Going and Staying
by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show
that Christ fulfilled the
“Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). It seems a strange thing for a man to say right before leaving. It is as if you said to your dinner hosts, “I must be going now, and I will stay for dessert.” Or a simple “Hello” as you walked out the door. This privilege to leave and to remain all at once belongs to God alone. He does not remain with us as He did before. He really did leave us and ascend into heaven. And yet He promised to remain — a promise so strong that He speaks it in the present: I am with you always, until the end of the age. So, how does He remain?
Sometimes we speak of people remaining with us even after they have left this world. “He lives in our memories,” we might say. Or maybe we regard a person as still present by way of what he taught or accomplished. In some circles people have a more mystical view, thinking the deceased still somehow are spiritually present. None of these captures exactly what Our Lord meant by being with us always. In fact, they emphasize the difference of His presence from all others. He is with us not merely by memory or teaching or in some fuzzy mystical way. He is present, rather, by His Spirit and through the church’s teachings and sacraments.
With regard to the Spirit, Our Lord’s parting words point to the essential connection between the Ascension and Pentecost, between His departure and sending of the Holy Spirit. He ascends in order to send the Holy Spirit. "I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7). It is by the gift of the Holy Spirit — His Spirit — that He remains with us.
This same Spirit makes Jesus present in and through His church. At the Annunciation, the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary and she conceived Him within her womb. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit again descends, this time upon the disciples, to form Jesus’ corporate Body, the church. This helps us to deepen our understanding of the church, which is not merely a gathering of His followers to remember Him and reminisce about old times. She is not just an organization for the mere continuation of His teachings. She is His Body, His continuing presence throughout the world and throughout history. Everything that He thought, said, and did in His human nature two thousand years ago He continues to do now by way of His ecclesial body.
Notice that before ascending, He charges His disciples with two tasks: to teach (“make disciples … teaching them”) and to sanctify (“baptizing them”). Or, put differently, the church is to make Him present by way of her teaching and the sacraments. This is a unique mission.
In other regards, we might continue the teachings of the deceased, and in that way maintain some kind of moral union with them. But the Holy Spirit gives to the church alone the power not merely to convey Jesus' teachings but to teach in His name, with His authority, indeed as Christ Himself. The church does not merely communicate Jesus' teaching. Christ Himself teaches through her.
Likewise with the sacraments. In other instances we may preserve the memory of the deceased by rituals, holidays, and other observances. The church's memorial of her Founder, however, is not a mere reminiscence of Him. It is the actual making present of Him — of His life, death and resurrection. This is the reality of the sacraments, and most of all the Mass. They are not mere rituals or reminiscences, as we have in the secular world. They make Him and His grace present. By way of them, the Spirit accomplishes in the church what human memory can only attempt: the real presence of the One remembered.
"I am with you always," He says as He leaves. And by the gift of the Spirit, He brings this promise to fulfillment, continuing His presence through the church's teachings and sacraments.
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