The Ascension of Jesus into Heaven has drawn our hearts and minds upward to the most beautiful and profound aspects of our faith. We have been given a glimpse of the glory of Heaven, and we are praying for a renewed outpouring of the Spirit in the world.
Today as we ponder the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, we once again get the sense that he is sharing with us something that we cannot really fathom while we are on earth. His words are about heavenly things, which our hearts thirst for, but our minds are still earthly, and we can barely grasp his meaning.
Jesus prays that our unity will be like the unity he shares with the Father, “that they may be one as we are one.” He foresees that as we witness to him, our unity will reflect his divine life so well that we will serve as icons of Christ in the world. Seeing us, the world will come to know the Father, who revealed his love for the world by sending his Son. Jesus further expresses his desire that we may be with him always, and see the glory the Father has given him.
This is mystical language indeed! Without the light of the Holy Spirit, we would not know what Jesus is talking about, nor would we be able to live as he describes. The other readings today help us reflect more on the life God has in mind for us. The second reading comes from the conclusion of the Book of Revelation. John hears the Lord promising that he is coming soon. The future, the Lord says, for those who accept his gift in faith, is full of life. Those who follow him “have the right to the tree of life and enter the city [that is, Heaven] through its gates.” They can quench their deep thirst through “the gift of life-giving water.” These images tell us that the fullness of life in Heaven – the life to which we are called and for which we all long – is an unending experience of the greatest satisfaction, security, and refreshment.
Such images may still seem remote to us because we tend to treat mystical language as somehow unreal. To show us how real they actually are, the first reading presents us with an event which combines heavenly mystery with a most brutal earthly reality, an angry mob and a violent execution by stoning. There is, we would think, nothing heavenly about being stoned to death. But the experience of St. Stephen shows that we are wrong. The glory of God has broken into this world, and it cannot be overcome by sin, even by murder. For those who have faith, the Lord Jesus, ascended in glory, is not far away, but right here with us. Stephen sees “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” He can see this because he is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and because he has dedicated himself wholeheartedly to serving the Lord.
Stephen shows us how the mysteries that Jesus spoke about at the Last Supper can become a practical reality. Stephen is a living icon of Christ. Glory shines forth from his face because his spirit is so deeply conformed to the will of God. His love outshines the hatred of the mob. His prayer that God forgive his assailants echoes Jesus’ prayer to the Father on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
Where do we get the power to persevere in faith and to love our enemies as Stephen did? Where do we get the courage to be witnesses for Christ in a world that is turning increasingly hostile to the Gospel, and does not want us even to mention the Name of Jesus in public? Such power comes not from us but from the Holy Spirit. There are no martyrs without the Holy Spirit. (The Greek word for “witness” is “martyr.”) When Jesus, before ascending into Heaven, told us that we would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, he based it on the gift of the Holy Spirit. First, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down on you,” and then, “you will be my witnesses … even to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Jesus wants all people to come to the Father through him in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who makes of us effective icons of Jesus, joyful witnesses – joyful martyrs – in the world, showing merciful love even to those who seek to silence us, harm us, and even kill us.
In what ways do I depend on the Spirit? How can I imitate Stephen as a living icon of Christ? Why is it so difficult to forgive those who have harmed me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 4. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.