Ascensiontide Theology

Ecce Agnus Dei“We celebrate the memorial of the saving Passion of Your Son, his wondrous Resurrection and Ascension into heaven…”

When do we say this? After the consecration at every Mass. The Holy Eucharist recalls to our minds not just the Passion and death of our Redeemer, not just His conquest of death, but also His Ascension into heaven.

Now, the Mass Christ instituted recalls His Passion and death very vividly and clearly. His words declare His saving death: “My body will be given up for you.” “My blood will be shed for you.”

That said, the very same words of consecration declare His Resurrection as well. Because: He lives to give us His flesh and blood. If He were still dead, we could hardly receive Him bodily into our midst, in the Blessed Sacrament. We can have Mass because He is alive. Pretty clear.

Now, what about His Ascension? For our Ascension-tide theological question, let’s try to figure this one: How does the Holy Mass commemorate Christ’s Ascension?

tabernacleWell, we could say this: The whole business of the Mass involves the celebration of Christ’s Passover. He passed over from life as a pilgrim to life in glory. Passed through death to eternal life. We cannot see the life that Christ the man shares with God. Our eyes do not now have the capacity to see that.

Which means that the Lord’s very in-visibility in the Mass commemorates His Ascension. He passed beyond our sight when He ascended, and He appears in a way that we cannot see at the consecration at Mass.

That said, Christ’s invisibility in the Mass is by no means absolute. If it were, we would celebrate Mass just by closing our eyes and looking at the inside of our eyelids. But we don’t do that.

At Mass, we see a sacrifice, carried out by a priest, with a priestly people united around the altar. All that is perfectly visible—and it is a visible manifestation of Christ, ascended into heaven. Because He ministers in heaven as our eternal High Priest, forever offering Himself, in perfect love, for us.

So: Holy Mass recalls Christ’s Ascension to our minds, both by what we don’t see, and by what we do.

Holy Thursday Reflections from the Unworthy Dunderhead


1. In the upper room, Christ gave us the Holy Eucharist of His Body and Blood, extended Himself with breathtakingly humble love towards His companions, and made them priests of His holy mysteries.

His gifts of divine love, of His own flesh and blood, and of the ministry of this gift: It’s all pretty clear, there at the source–on this holy night almost twenty centuries ago.

But, as centuries pass, things that started out clear can become obscured. Difficult situations can then lead to helpful clarifications.

During the fourth century, the emperor Diocletian condemned Catholic priests to death. Some priests faced the prospect of summary execution with heroic courage. Many did not; they apostasized.

When the persecution ended, some Catholics said: The cowardly priests can’t be priests anymore! A priest must be holy! Their Masses are no good!

Anyone know what this Church controversy was called? The Donatist schism. The Donatists held that the ministry of an un-holy priest is nothing, fruitless, pointless, a charade.

missale-romanum-white-bgNow, a priest should always seek holiness, of course. But: If a vain, impatient, feckless, easily-distracted, oversized dunderhead priest, who hardly deserves to serve as a waterboy for a Little-League team with a losing record–if even such a priest says a Mass, as happens regularly in the Martinsville-Rocky Mount parish cluster–the bread and wine still become the Body and Blood of Christ. So long as the priest manages to say and do what’s in the book.

Anyone know what that’s called? Very important Latin phrase… ex opere operato. By the work being worked, the grace is given. The minister of the grace may be hopelessly unworthy. Doesn’t matter. It’s still the Body and Blood of God.

Which brings me to reflection #2. Dunderhead that I am, it took me a few years of actually doing it to realize what the key to “priestly spirituality” is. “The key” in my opinion, anyway.

The Lord Jesus prayed, celebrated Passover, and, as He did so, gave us the Holy Eucharist.

From the beginning, we have repeated Christ’s words of institution as part of a longer prayer, called the _________ _________.

Always addressed to our heavenly Father, always imploring Him to send the Holy Spirit. The prayer of the Church united as one, we pray for every member of the Church, and for everyone on earth, and for all the souls in purgatory–that all of us sinners would find mercy, and get to heaven, and share the bliss of the Kingdom.

A rough summary of the Eucharistic Prayer–but pretty accurate, I think. That’s the prayer that the Church as a mother intends for the priest to say, and for everyone else to join in with an interior sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving, and petition.

Now, the priest must recite the Eucharistic Prayer, whether he personally ‘means’ it or not. The priest’s head might be full of high-school basketball memories or plans for buying a new car. But praying the Eucharistic Prayer is our job, we priests.

The key to ‘priestly spirituality,’ I think, is… (It’s so simple and obvious, it took me, obtuse as I am, years to grasp it.) My personal spiritual task, as the priest, is: to mean the Eucharistic Prayer when I say it.

