The Ascension of Our Lord

Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53

Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus ascended into Heaven. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Jesus of Nazareth, this was not a transfer of Jesus' body into a different space, but into a different reality. Following is the homily I preached last week.

The Triune God was present in the beginning, the Father creating through the Word, His Son, and the Holy Spirit hovering over the chaotic nothingness. This God created the human being, male and female, to be in fellowship communion with Himself, therefore with free wills, because automatons could not love their Creator freely. But the creature chose to rebel against the Creator by choosing sin. Yet our Beloved set forth his economy of salvation in the first convent of the Bible: a woman was destined from the very moment of man’s fall to be the New Eve who would bear the new Adam to redeem humanity and all creation and reunite them in love with their creator God, their Beloved.

In the fullness of time, the second person of the Trinity, the Son, the Word, the Logos, became human for us. For thirty something years he lived and taught among us and identified fully with us. This is an amazing and wonderful thing, that the creative Word of God lived among us as a man.

What is equally wondrous is that, after dying for us and rising from the dead for us, and teaching among us for 40 days with a resurrected body, breaking bread and eating with us, he ascended into heaven to sit eternally at the right hand of God the Father.

But “Christ’s ascension, like his resurrection, is not only about him, it is also about us. Christ’s ascension to heaven was not the undoing of the Incarnation. The Incarnation was not a temporary visit….Christ brought humanity home to heaven in the ascension, not only in the sense that his death and resurrection allowed us to enter heaven, and he ascended to prepare a place for us to live with him forever (Jn 14:1-3), but also in the sense that humanity was united with divinity in the Person of Christ forever. Not only were we changed forever, so was he! ‘The Father’s power raised up Christ his Son, and by so doing perfectly introduced his Son’s humanity, including his body, into the Trinity.’ (CCC 648) Christ’s ascension brought his human body and soul to heaven into the Godhead forever.”*

As the Father and the Son share their mutual love for one another which is the Holy Spirit, our humanity is introduced into the divine family of the Trinity. And by the further mystery of faith, we are able to receive the body and blood of our God, Jesus Christ, in His Holy Eucharist now, for our nourishment into sainthood.

*Peter J. Kreeft, Catholic Christianity, p. 81.

 Constantine built a church on the Mount of Olives at what is now Pater Noster to commemorate the Ascension

Constantine built a church on the Mount of Olives at what is now Pater Noster to commemorate the Ascension

Happy Passover!

Jews around the world are celebrating for eight days our liberation from bondage in Egypt through the Exodus. This is a rare year in that Passover, which began last evening at sunset (Friday, April 22), falls on the same days of the week as it did at the time of Jesus' arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. The Gospel of John makes it clear that Passover that year began on Friday. Therefore, the Last Supper was not a Seder meal, but rather Jesus instituted the New Covenant the night before the Passover Seder. Likewise, on Good Friday, he died about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, right at the time the Passover lambs were being slaughtered at the Temple for the Friday evening Seder.

 The Temple Mount as seen from the Mount of Olives

The Temple Mount as seen from the Mount of Olives

April 17, The Fourth Sunday of Easter, John 10:22-30 (RCL)

The Feast of Dedication is, of course, Hanukkah. Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) tried to annihilate Judaism, resulting in the Maccabean rebellion of 167-164. Antiochus set up a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies of the Temple, and sacrificed a pig on the altar. So the rededication (sanctification) of the Temple after the victory of the Maccabees was necessary. The feast occurs in December.

In the Gospel Lesson, Jesus is teaching at the Temple, on this Jewish festival. Pictured are "the teaching steps" leading into the Temple Mount from the south, the way most common people would enter. The Portico of Solomon was actually inside the Court of the Gentiles, just up these steps, to the right.

Please come with a Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies group of students to view these inspiring historical sights firsthand.

