Into the Cloud: Homily for the Ascension

Cloud Computing

On this Solemnity of the Ascension,
the Scriptures describe Jesus as being lifted up into the cloud.
We hear a lot about “the cloud” these days.
We can put our documents in the cloud.
Or we can keep our pictures in the cloud.
We can even put our music and books in the cloud.

It’s really convenient having our music or all of our books
at our fingertips.
But for many of us,
switching to the cloud can be a difficult transition.
We’ve probably got file cabinets
full of folders that contain important legal documents.
Maybe we have boxes of CDs, or cassette tapes, or even records.
We’ve also got shelves full of photo albums or cases full of books.

Putting items like these in the cloud is a bit scary
and hard to get used to.
Where do they all go? Are they secure?
Plus, we like the idea of having the concrete items to hold on to.
We like the way they feel and to see them organized on a shelf.
There’s a security in being able
to physically flip through an album of pictures
or hold a book in our hands
rather than looking at them on a tablet or e-reader.

The disciples are facing a similar problem in the first reading today.
As they were looking on,
Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.”
Jesus has moved to “the cloud.”
He is no longer physically with his disciples on earth.
They stand there “looking intently at the sky” as he ascends to the cloud.
They would like him to stay on earth, in the flesh,
rather than vanish within the cloud.
Like those of us who would rather feel the pages of a paper book
or see our photos in a leather-bound album,
the disciples would rather be able to see Jesus,
to place a hand on his shoulder,
to speak directly to him.
And I suspect many of us feel the same way.
It’s hard to place our faith in a person we can’t see or hear or touch.

Maybe we would have liked it better if Jesus had not ascended,
but stayed on earth with us.
What if that would have happened instead?
What if Jesus had simply continued living on earth
for all these centuries?
Maybe he’d have continued living near Jerusalem
for a few decades more,
and then maybe he’d have gone on to Africa, or China.
After that he could have made his way through Russia
to Europe and then the Americas.
He could have traveled all over
and been seen by millions of people in the flesh.

But there would have been many more who could not have seen him.
Billions of people who lacked the money or the time
to travel to where Jesus was.
Even if Jesus was alive today
in this era of planes, trains, and automobiles,
even with Skype or FaceTime,
there would still be people who could not get to Jesus:
the poor, the homebound, those in war zones, or in prison.
And even if Jesus went to visit them, he couldn’t get to everybody.

And that’s where the cloud can help us understand.
When we keep our documents and photos and music and books
in the cloud,
they’re available to us everywhere:
on our desktop computers, our laptops, our tablets, our e-readers,
and even on our smart phones.
We can share them with others with the simple click of a button.
Though it seems like our documents, our pictures, our music, our books,
are nowhere,
they’re really everywhere.

In a similar way,
though it seems like Jesus is nowhere,
he is really everywhere.
All because he was lifted up to the cloud.

The cloud is an ancient image for the presence and glory of God.
For instance, when God called Moses up to Mt. Sinai
to receive the tablets of the law
a cloud covered the mountain for six days,
and then God called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.

And on the Exodus journey,
God’s presence and glory among the chosen people
were seen in the pillar of cloud by day
and the pillar of fire by night.

Later, God instructed Moses to set up a tabernacle in the tent of meeting
and after Moses did all that he had been instructed to do,
a “cloud covered the tent of meeting,
and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”

And even in the gospels,
when Luke describes the Transfiguration,
the disciples see Jesus, Moses, and Elijah
conversing on the mountaintop
and then they see a cloud cast a shadow over them,
and from within the cloud they hear,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

A cloud is almost always mentioned when God makes his glory visible.

This is the cloud into which God lifts Jesus up.
Jesus in his humanity enters into the glory of God
so that everyone can be close to God forever.
Through our baptism in Christ, we, too, are close to God forever.
Because God wanted to come close to us,
he sent his Son to be one of us, to be a human being.
After Jesus’ suffering and death,
God raised him from the dead,
and brought him into the cloud of his presence and glory.
We who have been baptized
into Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection
are also baptized into Christ’s Ascension.
The more we live out our baptism, the closer we are to Christ,
the closer we are God.

When Jesus disappeared into the cloud,
he didn’t just dissolve into thin air.
He is still here with us,
but in a new way, a way no one had ever seen before.

