnival of death being celebrated by the prince of this world; the one that is more hidden takes us into the presence of him who holds the keys of death. The experience in both cases is an experience of the liturgy.

As the very name makes clear, (13) the liturgy essentially involves action and energy; the heavenly liturgy tells us of all the actors in the drama: Christ and the Father, the Holy Spirit, the angels and all living things, the people of God (whether already enjoying incorruptible life or still living through the great tribulation), the prince of this world, and the powers which worship him. The heavenly liturgy is "apocalyptic" in the original sense of this word: it " reveals" everything in the very moment in which it brings it to pass. When the event is present, prophecy becomes "apocalyptic."

The Return to the Father

"I saw a throne standing in heaven, and the One who was sitting on the throne" (Rev 4:2). At the heart of the liturgy, at its very source, there is the Father! He is obviously the fountain both in eternity and since the beginning of time: "the fountain of life, the fountain of immortality, the fountain of all grace and all truth", (14) the fountain that the patriarchs were looking for when they dug wells, the one that the people abandoned for cracked water-tanks, the one that drew the Samaritan woman, the one for which the dying Jesus thirsted. But at this point there was no liturgy as yet.

Only "when the life that burst from the tomb had become liturgy could the liturgy finally be celebrated -- only when the river returned to its fountainhead, the Father. The liturgy begins in this movement of return. The energy of the gift in which the Father committed himself unreservedly from the beginning; the suffering love with which he handed over his Son and his Spirit; the kenoses (emptying) that had marked the river of life since creation; the promise; the incarnation that included even death on a cross and burial in a tomb: all this faithful and patient "tradition" of the Father's agape at last bursts forth in its fruit. The liturgy is this vast reflux of love in which everything turns into life. That love had always cast its seed in pure unmerited generosity; now is the everlasting time for giving thanks. "For his love is everlasting!"

"If you only knew what God is offering!" If we only knew how to enter, without any merit on our part, through the "door open in heaven" (Rev 4:1) into the joy of the Father! For the liturgy is the celebration of the Father's joy. He whom we used to fear as Adam did when he hid far from his face (Gen 3:8); of whom we had a mistaken idea, like the two sons in the parable (Lk 15:11-31); or whose ineffable name -- "I AM" (Ex 3:14) -- we used to murmur amid the cloud -- now at last we can recognize him: "He is, he was, and he is to come" (Rev 1:4), and "worship him in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshiper the Father seeks" (Jn 4:23). The joy we give to the Father by letting him find us inspires the exultation that keeps the liturgy ever alive. How could he, the wellspring, not be filled with wonder when he sees human beings becoming a wellspring in their turn and responding to his eternal thirst?

Transcending the parables in which Jesus gave a glimpse of this jubilation ("There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting" Lk 15:7) is the reality now attained: the eternal joy of the Father at the return of his beloved Son. The latter had gone forth as the only Son; now he returns in the flesh, bringing the Father's adoptive children: "Look, I and the children whom God has given me" (Heb 2:13). The Father's indescribable joy has taken concrete form and embodiment in the countless faces that mirror the face of his beloved Son. In them the joy of the wellspring can break out and leap up and sing like so many echoes and accents made possible by pure grace, and each of them is unique: "In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing among the angels of God"  (Lk 15:10).

"God's glory is the living human being." (15) The glorification of the Father began in the hour in which the Son of man was glorified (Jn 12:28). From that point on it continues without intermission. (16) The reason is not only that he has "brought everything together" in Christ "to the praise of the glory of his grace" (Eph 1:3-14), but also that, to his joy, new adopted children are born at each moment as they emerge from the great tribulation. 

The liturgical language of the Church has from the beginning expressed this glorification in a term that we are rediscovering today: "doxology." The liturgy is essentially doxological" in its celebration of the wellspring. (17) The astounding thing is that he from whom the energy of the Gift proceeds eternally should now reveal himself as also an energy of acceptance: from all creatures who are conformed to his Son he accepts the jubilant reflux of the river of life. The celebration of the eternal liturgy consists in this ever new ebb and flow of the trinitarian communion as shared by all of creation: the angels before his face, the living creatures, all the "times" (Rev 4: 4-11).

"Ebb and flow": because the Father does not keep this joy for himself when he receives it but causes it to flow forth anew in still greater love and life. The eternal liturgy is thus the celebration of the sharing in which each is wholly for the others. The mystery of holiness has at last turned into liturgy because it is shared and communicated. In its source and in its unfolding the celebration is entirely bathed in this radiant holiness: "holy, holy holy...... It takes the form of adoration.