 The Teaching Steps where rabbis debated theology

The Teaching Steps where rabbis debated theology

March 27, Easter The Resurrection of Our Lord

 Sunday Liturgy in the Syrian Orthodox Chapel behind the Tomb of Christ

Sunday Liturgy in the Syrian Orthodox Chapel behind the Tomb of Christ

The Holy Sepulcher Church
The walk from the Praetorium to Golgatha and the Tomb of Christ takes you from the Armenean Quarter to the Christian Quarter, the heart of which is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The early Jerusalem Christian community never lost memory of where our Lord was crucified and buried. The student-pilgrim has been cautioned elsewhere in this book not to confuse the current sixteenth-century CE Old City walls with the biblical walls of Jerusalem. In the 30s CE when Jesus was tried and crucified by Pontius Pilot (Roman Procurator of Judea 26-36 CE) this spot lay outside the city wall (Jews at the time would not place a cemetery inside the Holy City’s walls). It was just outside an exit gate (the Garden Gate, see above) so that the Roman spectacle of crucifixion would be seen as an example to all passersby leaving the city for the substantial suburbs that were developing west of the city wall. Liturgical celebrations were held at this site until 66 CE, the beginning of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome when many Jerusalem Christians fled the city for the safety of Pella (in modern Jordan). As you can observe at the Model of Jerusalem in 70 CE at the Israel Museum, during 41-43 CE the city walls were extended to include the western suburbs, but the revered tomb was not built over. Probably to discourage Christian pilgrimage to and veneration of this holy spot, Hadrian filled in the quarry and built a Roman temple over it with a shrine to Aphrodite. But the Christian community never forgot what lay beneath this abomination, and in 325 at the Council of Nicea the Bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, asked Emperor Constantine to destroy the Roman temple and reveal to the world again the Tomb of Christ, which excavation was personally witnessed by Eusebius of Caesarea. Constantine then began building the first church on the spot in 326 and it was finished in 335. It included the area of the current church but was about twice the size: think a basilica and atrium enveloping the courtyard in front of the front door through which you enter today. He had his engineers cut away the cliff behind the tomb-chamber so that it became a freestanding edifice centered in a circular rotunda. Sadly the church was set on fire by the Persians in 614 but reconstructed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Modestus. When Jerusalem came under Muslim control in 638, the church was protected for two ruling dynasties, the Umayyad and the Abbasid, but the mad Fatimid calif Hakim destroyed it in 1009, even to hacking the Tomb of Christ with pick axes, though eye-witness reports testify that the tomb-camber was not completely destroyed. The current church was built 1012-1170.
History has granted governance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to six ancient Christian denominations whose frequent quarrels prompted the giving of the key to two Muslim families 800 years ago in whose keeping it still reposes in order to open the church every morning at dawn and lock it at dark. These six churches are the the Roman Catholics and five Eastern Orthodox: Greek, Coptic (Egyptian), Armenian, Syrian, and Ethiopic.
This is the holiest spot in Christendom, and the ardor of Christian pilgrims flocking to it can be overwhelming. I recommend you go to the church early in the morning before the crowds gather. There is nothing more sacred than to enter this space in the quietude of the morning light. Once inside the door, before you is the Stone of Unction, not ancient but a traditional commemoration of the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial and the focus of modern Orthodox Christian veneration: watch and you will see anointing with oil, kissing, even the placing of babies upon it. In the East, the sense of Holy Space is much more vibrant than in the western church. Certainly Protestants have to strain to appreciate, and I think they should, attachment to this place. Turn a sharp right upon entering the door to ascend what is left of Golgotha. Pilgrims and demolitions through the centuries have diminished it, but once atop you can see beneath the high Greek Orthodox altar the mount upon which Christ was crucified. A hole beneath the altar allows one to touch it, in veneration if one so desires. To the right is the Roman Catholic altar illustrating the difference between the Eastern and Western churches: the Roman altar has its statue and the Greek its icon. The latter is troublesome to some Protestants but it is instructive to bear in mind that the intent is not to portray merely the rabbi from Nazareth but rather the God of the Nicene Creed. Circle round to peer below beyond the iconostasis of the Greek Orthodox chapel and then descend a second set of stairs leading down to the Stone of Unction. If you are with a group, it is important to gather the group here, because this is where pilgrims are lost or left behind. Proceed to the Tomb by passing the beautiful but modern mosaic above the Stone of Unction and turn right to enter the Tomb. Just opposite it is the spacious Greek Orthodox chapel, inside the door of which is a knee-high pillar with a circular button on top marking “the center of the universe” because it stands exactly halfway between Calvary and the Tomb. The current shrine over the Tomb, replacing a series of predecessors going back to the fourth century, dates only to 1810 CE.