Though at first it seems like Jesus is nowhere, he is really everywhere.
He left the world one day in order to be available
to all people throughout all time.
He can be encountered on every continent, in every city,
in the homes of both the poor and the wealthy,
by both the saint and the sinner,
at any time.

The documents, photos, music, and books
that are available everywhere once they enter the cloud
are a reminder to us that Jesus is available everywhere
since he entered the cloud of the Father’s glory.

Christ is here with us now.
He never leaves our side.
God loves us so much,
he is not content with simply being in one place at one time.
He is with us in all places, at all times.
That is something worth celebrating here at Mass!
That is something worth coming here to sing about!
That is something worth telling people about!

That’s why we hear in today’s gospel that after Jesus was taken up,
the disciples “went forth and preached everywhere,
while the Lord worked with them.”

That’s what we’re being asked to do, too,
to be witnesses for Christ, to preach the gospel.

It’s something we’re already very good at.
We love telling people about things that are good for them, don’t we?
That’s why we post our favorite outfits to Pinterest.
Or share our favorite recipes on Facebook,
or our favorite music.
That’s why videos go viral and why we click the “Like” button so often.
Those are all ways of preaching, of being witnesses.
We preach all the time on social media,
we preach all the time by word of mouth.
We tell people about the deal we got at the store,
or our favorite places to eat.

What was the last thing I recommended to someone?
Did I tell them about a great movie I just watched?
Did I mention a book I just finished,
or a TV show I just binge watched on Netflix?

We know how to preach
because we do it all the time.

When was the last time I recommended a prayer I discovered?
When did I retweet something Pope Francis put on Twitter?
Have I told anyone about a retreat I made that really made a difference,
or a passage from scripture that I just can’t get out of my head?
What kind of music is playing on the car stereo
when I drive to Mass and back?
These are all opportunities to preach.

This is what Christ is asking us to do:
to be his witnesses;
to tell everyone the good news that He is with them,
that God loves them.

On this Ascension day we remember
that Christ was lifted up into the cloud
not to leave us,
but to be with us forever.

We may or may not ever become comfortable
with putting our documents, photographs, music, or books in the cloud.
But the next time we stream music to our phones,
or download an ebook, or share our photos online with friends,
we can remember that Jesus, too is with us no matter where we are.

And we can be witnesses of his presence to the people we love.

Sacrifice and Service: Homily for Holy Thursday

Pope Francis Washing Feet

What if,
at communion,
after receiving the Body and Blood,
after consuming the consecrated bread and wine,
we were handed a consecrated towel?

What if we came forward with arms held out,
and the priest or deacon or eucharistic minister said,
“The Body of Christ,” and handed us the host,
and then, “The Blood of Christ,” and handed us the cup,
and then “The Service of Christ,”
and gently placed a white towel in our hands?

And what if we took that towel
walked out of this building
and went in search of feet to wash?
Strengthened by the Body of Christ,
given new life by the Blood of Christ,
what if we spent the rest of the week on our knees
washing dirt from the feet of our friends, neighbors, and strangers,
or wiping their tears,
or binding their wounds,
only to return the next Sunday to get another towel?

Tonight we are reminded
that the love of Jesus consists of two things:
sacrifice and service.

Love is service made possible by sacrifice.

At the Last Supper
Jesus is about to humble himself to serve God and us
by his sacrifice on the cross.
“He loved his own in the world
and he loved them to the end.”

He is on the eve of giving his Body and Blood for our sake;
and in his final act before accepting the cross,
he does the work of a menial servant
and tells his disciples to do for others as he has done for them.

This was the purpose for which Jesus came:
to serve God and neighbor,
a service we are called to imitate
by loving one another as he loved us.

This is who we are now—
the people who do this in remembrance of Jesus;
the people who do for others as he has done for us;
the people who bring the love of Christ
through service made possible by sacrifice.

Pope Francis has described the Church as a field hospital.
The world is filled with the sick and the wounded
waiting to be touched by the love of Christ.
Waiting for us to wash their feet.

When I imagine a field hospital, I think of the TV show M*A*S*H.
M*A*S*H stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
The doctors and nurses of the M*A*S*H units worked in tents,
picking up and moving to wherever the wounded needed them the most.
It was menial, dirty work;
they were often exhausted;
they were often put in harm’s way;
and they often questioned the war;
but they kept at their healing work for the sake of the soldiers.

