Yesterday was Ascension Thursday, the traditional day when the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated. However, most parishes in the US will celebrate the Ascension this coming Sunday (see this article for an explanation of why the date was moved!).
In these Easter weeks leading up to the Ascension, and then Pentecost, we’ve been hearing from the Acts of the Apostles – lots of Paul’s travels, and Jesus’ words to the disciples in the days between His Resurrection and Ascension. We see Paul and the Apostles struggles to form the early Church. We see them grappling with the questions that arose – about circumcision, baptism, Jewish and Gentile customs, what one could and could not eat, etc. We see Paul and Peter at the Jersualem Council attempting to sort out these questions (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29, 6th Sunday of Easter) and we see Paul engaging the Greeks in dialogue about such matters also, at the Areopagus (Acts 17, Wednesday daily mass). Throughout these readings, the themes of Spirit and authority have come up again and again.
It seems that our contemporary US culture is not comfortable with the word “authority” – so it is worth dwelling on for a moment: Roots of the word authority: Middle English: from Old French autorite, from Latin auctoritas, from auctor ‘originator, promoter’ (see author).
So, author and authority have a common root, they share a common history. God as the Author of all life has author-ity over all life. He is the Author of our souls, our hearts, our bodies – all is within the Authorship of His Providence.
Let’s look at the First Reading from the Solemnity of the Ascension:
“He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses (Acts 1:11)
Christ tells us upfront that we won’t always understand the “times or seasons” that God our Father has written into our lives. But He does not leave it there. And this is the essential connection between authority and spirit – God does not impose His Authority on us (though He is very capable of doing so), and He does not keep us separate from Himself. After Christ ascended to the Father, He sent us the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost – that we might be entirely connected to Him in relationship. The Spirit, a part of God Himself living in us, enlightens our souls to understand His Providence – as much as we each need to understand it. Wednesday‘s daily mass Gospel touched on this:
Jesus said to his disciples:“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth. (John 16:12-15)
God desires us to be guided by His Spirit to truth, to an understanding, to a knowing. Because you can’t be in relationship with someone you don’t know. And what kind of a relationship is it if the two persons involved don’t try to understand each other? Let’s look at the Second Reading from the Ascension:
Brothers and sisters: May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might: which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way. (Eph 1:17-23).
Once the Spirit reveals knowledge of God our Father to our hearts, we are drawn into relationship with Him – drawn into His love, and love is born in us as a result. It is this love, this relationship, that is the foundation for the authority God has over our hearts. When we love, we trust – and when we trust, we can be vulnerable and give the Lord that which He will never forcefully take – our liberty. Our liberty, our obedience, before His Holy Will and Providence.
That is the beauty of authority. And it’s relationship to the Spirit. You see, the two are juxtaposed, often set up as opposites in our Church. But they are inherently connected, interacting in relationship with each other. We are invited by God, never forced, to keep His word and abide by His law – for even His commandments are invitations in the sense that we are never forced to obey. Our individualistic culture rebels and says “no one will tell me what to do!” We claim all rights and reject all responsibilities – and that is a broken relationship for sure. But, in a sense, that cry does express something true about human nature – we rebel at being forced against our will. Because real obedience is a gift to be given in love – ultimately to the One Who loves us perfectly. And it is only a gift when we give it out of liberty, our own free will.
Consider the Gospel from last Sunday, the Sixth Sunday of Easter:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Whoever loves me will keep my word,
and my Father will love him,
and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
Whoever does not love me does not keep my words;
yet the word you hear is not mine
but that of the Father who sent me. (Jn 14:23-29)
We keep God’s words, in other words we obey Him and respect His author-ity in our lives, because of love, because of relationship born of the Spirit. Yet if we do not love Him, if we do not know Him, how can we keep His word, the Father’s word? It is only in love that we can be vulnerable and humble enough to entrust our will to God. And He invites us all to partake, receive and participate in this love.
To apply these thoughts – human relationship reflects this dynamic of revelation and relationship, authority and spirit. We can think of the parent-child relationship – when a father teaches with love, the child obeys with love – and even in his struggles with his father’s authority, he will struggle out of love. But if the the father builds no relationship with the child, communicates no love to the child, and does not let the child know him, the child will feel no motivation to obey, no desire to trust or be vulnerable.
And what of human secular authority? What of our bosses or professors? Our leaders? Does not our assent to being lead/governed/taught/formed by them stem from our trust in them? Does it not stem from relationship? Without this relationship, in whatever appropriate professional form it takes, we cannot respect or trust their authority.
And in our Church? Is not the relationship between authority and spirit the source of our growth and richness as the Catholic Church? We respect the authority of Pope Francis, of our clergy, of our Church Fathers, of our tradition, etc., as a reflection of God’s Authority — and out of love for Him and for Holy Mother Church. But if we do not love Her, His Bride, and if we are not in relationship with Her, than we cannot obey or recognize Her authority. And Her authority is always renewed, advanced and pulled forward by the Spirit. The Spirit brings new-ness in every age, and the tension between that new-ness and our established tradition is the growing pains of the Body of Christ who is always being born into the world anew.
Let us not refuse the legitimacy of authority as our culture does, let us not be so stubborn and prideful that we reject anyone’s authority except our own. Rather, let us be open to the Spirit of truth, and pray to understand just what the Father is revealing through His Spirit in each of our lives. Let us be ever more open to receiving God’s love in Christ – and let His love convert our prideful hearts, that we may discover the absolute depths of the riches of humility that are born out of giving the gift of our liberty to God alone. Amen.