Jesus is Not a Dictator
Holy Thursday and the Last Supper provide us with a tender and complicated scene of personal relationships: an admixture of joy, melancholy, and disturbing prospects of denial and betrayal. The Sacred three days—the Triduum—conclude with the glorious Resurrection. The grand finale of the Easter Season includes the Ascension and Pentecost. But we may wonder why the Ascension of Jesus—His departure from the friends He loves and His return to the Father—is a glorious mystery of the Rosary rather than one of the most sorrowful mysteries.
Imagine a world without the Ascension, where Jesus continues to walk among us. Immediately after the Resurrection, the Apostles did not believe Jesus rose from the dead, they knew Jesus rose by their direct experience. They also knew the Resurrection validated the teachings of Jesus. But the Resurrection did not change the human condition, our sinful inclinations, family relations, and political circumstances.
We easily share the misconceptions of the disciples who persisted in asking the risen Jesus: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) Remaining among us in His glorified flesh after the Resurrection, most of us would have Him play the messiah of our expectations. Family altercation? Call for a Jesus intervention. Warring nations? Have Jesus send in His angelic Marines. Arguing with your boss? Have Jesus settle a few scores. With Jesus multi-locating with His glorified body and working His miracles to keep us healthy, safe, and secure, it wouldn’t take long for the pacification of the whole world under one rule. Heaven on earth at last!
With Jesus as our Dictator, there would be no need for virtue, only slavery. The warrior Jesus of justice would necessarily suppress freedom to force His peace. Every thought, word, and deed would be subject to immediate censure, as necessary to keep the peace. In fact, it is easy to imagine living in fear of Jesus because we would never know when He would have to whack us to prevent injustice. Hence, the prospect of a resurrected in-the-flesh Jesus on earth is, in the final analysis, not only unrealistic but also dreadful. We could become materialists, living only to avoid suffering. The whole world would become a “safe space” without freedom, a massive concentration camp.
All of this is bizarre speculation of course. But the considerations of such messianic expectations may help explain the ease with which ideologies have imposed on us parallel visions of justice. Without the brutal communism of the 20th century (and the emergent leftist tyranny in our country today), perhaps we would not as readily appreciate the absolute need for the Ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit. Our relationship with Jesus in faith is essential to understanding the nature of the dignity He confers on us.
The ministry of Jesus is the service of faith and freedom. Jesus is compassionate: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. “ (Mt. 11:29) But His healing miracles were not primarily deeds of compassion. His healing purpose was to elicit something far more valuable: faith. His miracles change hearts only through the free response of faith, not force.
He even promotes faith beyond the delights of personal experience. In the garden after the Resurrection, when Mary Magdalene tries to embrace Jesus with joy, Jesus declines, explaining, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn. 20:17) Jesus wants Mary to forgo a transitory personal encounter in favor of an enduring encounter—in faith.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) Through the eyes of faith, we accept the dignity conferred on us by a Baptism that incorporates us into the Mystical Body of Christ. Animated by faith, the descent of the Holy Spirit impels us in virtue. When we call on Jesus for help, we are calling on the Holy Spirit to send His Gifts upon us and others to continue the work of the Lord. With Christian generosity ignited by faith, there is no hint of coercion or tyranny. In faith, we recognize our great dignity as indispensable instruments of Jesus in freedom.
Jesus celebrates the first Mass on Holy Thursday anticipating the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The new and everlasting Covenant and His Presence provides us with food for the journey, hope, and strength during the trials of life—our crucifixions—and fulfills the prophecy He made to the crowds: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”(Jn. 6:51)
Faith is the gateway to hope and love—and freedom. But our faith in Jesus above all is also—paradoxically—a personal encounter with the risen Lord in the Eucharist and a foretaste of heavenly glory. Like the Apostles at the Last Supper, we also eat His body and drink His blood under the humble appearances of bread and wine. Without depriving us of our identity, the Holy Spirit transforms us in freedom. Hence, the Blessed Eucharist is the true Sacrament of faith and freedom as Jesus promises: “[A]nd you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (Jn. 8:32)
The Real Presence of His sacred resurrected body in the Eucharist prepares us to respond with confidence to His command despite the obstacles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt. 28:19-20)
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