We are to be the M*A*S*H units for the wounded of this world.
We go out from this place
strengthened by the Body of Christ,
renewed by the Blood of Christ,
and we set up our tents of healing,
wherever they are needed.

Like the doctors and nurses of the M*A*S*H unit,
sometimes our healing work is menial and tedious;
sometimes it exhausts us;
sometimes it puts us in harm’s way;
and sometimes we question a world that causes so much pain;
but our discipleship calls us to keep at our work
for the sake of the wounded.

Tonight the liturgy asks us to consider,
Is my home a tent of healing?
Is my place of work a field hospital for the sorrowful and lonely?
Is the Church in our city a healing presence
for the hungry, the imprisoned, the marginalized?
Is it time to move my tent to another location
where the wounded need help?

This kind of service is a sacrifice,
as all true service is.
It makes great demands on us;
it takes us away from things we would rather do;
it sends us to places we would rather not go.

But it is only a shadow of the great sacrifice of service
Christ has done for us.
In fact tonight is a foreshadowing,
a prelude to the great act of love we commemorate tomorrow,
the Way of the Cross.

We can make tonight a prelude to our own Way of the Cross
by calling to mind all those in our lives who need healing,
who need the grime of disappointment and desperation wiped away.

On this Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper
we will watch as members of our community come forward
to get their feet washed and dried with a towel.

They represent all the wounded whom we are sent to serve.
And they are many.

And later, as we come forward for communion tonight
we won’t get a towel to take with us out to the injured of the world.
But we will receive the Body and Blood of Christ for their sake,
and take the love of Jesus into the wounded world,
to wherever there is pain and loss.
We can provide our own towel.

This is who we are:
the people who do for others as Christ has done for us,
the people who perform a sacrifice of service,
in pale imitation of the Christ who loves us more deeply
than we can ever imagine.

The Isenheim Crucifixion – Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Isenheim Crucifixion by Matthias GrunewaldDo you remember the first picture of Jesus you ever saw?
Was it a picture in a children’s Bible?
A coloring book page from Sunday school?
The actor Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth?
There are many famous images of Jesus,
and some of them hang on the walls of our homes.
There’s the famous Warner Sallman painting of the Head of Christ,
which has sold over 500 million copies.
There’s the familiar Sacred Heart of Jesus,
and the Divine Mercy image.
Another popular painting of Jesus
is the one where he stands outside the door knocking.
We could run through an entire catalog of famous paintings of Jesus:
in the manger at his birth, sitting on a bench surrounded by children,
carrying a lamb on his shoulders.

If the Greeks in today’s gospel had come to us and said,
“We would like to see Jesus,”
we have many paintings we could show them.
And yet, none of them would be the real Jesus.
All of them would be artistic interpretations of who he is.
They each reveal an important aspect of Jesus,
but none of them is complete.
We all carry around inside of us an incomplete picture of Jesus.
We carry these images in our minds
and they form our view of who Christ is.
It’s like seeing a movie before reading the book.
No matter how hard we try,
Frodo Baggins will always look like Elijah Wood;
Atticus Finch will always look like Gregory Peck;
The Godfather will always be Marlon Brando.
Who does Jesus look like to us?

The Greeks had heard all kinds of things about Jesus of Nazareth.
I wonder how they pictured him.
I wonder who they expected to see when they asked to see him.
Jesus the preacher? Jesus who turns water into wine?
Jesus who walks on water?
And what about us?
Who did we expect to see when we came to Mass today?
Like the Greeks, each of us has come here to see Jesus.
Each of us has an image of Jesus in our mind when we pray,
when we come to communion.
Who is the Jesus we have come to worship?

Whoever it is the Greeks wanted to see,
Jesus surprises them.
And maybe he surprises us.
He says that he is troubled.
He, who is usually so confident and divine in John’s gospel,
is disturbed that his hour has come.
He tells the Greeks and us
that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
in other words, he has come to die,
he has come to be the grain of wheat
that will become food for the world.
He is the one who has come to serve and be obedient
and who asks us to do the same.
Both the gospel and the letter to the Hebrews show us a Jesus
who learned obedience through suffering,
who offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears.
That’s not an image we see in paintings very often—
a Jesus sobbing in prayer for his people.
But that’s what we hear today: loud cries and tears;
a grain of wheat about to fall to the earth and die.
It’s a difficult Jesus to look at,
because that is who we are called to imitate.

