May 12, 2013

The Ascension and the Confidence of Christian Prayer

In the Gospel of Luke, as He prepares to ascend into Heaven, the Risen Christ leads his disciples out from Jerusalem as far as Bethany.   There He raises his hands and blesses them as His witnesses telling them to go back to Jerusalem to wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.   It is in this act of blessing that He departs from them and is taken up into heaven.  This passage invites us to reflect on the relationship of Bethany and Heaven.

Bethany is not far outside of Jerusalem.  It is the town where the close friends of Jesus lived: Lazarus, Mary and Martha.   About halfway between Bethany and the old walls of Jerusalem there stands the Church of the Pater Noster.  This is where it is believed that Jesus gave his teachings on prayer and it is where the ancient Christians commemorated Jesus's ascension into heaven.  This suggests that the ancient Christians made associations between Bethany and Heaven, friendship with Jesus and prayer, the ascension of the Lord and the witness of the faith.  What does it mean?

One thing that it means is that Christian prayer is a profoundly theological reality.  That is, prayer is born of events of great theological meaning in the life of the Church.  Christian prayer finds in the ascension of the Lord the reason for its bold access into heaven.  If Christ taught we should pray with the bold confidence of sons and daughters, Christian prayer believes it can reach into the heart of the Father because it flows from faith in the Risen Lord whom the Father has raised up to Himself.  When Christ was raised up, frail humanity was lifted into the embrace of divinity so that all of the Lord's prayers for us are answered.   Through the faith in Him who prays for us to the Father, the world becomes vulnerable to the power of Heaven.

But where do we find this faith and how do we know whether the faith we have in Christ is true?  How can we know whether our own prayer participates in this theological reality baptized in so much eternal meaning?   Such prayer can only be found by those who will freely bind themselves in faith to the Lord through the preaching and teaching of those whom the Lord has sent as His witnesses.  The Church, as a communion of witnesses to the Lord who is both departed from our sight but still at work in the world, is the conduit by which heaven's spiritual gifts are brought to bear in the nitty gritty details of our personal lives.  It is in the Church that theology, prayer, real life and the friendship we know in the Lord converge with salvific meaning.

Although Christ has been raised from our sight, the Church helps us see how He is still at work in the world, coming to us in all kinds of hidden ways to draw us with Him into the bosom of the Trinity. Because Jesus ascended into heaven to send the Holy Spirit onto the communion of the believers, the communication of life and love in the unity of the Trinity lives by grace in the unity of the Body of Christ  On the basis of His faithfulness to us before the Father, the prayer of the Church claims bold access to the transforming power of heaven so that every Christian can pray with confidence in Him even though He has been taken from our sight.

The witnesses to Christ death, resurrection and ascension into heaven safeguarded their message through the teaching of the Church.  This sacred doctrine preserves for us today the saving truth by which our faith accesses the inexhaustible riches of God, treasures from the Father Christ yearns to share with us.   What a great obligation teachers and preachers of the Gospel have!   Entrusted to them is the witness by which the confidence of Christian prayer is discovered.  Yet to provide a reason for this hope, not only their teaching but also their lives must be true.  Such a task is impossible for alienated humanity.  They too must enter into the confidence of prayer if they are to pass on the witness to Christ the Church has entrusted to them.  

In these ways, the Ascension of Christ helps us see that prayer and sacred doctrine, the saving events and the communion of the Church are all bound together in our faith.  While many Catholics might approach prayer as a private and emotional exercise for rare moments instead of ecclesial and theological act we should make unceasingly, such spirituality risks being cut off from the source of confidence that lives in our tradition.  The greatness of Christian piety alive in the Church is glimpsed only as we accept the sacred doctrine the Church proposes in her witness to the Risen Lord.

Prayer, faith and friendship are joined in the Risen Christ who chose His Bride as His witness.   She knows He is departed for awhile but ever present in the Holy Spirit.  She reminds us that He is raised into heaven out of our sight yet His loving gaze never loses sight of us.   She helps us remember that even though He has gone to the Father, His blessing never leaves us.  It is when we make every effort to welcome and safeguard this treasury of truth that the prayer shared by those whom the Son of the Father bound together as his friends and witnesses becomes our prayer too.