Meeting Christ In His Church: On the Feast of the Ascension

Our Lord’s Ascension sets up a very basic question about our relationship with God.

Depiction of the Ascension at the Rosary Basilica, Lourdes. (Wikipedia)

About 45 minutes outside of Detroit, there is a Protestant church I pass by several times a year, and for years now this church has had a curious sign in front of it. The sign reads, “Believe in Christ, not a religion.”

Even disagreeing with the content of the message, I suppose you have to give them some credit for the courage of their conviction. Their sign basically tells people that it doesn’t matter whether you set foot inside their church or not.

The problem is that this conviction does not come from Christ, while religion most certainly does.

Our Lord’s Ascension sets up a very basic question about our relationship with God. If Christmas gives us a new way of coming into contact with God through the humanity of His Son, does the Ascension of Jesus cut off this access? Have we been left alone to figure things out for ourselves? Should we engage in whatever vague form of “spirituality” makes the best sense to us?

Scripture tells us in the clearest possible terms that, because of Christ’s Ascension, we are not at all cut off from God. In fact, in predicting His Ascension, Jesus told His apostles, “It is better for you that I go” (Jn 16:7). But what does He mean by “better”?

We see the answer to those questions the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. In John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus tells His apostles that things will be better after His Ascension, adding:

“For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7).

Also, in Acts 1:8 and Luke 24:49, Jesus predicts the Gift of this Advocate, the Holy Spirit:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

“And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

At Christ’s Ascension, we are already looking ahead to the feast of Pentecost. The Gift of the Holy Spirit gives life and power to the followers of Jesus. The Spirit also gives authority to the leaders of the Church, the apostles, and empowers them to teach, to govern, and to make holy all the members of the Church.
Those who receive the Spirit are also empowered to give witness to Jesus in the world. The Spirit makes possible the Church’s mission of evangelization, which involves sharing Christ with others and inviting them to a new life with Him in His Church.

Notice that none of this is the invention of some early pope or any other merely human religious leader. This is not a sales pitch or a slogan for a Catholic membership drive. This truth is revealed to us by God. To believe in Christ is to believe in religion, because the Son of God came to us and lived with us and suffered and died and rose again so that we could become united with Him in His Church.

Saint Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:25, “Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.” Today’s Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that right now Christ is standing before His Father on our behalf, interceding for us. Christ loves us as He loved His first apostles and disciples. He wants to give to us all the good things He has given to them.

Do you long to be close to Jesus? The Holy Eucharist is Christ with us, and the fulfillment of His promise, just before His Ascension, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Do you long for guidance amidst the confusion of life? Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church: “When he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (Jn 16:13). Our Lord also makes clear that His authority is given not in some vague way but rather precisely to St. Peter and the other apostles (and their successors):

“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:18-19).

Do you long for forgiveness and mercy? It’s waiting for you in the confessional. This is another power Jesus has given to His apostles with the Gift of the Spirit:

Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’.” (Jn 20:21-23)

We could go on and on through all of the texts in Sacred Scripture that confirm the truth about Christ’s Ascension: this is a moment of victory, not of defeat, for those who love Jesus Christ and follow Him. Christ has not gone to heaven to abandon us, but to draw us closer to Him in His Church. The power of the Holy Spirit and the grace given in the sacraments make it possible for us to share Christ’s life and to prepare for heaven.

It has become very popular these days to reject religion and to try and go it alone, to walk one’s own individual spiritual path. But Jesus calls us to Him and He calls us together. We are the beneficiaries of the supreme gift of union with God, and also the instruments by which others are invited to share divine life.


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About Fr. Charles Fox 38 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren, MI.

7 Comments

  1. To quote a axiom from the Devils workshop.Coined over 55 years ago and still used by his disciples today.”Do Your Thing”!

  2. Thank you for this timely article. Will print out and reread. For me, this article and so many others like this helps to deepen my understanding and faith. Also useful for meditation or reflection in praying the rosary.

  3. The sign reads, “Believe in Christ, not a religion.”
    ********

    As a Catholic I understand the importance of our religion & the misunderstanding that sign’s message conveys. It’s not an either/or proposition. But I think the intention may also be to challenge readers to have a real encounter with Jesus & a subsequent conversion experience. Which is something Catholics can benefit from, even though we additionally have the Church & sacraments established by Christ.