The Lord of History

Once we have realized that the ascension of Jesus is the reflux of the river of life to its fountainhead, the return of the Word to the heart of the Father after having accomplished its mission (Is 55:11), we will see how the various biblical images converge, especially those of the Apocalypse, which speaks of the heavenly liturgy in its present operation. The heavenly liturgy celebrates the ongoing event of the return of the Son -- and of all others in him -- to the Father's house. It is the feast, the banquet, even the marriage, of the beloved and his bride. All is not yet completed, but the great event of history is now present at the heart of the Trinity; there, one with the Father, it becomes a wellspring.

This covenant at the wellspring is expressed in the central symbol of the Book of Revelation: the Lamb. "Then I saw, [standing] in the middle of the throne with its four living creatures and the circle of the elders, a Lamb that seemed to have been sacrificed" (Rev 5:6). Christ is risen ("standing") but he carries the signs of his passage through our death ("sacrificed"). His key action in the heavenly liturgy is to take the scroll from the right hand of him who sits on the throne; no one except the Lamb is able to break the seals and open the scroll (Rev 5). 

Only Jesus, by his victory over death, has accomplished the event that writes history and deciphers its meaning. Apart from his Pasch-Passage everything is meaningless. Human beings can write history, while other human beings think of themselves as making it. But only he who brings time to -- its completion can reveal the "meaning of history" by rending the veil of death and deceit. He is the meaning of our history because he is the event that makes it. He is the Lord of history.

All this means that the liturgy of Christ's ascension is the harvest feast not only of the history before the ascension but also of ongoing history: the paschal event is constantly bearing its eternal fruit in the history that we experience. For the Lord of history is still the "trustworthy" and "true" knight who "in uprightness ... makes war," whose "cloak [is] soaked in blood, and whose name is "the Word of God" (Rev 19:11-21). His liturgy is the concrete extension of his victory in the struggle of the last times: "Do not be afraid; it is I, the First and the Last; I am the Living One, I was dead and look -- I am alive for ever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and of Hades" (Rev 1: 17-18). 

The heavenly liturgy is the gestation of the new creation because our history is sustained by Christ who is now in the bosom of the Blessed Trinity. It is there that the Lord of history is at every moment the Savior of his body and of the least of his brothers and sisters: he calls and feeds them, heals them and makes them grow, forgives and transforms them, delivers and divinizes them, tells them that they are loved by the Father and are being increasingly united to him until they reach their full stature in the kingdom.

The energy which Christ exerts in the heavenly liturgy is summed up by the Letter to the Hebrews in a title which the Letter intends should convey the whole newness of the paschal event: Jesus is our high priest. "'Look, I and the children whom God has given me.' Since all the children share in the same human nature, he too shared equally in it, so that by his death he could set aside him who held the power of death, namely the devil.... It was essential that he should in this way be in made completely like his brothers so that he could become a compassionate and trustworthy high priest for their relationship to God" (Heb 2:13-17). "He became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation" (Heb 5:9). "His power to save those who come to God through him is absolute, since he lives for ever to intercede for them" (Heb 7:25). "As the high priest of all the blessings which were to come ... he has entered the sanctuary once and for all, taking with him ... his own blood, having won an eternal redemption" (Heb 9:12). "This he did once and for all by offering himself" (Heb 7:27).

In the iconography of the ascension the Lord Jesus holds the scroll of history but he also blesses it with his right hand. Being one with the Father, the Lamb is a source of blessing: he pours out the river of life. Because we are "already" in the eternal liturgy, its current carries us along all the more impatiently to its consummation. For at the heart of the heavenly liturgy is to be heard a groaning cry, that of the witnesses "killed on account of the Word of God"; from underneath the altar they shout in a loud voice: "Holy, true Master, how much longer will you wait before you pass sentence?" (Rev 6:9-10). 

History did not come to an end with the ascension; on the contrary it is en route to its final deliverance; the "last times" have begun. Each time that the Lamb breaks a seal on the scroll of history, the same cry echoes -- "Come!" What, then, is this roaring of mighty waters in creation that is undergoing the pangs of childbirth, and in the human body, and even in the depths of the human heart (Rom 8:22-27)? The ebb and flow of the heavenly liturgy ceaselessly draws the world back to its wellspring, and it is then that the river of life gushes forth in its final kenosis: the Holy Spirit.

The Liturgy, Handing On of the Mystery

Mission is not something we must invent for ourselves. It is given to us, and we must carry it out, "celebrate" it. By going back to its source we have found, if we needed to, that neither does the liturgy have to be reinvented; it is for us to enter into it and be carried along by its life-giving stream.

We are in the presence here of the wonder of the mystery of Christ: from the beginning of creation to the full establishment of the kingdom, that mystery is handed on. Holy, living tradition, divine "tradition," is, when all is said and done, the passionate love of the Father who "surrenders" his Word and "pours out" his Breath even to the point of "this is my body, given up for you; this is my blood, shed for you" and "Jesus gave up his spirit." 