I say it as a duty. And I strive to say it because it’s exactly what I mean. I strive to want to say to God exactly what the Eucharistic Prayer says. I strive to will and hope and pray for what the Eucharistic Prayer wills and hopes and prays for.

That He would send His Holy Spirit so we can feed on Him; that He would unite us and fill us with His divine love, sinners that we are; that He would draw everyone to Himself, and lead us all to the perfect life of heaven.

Prayer of Christ Extended

When we pray, how do we do it?

We pray to the Almighty Father. We thank Him for giving us everything. We offer Him His own Son as our sacrifice. We pray on behalf of the whole Church, that we would be delivered from evil and reach the final goal. We pray that everyone, living and dead, would be gathered into Christ’s fold. We give the Father all glory and honor through Christ, and we consecrate ourselves in the Spirit of truth.

We pray this way by praying the Mass together. We pray like Christ Himself prayed at the Last Supper. He prayed to the Father with confidence and trust. He gave thanks for the gift of everything: His existence, born of infinite love. His mission. The glory prepared for Him and for all those predestined for glory with Him. He offered to the Father His sacrifice of obedience. And Christ united Himself with all who believe.

Our prayer at the altar echoes Christ’s priestly prayer. Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper has not passed away; He hasn’t stopped praying to the Father for us. He prays perpetually as our High Priest in heaven. He prays for exactly what we need, when we need it. He pours out the right graces at the right time.

When we pray, we want only to pray with Him. Obviously, we cannot pray on our own any better than He can pray in us.

Praying with Him, uniting ourselves in our inmost souls with Him—that in and of itself can get us on the right track—and keep us on it. We can walk out of church peaceful, focused on what we need to focus on, full of love, ready to do what we need to do and help the people we need to help.

When we pray Christ’s prayer in union with Him, the world makes sense. Our lives make sense. Our duties make sense.

Which doesn’t mean easy. Easy doesn’t actually make sense for us. A self-respecting human being sitting around watching t.v. all day doesn’t make sense. A Christian living as if other people don’t matter doesn’t make sense.

Letting the Holy Spirit consume us with love, like He consumed Christ with love: that makes sense. Walking out of Mass dedicated to loving the least lovable people, like Christ has loved us: makes sense. Living at all times with gratitude to the Father, offering everything to Him, glorifying Him with the smallest, most apparently insignificant actions: all of this makes sense for someone who prays regularly with Christ the High Priest.

Pray like Christ, with Christ, in Christ. Live like Christ, with Christ, in Christ. One week at a time; one day at a time; one hour, one minute, at a time.

Next thing we know, we will be praying and living with Christ in heaven.

The Baptist’s Song

As we approach Christmas, we pray in the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer about St. John the Baptist.

Perhaps you have noticed a small but notable change in the translation. The old Sacramentary had it that John the Baptist was “Christ’s herald.”

True enough; beautiful enough. But now, with the new translation, we pray that St. John “sang of Christ’s coming.”

The Christ appeared on earth, and the holy prophet sang. Locusts in his belly, camel hair around his waist, the Jordan River rushing by, and the desert wind blowing: he sang.

Can we not imagine that the Baptist sang with everything Johnnie Cash, Roy Orbison, Placido Domingo, Ray Charles, and Eddie Vedder all have to offer in their voices—rolled into one masculine melody on the wind?

The coming of Christ moves those who recognize Him to break out into song. Could be a Tallis Scholars song, or a Pogues song, a hymn, a chant, a warble. Joy and love sing.

Many beauties of the earth touch the undying, simple perfection of heaven—but to sing does so in a uniquely immediate way.

God rest ye merry. Baby Jesus comes tomorrow night. It will be time to sing.

No altar standeth whole? (Roman Missal IV)

No one can read chapter 11 of Book IX of St. Augustine’s Confessions without tears.

Reading St. Monica’s words so moved Matthew Arnold that he turned this sonnet:

‘Oh could thy grave at home, at Carthage, be!’—
Care not for that, and lay me where I fall.
Everywhere heard will be the judgement-call.
But at God’s altar, oh! remember me.

Thus Monica, and died in Italy.
Yet fervent had her longing been, through all
Her course, for home at last, and burial
With her own husband, by the Libyan sea.

Had been; but at the end, to her pure soul
All tie with all beside seem’d vain and cheap,
And union before God the only care.

Creeds pass, rites change, no altar standeth whole;
Yet we her memory, as she pray’d, will keep,
Keep by this: Life in God, and union there!

Indeed. But the poet has missed the mark. St. Monica begged to be remembered at the altar. Union with God–we find it at the altar.

Some of our beloved separated Christian brethren ask us, How did the Last Supper become the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

The answer is two-fold:

Continue reading “No altar standeth whole? (Roman Missal IV)”