How did this tomb get to be here and so close to Golgotha? The spot was a limestone quarry in the middle of which was a flinty skull-shaped hill good for nothing. So when the quarry was abandoned the Romans appropriated the hill as an ideal place of crucifixion just outside the city gates. In the meantime the quarry, as is often the case in this part of the world, had become a Jewish cemetery because of the ease of carving tombs into its soft limestone walls. Thus Joseph of Arimathea had done, and enough of the burial bench remains to see where Jesus’ shrouded body was laid. The inscription reads, “He is not here! He is risen!” The tomb is managed by the Greek Orthodox Church which dates back to the original church in the Book of Acts. The Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox, also a very ancient church, are relegated to the chapel behind the tomb where they venerate what they believe to be a piece of the outside limestone wall (look beneath the altar to the oil lamp on the left). Behind the Coptic chapel is the cave-chapel of the Syrian Orthodox Church, so ancient that their Liturgy is in an Aramaic that the historical Jesus could understand (!) which contains several unadorned first-century kokhim Jewish tombs, single chambered and simpler than Jesus’ since his had been donated by a rich man. While this today is a very humble chapel because most of the Syrian Christians fled Israel during the 1948 and 1967 wars, it is worth a visit on Sunday morning when it is adorned with carpets, wall hangings, flowers, icons and a small welcoming community of three to thirty worshipers who celebrate the weekly Eucharist. Indeed, an excellent time to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is early Sunday morning to witness the cacophony of Christian Liturgies which emerged from that First Easter.
Exit to the left and a sharp turn into the Roman Catholic chapel to view in its rear the moving depiction of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac which prefigured our Father God’s sacrifice of His Son for us here near Mount Moriah, the Temple mount. Continue around to the left (restrooms are here) to the Armenian Chapel. If time allows descend to the Crypt of St. Helena, noting the many ancient crosses carved by centuries of pilgrims. To the left of the central altar is a locked chamber, accessible only with permission from the Armenians, to more tombs, proving this was a cemetery. One of them bears graffiti with a ship, ostensibly the one upon which the pilgrim arrived. The stairs to the right of the altar lead down to a pit, part of an Old Testament quarry, where legend has it Helena, Constantine’s mother, discovered the original cross of Christ.
Come up and out and to the left again to a view of Golgatha below the place of the cross. A sharp turn left into the chapel reveals a crack in Golgatha which tradition says was created by the earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death. Continue left to exit the church.
Once outside, to appreciate further the cultural diversity of Christianity, turn left into the Coptic chapel and follow the hall around it to the left of the altar up the stairs to the Ethiopic chapel where a solitary monk is always on duty. If you ask him he will probably chant for you from an ancient cross-shaped Ethiopic lectionary (a small donation in the basket would be appreciated if you ask him to do this). Note the African flavor of the large icon depicting the marriage of King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba. Continue also along the lefthand aisle of this chapel and out the exit door to the left of the altar, being careful not to bump your head on the low lintel. You now find yourself on the “roof” among the hovels where the Ethiopic monks live. In the center is the dome of the Crypt of St. Helena which in the Middle Ages stood within an Augustinian monastery, built over the ruins of the basilica of Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, with the remains of its refectory’s vaulted ceiling still standing. Over them is the bell tower of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. At this point you have two options. Continue further to exit the “roof” through the open gate which is the Ninth Station of the Cross on the Crusader Via Dolorosa, or retrace your steps back through the Ethiopic and Coptic chapels to the courtyard outside the Holy Sepulcher where the Church of the Redeemer is up the steps and to the left.

March 25 Good Friday

Please see the previous post. Therefore, Jesus, the Lamb of God, died at the time the Passover lambs were being slaughtered at the Temple.

 The Garden of Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane
As you continue walking carefully down the busy street from Dominus Flevit you pass on your right the convent of St. Mary Magdalene. It is well worth a visit, but is open only 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Thursdays. The garden where our Lord prayed and was arrested is further down the street to an immediate left. Note that it closes its gates sharply at 11:45 a.m. only opening again at 2:30. It is almost impossible to kill an olive tree and the root systems of these trees could go back 2,000 years. This is assuredly the Garden of Gethsemane which means olive press. From Byzantine times or before a certain broad rock was associated with Jesus’ prayer of agony that the cup be taken from him. The drawings at the church’s entrance depict the Byzantine and Crusader churches upon which this modern Church of All Nations is built. Around the rock is a crown of thorns with birds in their posture of submission willing to drink from the chalice. It is a space to be quiet, and pictures are allowed except within the gate to the rock which you may enter to kneel upon this space hollowed by tradition with the permission of the Franciscan on duty.