The passionate love of the Father for human beings (Jn 3:16) reaches its climax in the passion of his Son and is thenceforth poured out by his Spirit in the divine compassion at the heart of the world, that is, in the Church. And the mystery of tradition is this joint mission of the Word and the Spirit throughout the economy of salvation; now, in the last times, all the torrents of love that pour from the Spirit of Jesus flow together in the great river of life that is the liturgy.

In the economy of salvation tradition first took the form of the gift of saving events; in the liturgy it fulfills and renders present the event that sustains all of history: the passage of Jesus, but it does so with the Church, and this is the central synergy of the epiclesis. In the economy of salvation tradition next showed itself as the revelation of the meaning of the saving events by the prophets and sacred writers; in the liturgy it manifests Christ to the Church and through the Church, and this is the synergy of the memorial. In the economy of salvation tradition was, finally, the participation of the people of God in the saving events; in the liturgy, it is the synergy of communion, in which celebration and life are henceforth inseparable. The channels of divine tradition are those of the "varied graces of God" (1 Pet 4:11), but the living water is always the water of the river "rising from the throne of God and the Lamb and flowing crystal-clear."

The liturgy is the great river into which all the energies and manifestations of the mystery flow together, ever since the very body of the Lord who lives with the Father has been ceaselessly "given up" to human beings in the Church in order that they may have life. The liturgy is not something static, or a mental memorial, a model, a principle of action, a form of self-expression, or an escape into angelism. 

It reaches far beyond the signs in which it manifests itself and the effectiveness it contains. It is not reducible to its celebrations, although it is indivisibly contained in them. It finds expression in the human words of God that are written in the Bible and sung by the Church, but these never exhaust it. It is at home in all cultures and not reducible to any of them. It unites the multitude of local Churches without causing them to lose their originality. It feeds all the children of God, and it is in them that it ceaselessly grows. Although it is constantly being celebrated, it is never repeated but is always new.

If we have entered into the vision of John as he contemplates at the heart of history the onward sweep of the river of life that is the liturgy, all the ways in which we separate celebration and life have been pushed aside and left behind. This omnipotent attraction of the Christ of the ascension is now inscribed in the depths of every human event and is able to illumine it from within and communicate life there. 

We cannot reduce it to a few flashes of communion or to festive moments of communal celebration. The total Christ-event that is the liturgy and in which we are constantly involved extends far beyond the consciousness of faith and the celebrations of believers. It assumes and permeates all of history, as well as all human beings and each of them in all their dimensions, and the whole cosmos and all of creation. We desire to be carried along by this river: may this good fortune be ours now that we have reached its source.



1. In an earlier work, L'Eglise des Arabes (Paris: Cerf, 1977) I promised to develop some aspects of the theology by which the Antiochene Churches still live. The present book is a first essay along these lines.

Beside the Well

1. Origen, Homilies on Genesis 13.

2. Paul Claudel, The Humiliation of the Father, Act 11, scene 2, in Three Plays, trans. J. Heard (Boston, 1945), 185.

3. Origen, Homilies on Numbers 12.

4. Origen, Homilies on Genesis 13, 4.

Chapter 4

1. Paul speaks of "the present time" in contrast to the "age to come."

2. In setting forth the economy of salvation the Bible distinguishes the various "times" that make up its implementation: the beginning of time, the course of time (Old Testament), the fullness or completion of time, the last times, in which we are now living, and the consummation of time.

3. In addition to "times" the Bible distinguishes determining, decisive "moments" or "dates" (kairoi) in the development of the economy of salvation; see Acts 1:7 and The New Jerusalem Bible, p. 1797, note i.

4. By "dead time" I mean time that is characterized by death and that we perceive as the measure of movement.

5. Ps 117 (118):22-23,which is cited in the parable of the murderous winegrowers (Mt 21:42).

6. In the fourth Gospel "raise up" or "lift up" has a double meaning and applies to both the cross and the ascension. See John 3:14 and the note on it in The New Jerusalem Bible.

7. One function of the angels in the Bible, especially "the angel of the Lord," is to give intimations of the mystery of the Holy Spirit. 

8. The organic way in which Vatican II's Constitution on the Church is developed is consistent with this iconographic tradition.

9. Byzantine liturgy of the ascension.

10. The expression is used by Gregory of Nyssa in his eighth Homily on the Song of Songs (PG 44:941c). The entire spiritual life is carried along by this "ascensional" thrust.

