Would it be better if the Ascension never happened?

Mark 16:15-20 (Ascension, year B)

“The time has come for you to start building houses on your own.” This was the last instruction that a young carpenter in training received from his mentor, a master carpenter. These words terrified the young man. For years he had apprenticed alongside the master carpenter, learning from him. His mentor was always there to check his work and answer any question he had about the trade. The young carpenter felt safe working with him. He would have loved to continue working under his mentor for the rest of his career. He felt angry that the master carpenter would no longer allow him to simply assist him, but was forcing him to take full, personal responsibility for projects.

Hesitantly, the young carpenter began building houses on his own. At first it was very difficult. He was unsure of himself. As he progressed through his work day, the young man encountered many challenges and questions he wished he could discuss with his old mentor. This, however, was no longer possible. The master carpenter was always at some other job. The young carpenter was forced to figure things out for himself. He experimented, took risks and showed initiative. He made mistakes, but he found as time went on he was learning and becoming a better carpenter. His skills developed in a new way that would not have been possible had he simply continued assisting his old mentor. Eventually he saw the wisdom of the master carpenter. Had his mentor not forced him to build houses on his own, his growth would have been stunted. Being left on his own was necessary for the young man to develop his full potential as a carpenter. Years passed.  The young man became a master carpenter himself and began apprenticing others. Whenever he saw that a young carpenter in training had learned all he or she could from him he would say: “the time has come for you to start building houses on your own”.

Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. As we heard in the Gospel, at the Ascension Jesus gave us a mission and then left us on our to take the personal responsibility to do it. Understandable, when we think about the Ascension of Jesus we can feel like that young carpenter did when his mentor left him to work on His own.

Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, didn't ask us to build a house, but a kingdom, the Kingdom of God. He gave us a clear mission: go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. We are called to tell everyone the Good News about the love of God made manifest in Jesus who has died to save us. We are called to lead others into a relationship with Jesus. We are called to build up the Kingdom of God by transforming the world so that it is more guided by the values of Christ like love, mercy and humility.

Jesus gave us this mission and then He left us. Here is a question that comes into my mind when I consider the Ascension: would it not have been better for us if Jesus had stayed on earth? It is hard to understand why Jesus had to return to His Father. Imagine if Jesus were still with us as He was after the Resurrection and we could still see Him face to face and speak with Him. Whenever we faced a challenge, either in our personal life or as a community, we could simply call up Jesus in Jerusalem, Rome or wherever He happened to be and He could tell us what to do. What should we do today to ensure the poor are taken care of and no one is hungry? If Jesus had not ascended we could just set up a meeting and He could answer that. Want to know how to obtain lasting peace in the Middle East? You would simply need to get Jesus on the phone. How can we properly care for the environment? Get Jesus on Skype and He’d have a solution. At times we can think it would have been better had the Ascension never happened.

Jesus, however, clearly tells us that it is for our own good that He ascends and leaves us (John 16:7). The young carpenter would never have developed into a master carpenter if his mentor was always around him, answering all his questions and preventing him from making any mistakes. The young carpenter had to take full responsibility for projects of his own before He could develop into a master carpenter. Jesus wants us to become become mature in our faith, developing our full potential as His followers. He wants us to become master Christians and not remain apprentices.  We will make mistakes, but if we are to become an adult follower of Jesus we need to take responsibility for building up the Kingdom on our own.

When He ascends into Heaven, Jesus leaves us on our own and yet He doesn't really leave us on our own. The mission of building up the Kingdom of God is at the same time fully our responsibility and a project which God is in full control of. Here is where comparing us Christians to the young carpenter breaks down. In order for him to grow the young carpenter had to take full responsibility for building houses. The work had to be his alone. For this to happen, the master carpenter had to remove himself from the scene completely. Jesus, however, is not bound by this human limitation.  The gift of the Holy Spirit is how Jesus leaves us on our own and yet doesn't really leave us on our own. Pentecost follows the Ascension.The Holy Spirit is a gentle, guiding, strengthening influence in our life. The Holy Spirit allows us to take full responsibility for the mission Jesus has given. At the same time, the Holy Spirit is fully in control, supporting us, keeping us united and giving efficacy to our actions. The Holy Spirit makes the mission fully our work and fully God’s. In completing Jesus' mission "work like everything depends on you and pray like everything depends on God" (Mother Teresa).

“The time has come for you to start building houses on your own.” . The young carpenter not only listened to these words of his mentor but acted on them. For this reason he grew as a carpenter.  “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature”. Today we have once again listened to these words of Jesus. If we act on these words we will grow as His disciple. If we do not, we will never mature. Have you taken personal responsibility for building the Kingdom of God?

