Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
“These signs will accompany those who believe.” Mark 16:17
A brilliant documentary appeared on television. Being an amateur pianist, the film fascinated me because it documented the lives and playing of famous pianists throughout the Twentieth Century. Rare archival footage of musicians like Horowitz and Rubenstein, Arrau and Richter, gave a glimpse into how these great artists interpreted the finest piano music every written. At the end of the documentary the question was posed to Daniel Barenboim, himself a noted pianist, about what was the difference between the great classic pianists and the ones of today. His response was most interesting. He said that for the great pianists of the past, the music was not the printed page. Instead music was how they played, bringing the music to life, lifting the music notes from the page, and making the music part of them. His final remark truly caught my attention. He said, “The Bible for them was the sound, not the printed page.” I thought immediately of Jesus.
At the Ascension of Jesus, He leaves this earth, promising two things: to return and to be with His followers until the end of time. When He ascends to heaven, He does not say, “Now my beloved disciples, I am leaving you, so here now is the Bible for you to remember me.” No. Instead He says what we hear in the Gospel today from St. Mark. “Signs will accompany those who believe” (Mark 16:17). They are to go out and baptize, and great signs will appear to those who are baptized. What are they? “They will drive out demons… speak new languages… pick up serpents with their hands… lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18). Great deeds will witness that Jesus is present. No book is mentioned. Rather action and signs will give testimony to Jesus’ abiding presence.
We might ask, “Where are those signs today?” I would suggest that I have seen them. Perhaps you have too. Demons are driven out? I see that in the Sacrament of Penance, when someone confessing says, “I feel like a new person.” Lay hands on the sick for them to recover? How many times have I as a priest, and countless other priests, seen someone recover after receiving the Sacrament of the Sick? Speak new languages? I see that when a young teenager who never gave religion a second thought is Confirmed and all of a sudden is attending daily Mass. That teen has learned a new language, the language of faith.
Yes, Jesus did not leave behind a book. As a matter of fact, Jesus never wrote down anything. As a matter of fact, St. John tells us in his Gospel that not everything Jesus did is included in the New Testament. “There are also many other things that Jesus did,” St. John writes, “but if these were to be describ
ed individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). When He ascended, no book dropped down from the clouds. Instead the apostles themselves went out to do what Jesus had commanded them to do, namely to preach and to work signs. As Catholics we see this oral preaching as part of Sacred Tradition, which along with Sacred Scripture make up Divine Revelation. The two are interwoven. Within that Tradition, reflected in the New Testament that the disciples recorded, are the signs of Jesus’ presence and work that we call the Sacraments.
Scott Hahn in one of his books reminds us of the derivation of the word sacrament. Sacrament comes from the Latin word sacramentum which can mean “an oath” (cf. Lexicon of the Latin Language, ed. F. P. Leverett, p. 788, “that by which a person binds himself or another to perform anything”). A sacrament is a sacred oath. On the part of Jesus a sacrament is a sacred oath that He will be with us and is with us until the end of time. A sacred sign, a sacrament, is a pledge of His presence. On our part it is a sacred oath, a profession of faith, that we will remain faithful and true to Jesus.
The Gospel for the Church is the living word of God. However, there is the eternal Word present with God from before the beginning of time. It is this Word that becomes Flesh and is manifest in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. That Word to carry on His work must be lived and remembered. That is the work of His disciples and His Church. It is a Sacred Tradition carried on in each and every one of us who live and work within the Body of Christ, the Church. St. Mark writes, that the disciples “…went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs” (Mark 16:20).
Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his reflections on the life of St. Paul that to believe in the Risen Lord is to believe that Jesus is still alive. This was the faith of the early Christians, even of a St. Paul, who first persecuted the Christians but then encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. From that time on, St. Paul spoke of having met the Lord.
We meet Jesus too. We meet Him personally in the signs of His presence. The healing, the protection, the new languages, and the salvation are the Grace of God’s life given to us in the effective signs that we call the Sacraments. Like a gifted pianist sitting at the piano looking at a sheet of music, there is no sound until he places his hands on the keyboard and makes the music part of himself for the listeners. “The Bible for them was the music, not the printed page.” The Bible for us is not only a written word but also a lived faith in the reality of Jesus Christ. That living presence is celebrated in the sacramental life of the Jesus Christ and His Church, a sacred pledge and oath of His abiding presence.