11. The expression "heavenly liturgy" is hardly used anymore. Given the concern to demythologize, people prefer to drop it. And yet it expresses a purifying insight of faith that opens us to the mystery of the liturgy. To ignore the heavenly liturgy amounts to rejecting the eschatological tension proper to the Church and either settling down permanently in the present world (secularism) or escaping from it (pietism). This leads in turn to a separation of liturgy from life, for the heavenly liturgy is not a different liturgy that either parallels or serves as exemplar for the liturgy we think of as ours in earthly time. 

If we ignore the heavenly liturgy we are at bottom forgetting that the fullness or completion of time is constantly invading our ancient time and turning it into the "last times." Finally, when we ignore the heavenly liturgy, we are situating ourselves prior to the resurrection and falling back into an "empty" faith. Those who focus on the spatial image in order to reify the heavenly liturgy or reject it are in fact accepting the old religious schema characteristic of the carnal person -- divinity on one side and human beings on the other -- whereas the "kingdom of heaven" is already here in our midst and within us.

12. A reminder of the virginal energy of the Spirit that is at work in the incarnation and the resurrection; the body of Christ is the sanctuary of the new covenant. See also Rev 21:22.

13. We should not create an image of the heavenly liturgy for ourselves by freezing, as it were, the characteristics and attitudes suggested by Chapters 4 and 5 of the Apocalypse. The literary device used there is simply a way of opening a door to the mystery; let us not close that door by applying our imaginations on the earthly pattern.

14. Prayer Book of St. Serapion (fourth century).

15. St. Irenaeus of Lyons.

16. This element of "ceaselessness" in the heavenly liturgy is emphasized in the Apocalypse. See Rev 4:8.

17. "Doxology" is, literally, "expression of praise."


By Deacon Keith Fournier

5/16/2010 (4 years ago)

'Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.' (St. Augustine) 

When we went down into the Font of Baptism we were incorporated into Jesus Christ, made members of His Body, the Church. Therefore, as Augustine also wrote, 'Where the Head is, there is the Body, where I am, there is my Church, we too are one; the Church is in me and I in her and we two are your Beloved and your Lover.' In other words, we have ascended with the Lord!
When we went down into the Font of Baptism we were incorporated into Jesus Christ, made members of His Body, the Church. Therefore, as Augustine also wrote, "Where the Head is, there is the Body, where I am, there is my Church, we too are one; the Church is in me and I in her and we two are your Beloved and your Lover." In other words, we have ascended with the Lord!

By Deacon Keith Fournier

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

5/16/2010 (4 years ago)

Published in Living Faith

CHESAPEAKE, VA. (Catholic Online) - Throughout most of the Catholic Church we celebrated the Ascension of the Lord this past Thursday. In some places, the Feast is transferred to this Sunday. Sadly, the Feast seems to have lost its depth and meaning in the experience of too many Catholics and other Christians. Does the Ascension affect our lives in the here and now? Is it a commemoration of an event which occurred 2000 years ago? Or, could it be the key that helps unlock the very meaning of our lives and the plan of God for the entire created order?

The great western Bishop Augustine proclaimed these words on the Feast: "Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies."

When we went down into the Font of Baptism we were incorporated into Jesus Christ, made members of His Body, the Church. Therefore, as Augustine also wrote, "Where the Head is, there is the Body, where I am, there is my Church, we too are one; the Church is in me and I in her and we two are your Beloved and your Lover." In other words, we have ascended with the Lord! He is the Head and we are members of His Body. We cannot be separated. Augustine, reflecting the clear teaching of the early Church Fathers reminds us that the Head and the Body are the "One Christ." So, this is our Feast as well!

Pope St Leo the Great reflected on the joy the disciples experienced on that glorious day in these words: " (T)hat blessed company had a great and inexpressible cause for joy when it saw man's nature rising above the dignity of the whole heavenly creation, above the ranks of angels, above the exalted status of archangels. Now would there be any limit to its upward course until humanity was admitted to a seat at the right hand of the eternal father, to be enthroned at last in the glory of him to whose nature it was wedded in the Person of the Son."

Both of these Saints remind us why we should rejoice on this Feast of the Ascension. The Ascension does not mark the end of Jesus' relationship with the Church but the beginning of a new way of His relating to the world, in and through the Church. This way includes every one of us who bear His name. You see, we have also ascended with the Lord. When viewed with the eyes of Resurrection faith the Ascension is capable of transforming the way we view ourselves and live our daily lives. We are joined to Him and He to us!  

Jesus Christ bridged heaven and earth. Through His Incarnation, His Saving Life, Death and Resurrection, we have been set free from the consequences of sin, including the sting of death. (See, 1 Cor. 15:55) We are being created anew in Him daily as we freely cooperate with His grace. One of the Catechism's definitions of grace is "a participation in Divine Life".  (See, CCC #1997) It calls to mind the wonderful words of the Apostle Peter in his second letter. He reminded the early Christians that they were "participants in the Divine Nature". (2 Peter 1:4) So are we!

