I am struck by the way Jesus ascended into heaven. The apostles had been staying Jerusalem, but Jesus “led them out as far as Bethany, and…he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Lk 24:50-51). Jesus led them out of the earthly Jerusalem to witness his ascent to the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22; Rev 21:22). It was a graphic reminder that these two cities were not to be confused. And yet, one of Jesus’ final directive to the apostles was that they were to return to the earthly Jerusalem, the city in which he had been crucified, to await the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). Jesus had passed over from this world to the Father and was preparing a place for them (Jn 13: 1; 14:2-3); but their work – the continuation of his redemptive mission – was just starting.Unlike me, the apostles never seemed surprised when they faced resistance. Seeing the treatment Jesus suffered, they had no illusions about what was to come. Jesus had also, after all, directly told them that they would be ostracized from family and polite society, publicly flogged, and even put to death (Mt 10:16-25). This knowledge, however, was unable to cripple them. They had seen the Risen One. Death was no longer something to be feared; Jesus had broken its hold and he extended this freedom to them (Heb 2:14-15). The only fear Christ would permit them to entertain was that they might prove unfaithful in loving and obeying him – a fear that kept them constantly returning to private and communal prayer for fresh infusions of grace (Lk 12:4-9; Lk 21:36; Jn 6:57-58; Heb 10:23-31).
The Paul stressed that, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). We too must follow Jesus in death and resurrection (Phil 3:10-11). The Lord was blunt, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). It’s true for each individual, and it is true for the Church as a whole. The Church has passed through cycles of turmoil and rebirth; but never forget that her most challenging period still lies ahead:
“Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers….The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil…[taking] the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.” (CCC 675, 677)
This truth, this reality, should keep us sober during our time in the world. This is not our homeland. We “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16). And we can never become so emotionally enmeshed in it that we are left reeling when it turns on us. We know how flimsy this world is, how easily it breaks – from refrigerators and cars all the way up to nations.
The Lord allows us to experience these difficulties. They are our participation in his Cross. The little disappointments, borne with his strength, prepare us for the ever greater struggles that lie ahead – our personal ends and The End. Recall what we heard on the First Sunday of Advent:
“The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire…But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.” (2 Pet 3:9-10, 13-14)
If we put anything before Christ, then we are fools. But the culture in which we live increasingly says just the opposite – that we are fools because we put Christ before everything else. It was the same in the beginning (1 Cor 1:20-31), and it will certainly be so at The End. Let’s not pretend otherwise and be caught by caught off guard. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that God has abandoned us. The Father was just as united to Jesus on the Cross as he was to him in the glory of the Transfiguration, and he is to us, too! Obedience to God in the midst of suffering is rewarded with the glory of the Resurrection (Phil 2:8-11; 3:10-11).
Faith is the gift that makes the Christian life possible. It is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Even in the midst of a pandemic, even knowing of the Church’s future Passion, we have joy and hope, because the eyes of our hearts are fixed upon Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).
I’ve started telling myself something at the start of each day: “Today, I will be crucified” – there’s the sobriety – “with Christ” – and there’s the hope. May the Lord fill us with joy as we await his return and the world that is to come.