We’re preparing for the holiest times of the year.
Today’s liturgy challenges us to seek the Christ who really is,
to get beyond images of our youth and get to know the real Christ,
not Christ as we want him to be.
In these remaining two weeks of Lent,
we’re asked to take some time to ourselves and ask
is there an aspect of Christ we have been avoiding?
Is there a part of Christ’s life and mission that we would rather not see?

There’s another famous painting of Jesus,
one that you probably won’t find in anyone’s house.
It’s disturbing, ugly, and very hard to look at.
It’s called the Isenheim Altarpiece,
and it was painted by Matthias Grunewald around 500 years ago.
It’s made up of four panels, but the main scene is the crucifixion,
and it would be hard to find a more gruesome portrayal of Christ’s death.
In this crucifixion scene,
Grunewald paints Jesus with his hands gnarled and twisted,
facing up as if clawing to pull the spike out of the wood;
and his feet are all twisted together in an almost impossible position.
The body of Jesus is full of wood splinters and thorns.
But maybe the worst thing about the image is the color of Jesus’ flesh.
It’s a sickly green color, covered with spots, like it’s rotting.
It really is a hard painting to look at.
I’m not doing it justice at all, trying to describe it you.
It isn’t a painting that you just look at;
it’s a painting that you experience.

That’s the Jesus that is speaking to us today,
the Jesus of the Isenheim crucifixion.
The suffering servant who prays for us with loud cries and tears.

When we imagine Jesus, when we think of Jesus,
are we imagining who we want Jesus to be,
or are we willing to discover who Jesus really is?
It’s essential for us to really know Jesus
so that we can be his disciples.
“Whoever serves me must follow me,” Jesus says,
“and where I am, there also will my servant be.”
We are called to be that grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies.
And when we look at a painting like the Grunewald Crucifixion,
when we see that disturbing scene of Jesus on the cross,
we get a better understanding of what it takes to be a follower of Jesus.
Maybe that frightens us.
Maybe we’d rather just look at the Jesus who knocks at the door,
who carries the lamb on his shoulders,
the Jesus of our childhood images.

But we don’t need to be afraid of what we’ll find
when we approach the real Jesus,
even if what we see is the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Because with Jesus, there’s always more than what meets the eye.
With Jesus there’s always hope in the midst of horrible suffering.

You see, what’s even more unusual about the Isenheim Altarpiece
is that it wasn’t painted to hang in a museum.
It was painted for the front of the altar in a monastery church,
the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Germany.
That’s one of the things that makes this painting so famous.
It was used in a church.
Can you imagine coming to Mass here
and seeing this disturbing crucifixion scene in front of us
week after week?
Why would Grunewald paint such a horrific picture for a church?
It seems sadistic, perhaps.
But with Christ, suffering never has the last word.
Historians tell us that the monks of the Monastery of St. Anthony
specialized in hospital work,
especially for patients suffering from ergotism,
or what came to be known as “St. Anthony’s Fire.”
Ergotism was a horrible condition that occurred
when people ate grains or cereals that contained a certain fungus,
and it was almost like a plague during the Middle Ages.
It caused the skin to rot and shed,
and patients often had to have their limbs amputated.
People came to the Monastery of St. Anthony to be treated for ergotism,
and while they were there, they would go to Mass.
Grunewald painted his crucifixion scene for them.
The crucified Jesus of the Isenheim Altarpiece
has the symptoms of ergotism.
When the patients of the monastery came to Mass
they saw a God who suffered with them.
Where we see horror, they saw hope.
They saw a God who loves them.
And if God can take on that kind of suffering
and transform it into resurrection,
then our suffering can be transformed into resurrection.
That is the hope of Easter.

The challenge of today’s liturgy in these closing days of Lent
is to move beyond the images of Jesus
we’ve carried with us since childhood
and see the real Jesus;
to meet the Jesus we have been avoiding,
the Jesus we haven’t been seeing,
even if the sight is disturbing,
so that we, too can see in him the hope of Easter.