This Divine Life is mediated to us through the Word and the Sacraments - in the Church. We are incorporated into the Trinitarian communion of love, beginning now.  The Church is not some "thing", the Church is Some-One, the Risen Christ truly present in the world which was created through Him and is being re-created in Him. The Church is the new Israel sent into the world to continue His redemptive mission until He comes again. Then He will complete the work of Redemption. The Church, as the fathers were fond of saying, is the new world, and the world in the course of transfiguration. The Christian vocation is about learning to live this new relationship in Christ together, with the Father, through the Holy Spirit and for the sake of a world that still awaits its full redemption. 

The Ascension of the Lord is not a final act in the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. Nor is it some kind of "intermission" to be concluded upon Christ's Bodily return - which will most certainly occur. Rather, it is about a new way of being,living in Christ in the here and now. The Apostle Paul wrote to the early Christians in Galatia: "No longer do I live but Christ lives in me and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God." (Galatians 2:19, 20) That is how we are invited to live, now.

Jesus said "Abide in me as I in you" (John 15:4). These are not mere sentiments of piety but meant to become reality, now. Christians can live differently - now - because we live "in" Jesus Christ. We can love differently - now - because we love "in" Jesus Christ. We can "be" differently - now - because, as St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God". (Coll. 3:3) Our lives are "hidden in Christ"- now.

On this Feast of the Ascension we should ask ourselves this question, "How are we doing?" The Feast presents us with an invitation to assess the relationship between our profession of faith and its manifestation in our daily lives. St. Paul encouraged the Christians in Corinth in his second letter to take such an examination: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? Unless, of course, you fail the test. I hope you will discover that we have not failed"

Philosophers and Theologians speak of "ontology" as the essence of being, what makes something what it is. There is an "ontological" meaning to this Feast of the Ascension. We have ascended with Him and are called to live on earth the very realities of heaven, beginning now. This Feast also gives us insight into the Feast of Pentecost which we will soon celebrate. The "breath" of God, His Spirit, has been breathed into this Church - and thus into each one of us - in order to capacitate us to live this way and engage in His ongoing work of redemption.

That work will not be complete until the One who ascended returns and hands the re-created cosmos back to the Father. That is "the plan", the "mystery" now revealed in Jesus Christ. That is what I meant as I began this reflection when I asked whether the Ascension is the key that helps unlock the very meaning of our lives and the plan of God for the entire created order?

Let me conclude with these words of the great Apostle and mystic Paul who reflects on this plan:

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved. In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.

"In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.... In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God's possession, to the praise of his glory." (Ephesians 1:3-14)

Happy Feast!


Wednesday 28 May 2014


UNIVERSAL DESK: Terry Mattingly's religion column for 5/28/14.

Pope, patriarch, primacy and the press
 by Terry Mattingly

The Holy Land pilgrimage by Pope Francis contained plenty of symbolic gestures, photo ops and sound bites crafted to slip into broadcasts, ink and Twitter.

There was his direct flight into the West Bank, the first papal "State of Palestine" reference and the silent prayer with his
forehead against the concrete security wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, near graffiti pleading, "Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice." He also prayed at a memorial for suicide-bombing victims and put a wreath on the tomb of Zionism pioneer Theodor Herzi.

The backdrop for the Manger Square Mass included an image of the infant Christ swaddled in a black-and-white keffiyeh, the headdress made famous by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.  And, of course, the world press stressed the pope's invitation to presidents Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian
Authority to visit the Vatican for prayers, and surely private talks,
about peace.

After days of statecraft, Francis arrived -- drawing little attention from major American media -- at the event that the
Vatican insisted was the key to the trip. This was when Pope Francis met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I for an historic evening prayer rite in the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a setting long symbolic of bitter divisions in world Christianity.

The symbolic leader of the world's Eastern Orthodox Christians, the successor to the Apostle Andrew, had earlier invited Francis, the successor to the Apostle Peter, to join him in Jerusalem to mark the 50th anniversary of the breakthrough meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. Their embrace ended 900-plus years of mutual excommunication in the wake of the Great Schism of 1054.

"Clearly we cannot deny the divisions which continue to exist among us, the disciples of Jesus: this sacred place makes us even more painfully aware of how tragic they are," said the pope, at
the site of the tomb the ancient churches believe held the body of Jesus. "We know that much distance still needs to be traveled before we attain that fullness of communion which can also be expressed by sharing the same Eucharistic table, something we ardently desire. ...

"We need to believe that, just as the stone before the tomb was cast aside, so too every obstacle to our full communion will also be removed."

