“…while I was still with you” – that is a phrase that haunted my thoughts after reading it in the gospel account we heard today. It’s confusing because when Jesus says this in the midst of talking to the disciples: “…while I was still with you,” it raises the question, what exactly is the nature of Jesus’ resurrection? And that’s perplexing especially as here in Luke’s gospel, and again in John’s gospel, there is this insistence that the resurrection be understood as a physical reality and not just some ghostly apparition.
Jesus is there, by the way, eating his broiled fish. He is present to the disciples in body and spirit, but in another rather profound sense he isn’t with them. That is, He is living in a state of resurrection, Christ is in the kingdom fully. Somehow, though, He is also sitting in a room in Jerusalem having supper.
For readers and watchers of science fiction this may not be as difficult to comprehend, that Jesus is now interdimensional. This isn’t the same as being in two distinct places in our world at the same time (for example, me being here, and also over the rectory reading a book), but rather being in two different worlds at the same time, inhabiting some kind of threshold between them. In the case of Jesus Christ, ascended to the right hand of the Father, insofar as He is in the world, it is in a movement from the divine and eternal realm to be with us in this mundane and finite existence.
If you think that strange, and that I’m getting both too esoteric and downright confusing, and you’re now at the point of turning off the video at home, or if you’re here with me, ready to say a rosary till the homily’s finished, wait a moment and think about this.
What I am talking about is happening right now. As Catholics we affirm that Christ is fully present to us in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and in the tabernacle behind me is the reserve of hosts kept, yes for emergencies, but more importantly, to maintain that presence in this house of God. We’re going to say the creed once I finish the homily, and we’ll confess in that statement of faith that Jesus is ascended and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. So, we live out this interdimensional reality, and have done so for two millenia—so much for Star Trek and its ilk being ground-breaking in their speculations on the true nature of reality. The Catholic Church got to the conclusion way ahead of modernists that reality is a lot more complicated than it appears, and certainly more than the Cartesian oversimplifications so much of our culture today is steeped in.
When you are baptized you put a toe into the divine realm, at confirmation, if sincere, you’re pushing a foot into that higher reality. Our striving in this life is to make the move from here to there as Jesus moves from there to us here to lend a hand, to grab hold of us and bring us through. Our constant work for us all is, how shall I put it? To keep one foot in heaven at all times.
I’ve been rereading Meister Eckhart, the medieval German mystic, his writings on “indifference” and how he wants us to cultivate indifference to the world so that we are fully open to God. By this he doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about this world, that we ought to tolerate injustice and all manner of sin against God. Rather, we’re trying to make this move to God and have something of God’s perspective, and to work from the absolute truth of God when we navigate this life. Our decisions ought not to reflect the world’s priorities; and our prayer, as Meister Eckhart so astonishingly asserts, ought to progress from being about our problems and needs in this transitory and often chaotic world to being purely about God letting us into that divine and eternal realm of truth and love.
When I talk to people who’ve recently converted, sincerely died to the world and embraced Christ, I get this report of the strangeness of their encounters with those of their old life. When I reflect on my own conversion, I get what they’re talking about. You can be with them, conversing, remembering the life you’ve had with these past acquaintances and old friends, but you experience a strange detachment and sense a distance from them even as you sit at the same table at Kelsey’s or the Collins drinking beer and eating nachos. Their preoccupations, their worries, their priorities, all seem now alien. The not infrequent question of the newly converted is to ask me, “how do I share with them the good news that they can leave that behind and come into this world of beauty, truth and love and leave behind the counterfeit version of these things the world uses to tantalize and seduce them?”
It’s not an easy thing. I know that to start quoting scripture isn’t going to work; but in standing firm in gospel values, in defending the truth of things as they really are as opposed to the fantasies we find ourselves immersed in through major media and the culture generally, you witness to the fact that there is truth, constant, eternal, and vouchsafed by God, and so unassailable.
Earlier this week, at the Thursday evening Mass, the readings touched on the contrast between earthly and heavenly matters. In Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, he observes that the one from heaven speaks of the things that are above. The worldly one speaks of mundane things. From that, I argued, we should know if the Church, or indeed, any given preacher, is fulfilling the prophetic role. It is not for me to do a line-by-line analysis of, say, the federal budget assessing it according to economic theory, and pass it off as a sermon. That’s a worldly matter. However, insofar as earthly powers act in contravention of the people’s ability to cultivate their relationship with God, disrupt the Church’s capacity to nurture people toward a life that properly prioritizes the things that are above; then the Church and her ministers are mandated to speak to the political, cultural, economic situation. The Church must defend Truth, the dignity of persons, the essential freedoms given by God that are inviolable and never to be reduced to mere privileges conferred by the state and so, revocable by government.
It was troubling to listen to the Premier of Ontario yesterday announce an enlargement of police powers that so clearly violate fundamental human rights, let alone those enumerated guaranteed in the Charter. I went to bed anxious over what this precedent will mean going forward; because it is a precedent, and it will be cited again and again in the future to justify the suspension of our God-given rights because of whatever the latest emergency happens to be.
It was also unsettling to think that around the cabinet table there was not one person who had kept that one foot in heaven, maintained some sense of the divine perspective, had some communication with the absolute truth.
Today I have read that there are some who have: the police departments of Ottawa, Waterloo, and Peterborough will decline to exercise these powers of arbitrary detention and interrogation, of compelled answers without the presence of legal counsel, of presumption of guilt for simply being seen in the street. That they’ve recognized that such power cannot be entrusted to anyone is cause for optimism. I’ve known police personnel, presided at their weddings, had a friend from school enter the force, served as an assistant to a police commissioner and so met many very fine people. However, they are human, and so a mix of virtues and faults, and as with all institutions, there are villains within, and such poorly conceived law has the potential to license terrible abuse.
I hope that soon the government reverses course on this, and other abridgements of our rights, including that of worship. And again, this effective shutting down of the Church in her public worship is unjustified, and a step too far. Our bishops have been very willing to work out measures to make of our worship something safe for people to attend, to make reasonable accommodation… and to this day there is not a single demonstrable case of COVID-19 gotten from attending Mass.
Yet we have now in place, by precedent, a new state power that violates the Criminal Code of Canada, section 176, that absolutely forbids anyone from disrupting, obstructing or preventing the celebration of divine services.
Now, this all being said, I continue to pray for those who occupy public office, and my understanding of what has happened is very much that these are well-intentioned people who’ve lost communication with the eternal and the divine, where absolute truth and authentic love abide in a constancy that is beyond human ability to keep. Like any who are lost, I pray that the Good Shepherd will yet find them and bring them home to know the truth and love of God, and set aside the fear that must breed in their hearts a horrible burden of dread and confusion.
With God, by His grace, we can be constant to the things that are above, faithful, obedient to God’s law, but also eminently reasonable in its application to the problems of this world.
Christ is with us; but not in our sins, not in our worldly concerns, but having descended from the throne, he comes to us with the power of Truth and Love; it is for us now, to be with Him.