29 May 2017

They Worshipped, but They Doubted

How does one preach about the great mystery of Christ’s Ascension in light of recent events that rocked our nation’s faith: the Maute group’s brazen attack on Marawi City and the subsequent declaration of Martial Law in the whole island of Mindanao? Does our celebration connect with our people’s fear of terrorism and wariness of possible abuse under Martial Law?

I would like to start with this short phrase in Matthew’s recounting of the Ascension event: “When the disciples saw Jesus, they worshiped, but they doubted.”

The worship part is easy to understand: they have seen Jesus as He promised, most likely in the form of His glorified body. But before such singular manifestation of divinity, why would some people still find space in their hearts to doubt? Over the course of centuries, scholars have tried to explain Matthew’s doubting disciples – maybe they referred to the other disciples aside from the Eleven; maybe it is because there really was no resurrection or ascension but some vision concocted by certain disciples which only the “privileged” among them could see. Or maybe because it is part of our human nature to doubt – what is obviously real and worthy of worship to some may appear to be confusing to others, their minds still processing the unexpected phenomenon before them.

The more important part though was Jesus’ response. The few who doubted received neither rebuke nor condescending tone. Instead He approached all of them and gave them His last will, a closing statement so clear and succinct it could very well sum up the entirety of the Good News. The message may be broken down into three parts.

1. The Power of Christ. He said: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt 28,18). Ephesians 1,22 affirmed this: “God put all things beneath His feet”. At the Ascension event Christ proclaimed His lordship over all creation. If He is our Lord and King, then all our exercise of earthly power and responsibility emanates from Him.

In Mathew 20,25-28, He taught us what it means to wield power. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The powerful in the world today, as in Jesus’ time, still like to consolidate more power for themselves. The unscrupulous ones do so by violence and deceit. The more dangerous ones couch their ambitions in some lofty vision, capitalizing on people’s fears and frustrations to get what they want. This is the way of terrorists and dictators. They don’t conform to the power of Christ for they don’t want to serve but to be served, they don't care as much for collateral damage so long as they can further their cause.

2. Proclaiming Christ. From His power comes a mandate. He sent His disciples on a mission to spread the Good News, make other disciples, baptizing and teaching them so they observe all that He has commanded. The Good News is not some mere report of events no matter how significant for our salvation, nor is it about doctrines or wise teachings. The Good News is the person of Christ Himself; when it is preached the end goal is not just belief but relationship with Christ Himself.

When it comes to preaching I find myself drawn to the words often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “At all times preach the Gospel, sometimes with words.” There is an even shorter term for this: witnessing. The most eloquent preaching anyone can do is the witness of a person’s actions and way of life.

During the crisis in Marawi, we may have seen frightening footages of fighting and bloodshed, but there is also a wellspring of stories of witnessing. A group of non-Muslim students were trapped for two days in a dormitory inside the campus of Mindanao State University. As terrorists roamed the campus, their Muslim classmates gave them moral support and protection, and even facilitated their rescue. Even now there are many civil society organizations which are mobilizing relief efforts for evacuees who fled to Iligan City and those still trapped in Marawi.

3. The Peace of Christ. He promised: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28,20). Our liturgy today describes the Ascension this way: “He ascended not to distance Himself from our lowly state but that we, His members, might be confident of following where He, our Head and Founder, has gone before” (Preface I of the Ascension). And even before we reach our final destination, He promised to send us His Spirit, to be another Advocate to guide us to all truth (Jn 14,26).

Where Christ’s Spirit is, there is peace. Philippians 4,7 says: “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Christ’s Spirit and promise enables us to pray and hope. What is it that we pray for in this time of crisis?

Foremost, we pray for the safe and immediate release of Fr. Chito Suganob and other hostages still being held by the terrorists. May they find strength and hope in the peace of Christ at their time of need. We pray that no harm fall upon our police and military forces keeping peace and order. We pray for the conversion of hearts of those who instigated the crisis and continue to live a life of violence. We pray for the end of the crisis and quick recovery of Marawi City. We pray that Martial Law be limited and short.

The Spirit of Christ leads us to truth and brings peace. When we welcome His Spirit, we are enabled to pray for ourselves as well as our enemies, and inspired to dream dreams not just for ourselves and pursue visions of a better country.

HOMILY for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

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