With so many Catholic dioceses celebrating the Feast of the Ascension on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, rather than on the preceding Thursday, not only does that throw off the liturgical calendar; making Pentecost Sunday, seven days rather than ten days after we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord Christ Jesus, but also the Church deprives us of hearing this powerful collection of liturgical readings put together just for the Seventh Sunday in Easter.
Part of my reflection of the Feast of the Ascension for Year C concerned how shocked everyone must have been about the whole thing; Christ Jesus spending forty days with them and then after barely finishing His last sentence, is caught up in a cloud out of their sight, then two men in white appearing to let them know that He’ll return to us again, just as He left. I noted how the Ascension event was just overdramatic, even for God who is the author of drama, but that descension and ascension are always dramatic, and the Divine Symphony of the Catholic Mass captures this drama, and, thereby, we too ought to be caught up in, and shocked by what is taking place in the liturgy of the Mass, and if we are not, we are probably doing liturgy all wrong.
Today’s readings for the Seventh Sunday in Easter are also all about the drama, but even more so in relation to what we experience during the liturgy.
First, we visit with Saint Stephen the Martyr again in Acts 7:55-60, who gives witness to the fulfillment of the Ascension Event. He sees what the Apostles did not see that day. All they saw was our Lord being lifted up and a cloud taking Him from their sight, but, liked them, Stephen too looked up but unliked them He was filled with the Holy Spirit, which apparently gave him eyes to see “the Glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,” which caused him to testify, “Behold, I see the heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This testimony of Saint Stephen became part of the Catholic kerygma; that is, our proclamation and preaching. It is found in 1 Peter 3:21-22, “Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God,” Hebrews 1:3, “He [Jesus] took His seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” and again in Hebrews 12:2, “. . . and has taken His seat at the right of the throne of God.” It also became part of the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds, “And the third day He arose again . . . and sits at the right hand of the Father.”
There was a time in our human history and is still the case in some places in the world today when your proclamation of such a fact would result in you getting the death penalty. Such was the case of Stephen, who after confessing what he witnessed was dragged out of the city and stoned to death. Saul, who would later be called Paul was there to witness Stephen being given the death penalty, which only adds to the drama of God if Saint Paul was the author of the book of Hebrews. For his part, as he is being stoned to death, Stephen “called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them;” and when he said this, he fell asleep.”
Truly, Saint Stephen’s last act on earth is lived out in the liturgy of the Mass in our Sursum Corda – one of the oldest prayers of the liturgy – where the priest prays that we too might be filled with the Holy Spirit like Stephen, saying ‘The Lord be with you,’ to which we pray the same for him, “And with your spirit.” Then the priest, asks us to do what Saint Stephen did at the end of his life; rendering back to God what belongs to God; that is, our very life. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” As Stephen lifted up his very life – all of his heart to God, the priest likewise implores us, “Lift up your hearts,” to which we dare to make a martyrs promise, “We lift them up unto the Lord.”
In today’s Second Reading from Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20, John’s vision gives way to two insertions of the Catholic Mass. First John hears a voice saying, “Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” The text then inserts an image of those gathered at the Mass; those who have been adopted by being raised from dead in Christ through the Sacrament of Baptism, saying, “Blessed are they who wash their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates.” Then John hears, “I, Jesus, sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the root and offspring of David, the bright morning star.” The text then inserts an image of our procession at Mass up to receive Communion – the Holy Eucharist who is Jesus the living water. “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let the hearer say, “Come.” Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water.”
In the Gospel Reading from John 17:20-26, we hear a part of what I call Jesus’, ‘Bridegroom Prayer’. Many years ago, I wrote an entire book about this prayer, but in the context of the theme of today’s liturgical readings and how they point us to the liturgy of the Catholic Mass, clearly Jesus is not praying for us to continue in our duplicity; that we behave one way during the liturgy of the Mass, and then as soon as we leave the confines of the Church, that we behave in a different way. On the contrary, He prays that our witness in the world will be as compelling as Saint Stephen’s; as He prays to His Father, “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” If not for this prayer, we should have been upset that the world is in the condition that it is now, but clearly, wherever this is division in the world, it is the fault of us who have not convinced the world of the truth. Certainly, we have all that we need to bring the world to Christ, for He confesses to His Father, “I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me.” Today’s reading missing verse 18, where Jesus prays, “And you sent me into the world, so I send them into the world.” But it does capture the fourth instance of sending in verse 25 with Jesus praying, “Righteous Father, the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me.”
What you are hearing in Jesus’ ‘Bridegroom Prayer’ is what we hear at the end of every Divine Symphony of the Mass – the Ite Miss, Est – Go, you are dismissed. Dismissed for what? Dismissed to be everything in the world that Jesus came for you to be; to be everything in the world that He ascended for you to be; to be everything in the world that He sent you the Holy Spirit for you to be; to be everything in the world that He will judge you for in the end. And it is not out of bounds for Jesus to hold you to this standard. Why? Because the first person ever to be made holy and to be sent into the world was Jesus Christ Himself, and as the Father sent Him, so He send us. Go, you are dismissed.
As I wrote in my book, The Divine Symphony, the principal purpose of the liturgy of the Mass is to divinize you; to make you holy, but for what? Yes, so that you might be happy in this life and in the next, but if that is all it was for then the Church would never want you to live in the confines of the building. Mass would never end and all you would eat and drink – all day every day – is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Rather, the Church dismisses you from the liturgy; rather, the liturgy does end, because it believes that it has prepared you to live out the principle purpose of the liturgy. What is that? The liturgy has called you to be holy so that you might be a martyr. The liturgy has prepared you to die for your faith. The liturgy called you to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ so that you might go live a life like His. Yes, to preach, to teach, to heal, but also so that you might be given the death penalty by the those who hate the one who lives in you. Does this shock you; that you are being called to martyrdom? If this shocks you, then “what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
This is just one way how the readings at Mass this Sunday connect to the liturgy and how the liturgy is forming us on how to live our lives in the world. Be in the world who you have received during the liturgy.
 Cf. Acts 1:1-11.
 Jn. 6:62-63.