  4. Thank you, Father Fox.
    My question is how to define the Church. We properly think of it as the Catholic Church, which usually brings to mind the Pope, the Vatican and the hierarchy. But when one thinks about the occasions throughout history of moral corruption and doctrinal error in the institutional church and its hierarchy (in our day with the McCarricks, Bransfields et al), perhaps it’s more truthful to define the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ which doesn’t necessarily include all of the institutional church hierarchy but only those members of it trying to faithfully abide in the teaching of Christ ( 2 John: 9) and to be guided by the Holy Spirit, holding this treasure in earthen vessels, as we all do.

    • Dear “Tom in Florida” (incidentally, I am melting in Michigan’s heat as I type this; I can’t imagine what Florida is like right now),

      Thank you for reading this article and for your considerate reply. I read you as agreeing with me (and, much more to the point, Vatican II and the whole Tradition) that the one Church of Christ “subsists in” (i.e. exists as a concrete reality in) the Catholic Church.

      It has often been noted that the Church contains not only saints but also sinners, not only among the faithful but also in the hierarchy. Much ink has been spilled explaining why the Church is truly “holy,” as we profess in our creeds, despite the sins of her leaders and members, but here I will simply appeal to your own experience. Surely, you, like pretty much all people, belong to groups (families, communities, organizations, or institutions) that have identities belonging to the group and which persist even in the face of actions by leaders and members that contradict the group’s identity.

      My Uncle Larry may be a terrible person (don’t worry, I don’t have an Uncle Larry), but the Fox Family remains the Fox Family. All of us have politicians we wish had not been elected, yet the United States remains what she always has been. Etc., etc.

      This persistence of identity is all-the-more true of the Catholic Church, the holiness of which is given through her Head, Jesus Christ, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, Who is “the Lord and Giver of life.” As G.K. Chesterton has remarked, any merely human institution would surely have been obliterated centuries ago by the sins of Catholics. So, the abiding presence and vitality of the Catholic Church despite these sins is proof of her divine constitution.

      Regarding your proposal that the Church be defined as including only those who are “faithful,” the clear reply is, “Who decides which people are faithful and which aren’t?” Especially when Our Lord Himself says that He will judge and separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25). And what would we do with the parable of the weeds and the wheat? Certainly, mortal sin brings spiritual death, but (thank God!) mortal sinners are brought back to life in the Sacrament of Penance. Also, only God is capable of judging the knowledge and deliberate consent with which a person committed such-and-such a sin.

      No, I’m afraid we’re stuck with each other, all of us who by the Church’s sacraments, faith in her teaching, and fidelity to her structure as a hierarchical communion remain in the flock of the Lord. And before I bemoan my stuck-edness, I do well to remember that everyone else is stuck with me! Just ask my sisters…that’s not such a great thing.

      God bless you,
      Fr. Charlie Fox

  5. Dear “mrscracker,”

    Thank you for reading this article and for your thoughtful and charitable reply. Undoubtedly you are correct that those who posted the sign mean to encourage an encounter with Christ. I drop the word “real” not to be picky about its redundancy but because it can have the (inadvertent) effect of introducing spiritual elitism. For example, who gets to define what constitutes a “real” encounter? Also, God reveals Himself in Christ as the Head of His Mystical Body, the Church. Which is to say that the privileged and certain way to encounter Him is in and through the Church. The Church is not an ‘addition’ to the Faith along with Christ. The Church is Christ’s Body, His Bride, His Flock, etc., and she makes Him present and active in the whole world and in every age.

    You are no doubt correct that many Catholics would benefit from a deeper and more perfect encounter with the Lord Jesus. In the Church.

    God bless you,
    Fr. Charlie Fox

  6. I never paid much attention to the Ascension until this year. My parish priest gave a homily that the Ascension is like a King who Ascends to His Throne which is where the word Ascension comes from. Jesus Ascends to His Heavenly Throne and reigns as St. Paul tells us over the natural world (created world) and the supernatural (metaphysical) world, the seen and the unseen. And God the Father gives Jesus the power to judge the living and the dead. The humble servant becomes the conquering King, both of this life and the next. How Jesus conquers is first his own life’s mission which is now complete, and by being transformed from a Heavenly King to a humble earthly servant and back to being the Heavenly King. Jesus then transforms his earthly “friends” by sending the Holy Spirit to also become heirs to the Kingdom both in this life and in the next. His homily helped me to put this together and have a new respect for this feast day, and one of the most important days of the Christian World.

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