Patriarch Bartholomew stressed that, even as barriers fall between Christians in east and west, it's crucial to remember that violent conflicts -- including threats to religious freedom -- shape the lives of millions of believers.

This means shedding another modern fear, he said, the "fear of the other, fear of the different, fear of the adherent of
another faith, another religion, or another confession. ...Religious fanaticism already threatens peace in many regions of the globe, where the very gift of life is sacrificed on the altar of religious hatred.  In the face of such conditions, the message of the life-giving Tomb is urgent and clear: love the other, the different other, the followers of other faiths and other confessions."

The rite surrounding these sermons was full of symbolic touches, beginning with Bartholomew entering the basilica -- shared by six different Christian bodies -- from the east and Francis from the
west. The Gospel was chanted in both Latin and Greek. Bartholomew entered the tomb ahead of the pope, but Francis led the way to the site where church tradition indicates Jesus was crucified.

When Bartholomew finished his remarks, Francis took his hand and kissed it -- an act that in these ancient churches shows respect for a man's priesthood, since he holds the consecrated bread and wine during the Holy Eucharist. This was a striking gesture, since in 1437 Patriarch Joseph II had been forced, as a sign of subservience, to kiss the feet of Pope Eugene IV.

            "Every time we put behind us our longstanding prejudices and find the courage to build new fraternal relationships, we confess that Christ is truly risen," said Francis.

"Here I reiterate the hope already expressed by my predecessors for a continued dialogue ... aimed at finding a means of exercising the specific ministry of the Bishop of Rome which, in
fidelity to his mission, can be open to a new situation and can be, in the present context, a service of love and of communion acknowledged by all."

* * *


One the Embrace, Many the Divisions
The encounter between Francis and Bartholomew at the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. But there's rupture between the Greek Orthodox patriarchs of Jerusalem and Antioch. And open conflict between Constantinople and Moscow, on the question of primacy. The anti-papal sentiment of Eastern Christians. 

ROME, May 26, 2014 – The images of Pope Francis in front of the western wall of the temple in Jerusalem, just as, on the previous day, in silence and stillness in front of the dividing wall of Bethlehem have polarized the attention of the media all over the world.

But it is another wall that gave rise to the voyage of pope Jorge Mario Bergogio to the Holy Land.

It is the wall that divides Christians among themselves.

Exactly fifty years ago, on January 5, 1964, the embrace in Jerusalem between Paul VI and patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras marked the beginning of a journey of reconciliation between the Church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Just as back then the proposal was made by Athenagoras to the pope, this time as well it was his successor Bartholomew who proposed to Francis the renewal of that encounter in Jerusalem.

The pope accepted the proposal right away. And for the first time in history a papal voyage was planned by common agreement with the patriarchate of Constantinople, in the part concerning the two Churches.

With two important innovations with respect to the encounter fifty years ago between Paul VI and Athenagoras:

- the participation of representatives of other Christian Churches and denominations at the event, not only Eastern but also belonging to the lineage of the Protestant Reformation,

- and the place of the encounter, the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, with the rock of the cross and the stone rolled away at the resurrection, a foundation of the faith of all Christians.

Both of these innovations mark the progress that has been made over half a century in the ecumenical journey between the Christian Churches.

But both also bear witness to how arduous and obstacle-ridden this journey still remains.


The basilica of the Holy Sepulchre is the living symbol of the extent to which the historical divisions between the Churches complicate their coexistence, and at times lead to conflict. On the basis of a “status quo” dating back to 1753 and the Ottoman empire, the ownership of the basilica is assigned to the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land, and the Armenian Apostolic patriarchate. But use of the basilica is also permitted for Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian Christians. For all with a meticulous allotment of times and places, failure to respect which not rarely unleashes conflicts that can even be physical between one side and another, within the sacred space, with the Israeli police rushing in to quell the tumult.

The very fact that the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople have been welcomed peacefully into the basilica and have performed a liturgy there, in an exemption from the rules of the “status quo,” is certainly an important sign.

At the same time, however, the very person who on the evening of Sunday, May 25 welcomed into the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre the two illustrious guests from Rome and Constantinople, Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, is a living witness of the divisions that separate not only the Latin Church from Orthodoxy, but also the Eastern Churches among themselves.

The Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem, of the Byzantine rite, the origins of which go back to apostolic times, is the Christian community most present in the Holy Land.

But last April 29 the patriarch of this church, Theophilos III, was liturgically outlawed by another historic patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, that of Antioch and all the East, John X.

Since then, in celebrating the divine liturgy John no longer includes the name of Theophilos among those of the Orthodox Churches in communion with each other.