What is love?

John 15:9-17 (Sixth Sunday of Easter, year b, Mother’s Day)

Would you be able to explain to an alien what love is? How would you describe the concept of love to an extraterrestrial, a creature who has never encountered human culture? I recently discussed this question with students from our elementary school. Maybe you think that it is a strange question to ask, but it is one we Catholics should be able to answer. We believe in a God who is love. Jesus commanded us all to love one another as He has loved us. Love is the core of our faith and yet, though we use the word often, I suspect that many of us would struggle to explain the concept. If they were to ever meet an alien, here is how some students would explain what love is:
Love is a kind of feeling. When you’re with others it brings you together. 
When you are loved you feel happy. 
Love can be a sacrifice. 
Love is when you enjoying being with someone. 
When you love, you dedicate yourself to another person. 
Love is passionate.
I was impressed by the answers the students gave. I suspect our responses would be similar. Like the students, our answers would tend to focus on the emotional aspect of love. Like them, however, we would recognize that true love is more than a feeling. Love is a difficult concept to grasp. Fortunately for us, God did not simply command us to love. He taught us by example what love truly is.

God reveals to us that love has to do with actions rather than emotions. Love is not a feeling! Having good feelings about a person can certainly help us to love them. We can - and are indeed called to - love others whether or not we feel happy to be around them or not.  One student expressed it this way:
I don’t really like my brother but if he needed help I would help him and if something happened to him I would be sad.
Love is not a feeling, it is an action. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “to love is to will the good of another”. In other words, we love someone when we do things that are for their good. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for love is hesed. In the Bible, God’s love for His people is demonstrated by His good, saving acts. He choose them to be a people. He led them from slavery into the promised land. He gave the law. He sent the prophets. He was always faithful to His covenant. God teaches us that love is not a feeling. Love is choosing to take actions that are for the good of another person.

Further, God has revealed that love has to do with actions that are sacrificial. The life of Jesus is the ultimate lesson of love. Jesus demonstrated that true love requires us to sacrifice ourselves for others, to put their needs in front of our own. Jesus sacrificed Himself for us in many different ways. He was a humble servant who cured the sick, spent time with outcasts and washed the feet of His followers. His death on the Cross for our salvation is the ultimate expression of sacrificial love. No one has greater love than to lay down their life for their friends. As Mother Teresa said, “Love to be real, it must cost—it must hurt—it must empty us of self.”

In my discussion with the students, I asked them a follow-up question: “who is someone in your life that shows you true love?” Unsurprisingly, the most common answer was “my mom”. That is my answer as well! One student described the sacrificial love of his mother in the following way,
I know my mom loves me because even when I am annoying, she still gives me good food.
For most of us, our mothers have been indispensable teachers in the school of love, teaching us through the witness of their lives. A mother will repeatedly get up during the night to care for her crying baby. She puts the needs of her child before her own need for sleep. In so many ways mothers lay down their lives for their children - even when they are being annoying!

A particular example of maternal, sacrificial love is found in the life of St. Gianna Beretta Molla. Gianna was born in 1922 in Magenta Italy. Growing up, she loved music, fashion, tennis and skiing. As a young woman, she lived her faith generously. She served in Catholic Action, an organization for youth, and visited the elderly as a member of St. Vincent de Paul Society. Later, she studied medicine, eventually becoming a pediatrician. Soon after, she married Pietro and they had three children. When Gianna was pregnant with her fourth child, tragedy struck.  Doctors diagnosed a serious fibroma in her uterus that required surgery. The surgeon recommended that she undergo an abortion in order to save her own life. She refused. A few days before the child was due she said “if you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate. Choose the child. I insist on it. Save the baby.” Immediately after the birth of her child her health deteriorated and she died a few days later at the age of 39. After her death, her family and friends explained that her decision to save the life of her child was the natural culmination of how she had lived her entire life. Love guided all her actions and, as she once wrote, “One cannot love without suffering or suffer without love”.

Today on Mother’s Day, let us thank our mothers and show appreciation to them in a special way. Let us recognize that perhaps the best way we can honor them is by imitating the sacrificial love they have shown us. In this way, we can all better follow Jesus’ commandment to love others by laying down our lives for them.

How to become a fruitful branch on Christ the vine

John 15:1-8 (5th Sunday of Easter, year b)

While studying theology, I lived in a dormitory which has a large courtyard. Above the courtyard is a trellis in which grows an enormous grapevine, creating a kind of natural roof. The courtyard is a great place to read, especially during the summer as the leaves from the grapevine provided great shade. One day I sat in the courtyard reading Jesus’ parable that we heard in the Gospel, in which He says that He is the vine and we are the branches. That day, while looking at the grapevine above me, I was able to appreciate the lessons of the parable in a new way.

I noticed for the first time that fruit only grows on the branches and never on the vine to which the branches are connected. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches.  It is through us that Jesus continues His ministry of love and healing in the world today. If we, His followers, do not bear fruit, we prevent Jesus from continuing His work. St. Theresa of Avila illustrates well this principle that fruit is found on the branches and not the vine:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Recently, Nepal and the surrounding area were devastated by a powerful earthquake. Thousands were killed. Hundreds of thousands are in desperate need of food, water and shelter. As we watch these events unfold on the news we can think to ourselves “Jesus, do something to help these people!” Jesus will help these people, but how? Will He make food and shelter drop from the sky? Hardly. It is through us that Jesus aids these people in need. Thankfully, different countries have provided assistance and many individuals have donated money. People are in need and we are in a position to help. Fruit only grows on the branches. Jesus is active in the world through the Church, which is His Body.

Another lesson described by Jesus in the parable that I observed while sitting beneath the grapevine was that when a branch becomes separated from the vine, it quickly shrivels up and dies. Sap, containing life giving nutrients, flows from the vine and into the branches. When the branch is no longer connected to the vine, the flow of this sap ceases and the branch perishes. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. When we are connected to Him, we receive His life, something we call grace. We receive grace when we stay close to Him in daily prayer and regular reception of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. In fact, Jesus’ parable has Eucharistic undertones as wine, the “fruit of the vine”, is an indispensable element of the Mass. When we separate ourselves from Jesus, the flow of His life into us is cut off. This can happen is different two main ways, one sudden and the other more gradual.
  1. We are separated from Jesus the vine suddenly when we sin seriously. Breaking away from Jesus in this way is something that we are generally more on our guard against.
  2. We become cut off from Jesus and His life in a gradually. We begin to pray less. We go to confession more and more seldomly. We give ourselves permission to miss Mass from time to time. This way of becoming separated from Jesus the vine is less obvious and expected and therefore in some ways more dangerous. Over time our actions demonstrate that we don’t think we need Jesus as much as He says we do.

The final lesson from the parable that became clear while sitting beneath the grapevine is that the branches must be regularly pruned if they are to bear fruit. Each year when the weather turned cold, a gardener would come and prune the large grapevine. It was surprising how much of the plant he cut off. Later in the spring, however, the grapevine grew back stronger and more fruitful than before. Likewise, God prunes us so that we can be more fruitful instruments of Jesus in the world. Being pruned is not a pleasant thing.  God prunes us effectively by means of people we live in community with: family, friends and coworkers. Life in community is a kind of heavenly rock tumbler. A rock tumbler is a small, hollow, machine that you put small stones into.  Each stone has its own jagged edges.  After the stones have been placed in the machine and you turn it on, it begins to spin.  As the machine turns over and over, the rocks tumble inside, hitting each other and grinding one against the other and the sides of the machine.  Slowly but surely, the jagged edges of the stones rub one another smooth.  After some time each stone becomes polished and beautiful. We are like these stones.  Just as the stones have their rough edges, each of us have our own weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, for example, impatience, pride, or laziness.  As we live together, we have confrontations and frustrate one another.  We smash into each other like the stones inside the rock-tumbler. Over time we begin to see that the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of those we live with are opportunities for growth.  With God’s grace, living with others can make us more patient, sympathetic towards others and capable of cooperation.  Like the stones inside the rock-tumbler, we become more polished – our weaknesses become smoothed.  Living with others, especially those who we don’t get along with easily, is one of the ways that God prunes us, making us capable of producing greater fruit.

In the parable of the vine and the branches, Jesus gives us an incredibly encouraging message. He loves and trusts us so much that He wants us to be the instruments through which He continues His mission in the world. Provided we remain with Him, Jesus will always strengthen us with His life, helping us bear fruit. The parable of the vine and branches challenges us to rethink the way we view hardship. What is a difficulty you currently face, particularly when it comes to those you live with? What would change if instead of viewing this merely as suffering you wished would go away, you saw it as a way that God is pruning you? He sees you are already bearing good fruit. God is pleased with you and wants you to produce even greater fruit in the future.