The reason for this rupture, declared unilaterally by the synod of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, was the creation of a new diocese in Qatar by Theophilos one year ago, in a territory that the patriarchate of Antioch considers its own.

But the consequences immediately went beyond this clash between the two patriarchates. And have overrun the entire field of orthodoxy.

On March 9 the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, called the heads of all the Orthodox Churches to Istanbul, to announce in agreement with all of them the convocation in 2016 of the pan-Orthodox council that had been awaited for decades but never agreed upon.

In the Byzantine liturgical calendar, March 9 was also the Sunday "of Orthodoxy.” Both John X and Theophilos III were present in Istanbul. But the former did not sign the declaration setting 2016 for the convocation of the pan-Orthodox council. Nor did he participate in the divine liturgy.


Another sign of division was that the encounter in Jerusalem between Francis and Bartholomew was not attended by any leading representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, by far the largest in the field of Orthodoxy.

In his discourse at the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, pope Bergoglio renewed “the hope for a continued dialogue with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, aimed at finding a means of exercising the specific ministry of the Bishop of Rome which, in fidelity to his mission, can be open to a new situation and can be, in the present context, a service of love and of communion acknowledged by all."

A new meeting has already been scheduled for next September in Novi Sad, Serbia, for the joint team of bishops and theologians called the “joint international commission for theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church," which is supposed to continue the study of the question of papal primacy in the footsteps of the document approved in Ravenna in 2007 by all the members of the commission.

But the Russian Church was absent from Ravenna, and over the subsequent years has always stressed its disagreement with that document.

Not only that. In a document approved by its synod last winter the patriarchate of Moscow flatly ruled out any type of “primacy” - whether of the head of the Church of Rome, or of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople among the Orthodox Churches - that is not purely honorific and among equals.

The patriarchate of Constantinople replied to this document in a no less decisive fashion.


But there's more. There is the fear that the progress made so far in ecumenical dialogue between Rome and the Eastern Churches belongs to a narrow and enlightened elite and is far from being accepted by the bulk of the Orthodox hierarchy and faithful.

One indication of this is a long-winded open letter, in Italian and English, sent last April 10 to the pope - or more exactly “to the most illustrious Francis, head of Vatican State" - by two metropolitan bishops of the Orthodox Church of Greece, Seraphim of Piraeus and Andrew of Konitsa.

The letter is an interminable and unabashed assembly of accusations, culminating in those of heresy and idolatry, in support of the idea that “There can exist no form of compromise between Orthodoxy and Papism.”

The two authors are the most prominent representatives of the traditionalist wing of the Greek Orthodox Church. But according to Professor Enrico Morini, “they reflect the positions of a large part of the Orthodox hierarchy in Greece but also in Russia and Romania, and to an even greater extent of the most conscientious and fervent Orthodox faithful.”

Morini is a professor of the history and institutions of the Orthodox Church at the state university of Bologna and the theological faculty of Emilia Romagna, and president of the commission for ecumenism of the archdiocese of Bologna.

For more details on the background:

> The Russian Veto Against Francis and Bartholomew

English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.

We all know that union between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is not going to happen any time soon, which is a tragedy.   As the above article indicates, those engaged in ecumenical dialogue are relatively few - it is work for experts - and what is going on has not seeped through to the general population.   Both Catholics and Orthodox are quite happy with the idea that they are the one true Church and would resist any idea that they lack anything that could be supplied by the other: these conflicting claims seem to indicate that neither side needs the other.   Moreover, there is a long history of hurt which feeds the xenophobia that is the result of centuries of adversity and persecution suffered by  so many Orthodox countries.   There is also the Russian myth that whatever evil that has ever happened to them has come from the West: partly true, but a very one-sided view of history.   According to one Orthodox archimandrite friend of mine, there is also a fear that Catholicism is going to use, and is perhaps using its greater resources and better organization against them.   

Even intelligent people like Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who is on good terms with the Pope, believes that the Greek Catholics in Ukraine are a kind of fifth column, with the clear intention of converting Orthodox and attacking the Moscow Patriarchate.   

At the same time, the Russian Orthodox Church seems quite unconscious of the effect in Ukraine of the memory of Russian Orthodox collaboration with Stalin in the tyrannical treatment and persecution of the Greek Catholic Church and its willingness to act as an arm of Stalinist policy.   Little wonder that there are many Ukrainians who either want their own patriarchate or who join the Greek Catholic Church of their own accord.   If the Russian Orthodox Church only said it was sorry, but they never even mention the part they played in that shameful piece of Christian history.

 This must be balanced by the good relations between priests and people of both churches where they mingle and know each other.   In Ukraine and Belarus, where I was two years ago, there are many mixed marriages and much friendship and collaboration.   In the family of one Orthodox priest in Minsk, the boys are baptised Orthodox and the girls Catholic, unless, he said, the Orthodox priest is drunk at the time he is supposed to be baptising a boy of the family, in which case, they took him over to be baptised by the Catholic priest.  

I met a few Orthodox seminarians.  They showed none of the reluctance to dialogue shown by their Patriarch and Metropolitan Hilarion.   Their theological hero was Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon who is one of the Greek theologians involved in Catholic-Orthodox discussion.   "The Russians are anti-Catholic, but they don't know anything about Catholics.   On the other hand, we in Belarus have Catholic neighbours and relatives."

A Greek Orthodox priest, educated in England, told me, "We are not in communion because we disagree about the Pope.   Hence, normally, I would not communicate in a Catholic church nor would I tell members of my flock that they can go to communion either.   However, we are sister Churches, and, in an emergency, we help each other out, even sacramentally.   Thus, I looked after a Jesuit parish for some weeks, using the normal Western Catholic rite.   My bishop told me not to use the first eucharistic prayer because it doesn't have an epiclesis.   Both sides find this level of communication satisfactory and it seems to be the best solution under the circumstances."

In the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East, Catholics and Orthodox have commonly ignored the schism,   Informal intercommunion is, and always has been, rife.   Indeed, a good case could be made to claim that there never has been a time since the schism when there haven't been places where Orthodox and Catholics have been in de facto but informal communion!

Why the do the Russians seem to want to scupper the dialogue iniciated by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and Rome which has the support of the other patriarchates?

  1. Because the question of universal primacy is bound up with a disagreement between Moscow and Constantinople.   When the Council of Nicaea said that the Patriarchate of Constantinople was second to Rome, it gave as a reason that it was the imperial centre of power.    The Russians say that, as the Byzantine Empire no longer exists, modern Istanbul is Muslim, and the Patriarch now has a relatively small number of people in his jurisdiction, the primacy of honour which the Patriarch of Constantinople had inherited from Rome after the pope had broken communion should pass to the Patriarch of Moscow who now presides over the largest Orthodox nation.
  2. This argument hold good as long as the primacy of Rome was also mainly due to political considerations.   However, if the primacy of Rome was based n theological considerations, as Rome has always claimed, and if such a primacy is required by the nature of the Church as an organism spread throughout the world, then Constantinople can claim that political power has nothing to do with the primacy it now exercises.   Moreover, the more authority that it is accepted that the papacy had before the Schism can be claimed by Constantinople after the Schism until union with Rome has been accomplished.   We can see in the video below how the patriarchate of Constantinople is developing a theology of universal ministry.   It is very different from Vatican I, but not so different from Pope Francis.
  3. I suspect that there is another, more worthy reason why Moscow wishes to put off any coming together at the level of doctrine.   At least, it is the reason that would worry me if I were Russian - putting ourselves in one another's shoes is a good ecumenical exercise.   What would happen if the theologians come to an agreement before we come to know each other, to feel the need of each other, and to trust each other?   The danger is that we would simply repeat the mistakes of the past, and the agreement would go the way of Lyons and Florence.   Important parts of the Orthodox Church, like Mount Athos for instance, would reject the understanding, as would some Catholics.   There would be divisions and bad feelings; and, more importantly, the Church would be deflected from its most urgent task: to proclaim the Gospel to a modern world that has separated itself from its roots in Christianity.   Better than putting into danger the ecumenical achievements we have already made, let us collaborate in our mission to the modern world.   In this way, we can come to know, respect and trust one another, to acknowledge one another as brethren, and to experience our real need for each other.   Then, and only then, will doctrinal agreement be useful as well as interesting.
Having said all this, I still believe that the ecumenical dialogue is of immense importance to both sides, even if it is not going to lead to immediate union of Orthodoxy and Catholicism.   The truth is that the papal claims correspond to a real weakness in Orthodoxy, even if they are not the answer while the papacy is in its present form; and the Orthodox concept of "sobornost" corresponds to a real weakness in Catholicism, which Vatican II saw as most important but which subsequent popes have shelved till a later date and which Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium has promised to tackle....Universal primacy and conciliarity are exercising the minds of theologians in both churches, not as static answers to well-rehearsed questions, as in a theological stand-off, but as real problems which we might as well solve together.  We now know from experience that, any answers to basic ecclesiological questions that we try to answer separately, apart from our Orthodox or Catholic brothers, will only be of transient value, even if they are true as far as they go, until we come to tackle the question together.   I am thinking of the Vatican I definitions of universal jurisdiction and papal infallibility, but I could be thinking of any decision, by Orthodox or ourselves, where schism has limited the value of our answers by reducing our vision of the truth, even if the gift of infallibility has guarded us from actual error.



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