Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Ascension of the Lord, Year A
May 9, 2002
Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Mt28:16-20
We celebrate or mark three things today:
1) An ending — We celebrate the end of Jesus’ earthly, physical life. About 33 years after the Son of the Eternal Father, the Word, became flesh, became fully human, became one of us, it was time for him to return to the place from which he came, to the place where he was, is and will be from all eternity. What an earthly life he had!
a) Conceived thanks to the yes of sinless 14 year old girl, immediately brought on mission to sanctify his precursor, he was born in a cave used as an animal stable, adored by the multitude of angels, simple shepherds and wise men from afar, but sought to be killed by those who from the beginning feared his presence.
b) To Egypt he went, just like the Israelites, and from Egypt he returned.
c) For almost 30 years, God lived in Nazareth, a town much smaller than Fall River, obeying human parents, doing his chores, doing simple human work as a carpenter, but all the same, through that ordinary human life, saving us.
d) Eventually after three decades of silence, it was time for the most eventful three years the world had ever known. The God-man made his first appearance lining up among sinners for whom he was to die to be baptized by his relative, St. John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove and the Father pronounced from heaven how pleased he was in His Son. He went out for 40 days and 40 nights into the desert to prepare for what was to come. And upon his return, he called followers, and then began his mission of preaching, healing and saving. Countless miracles he worked during those days, casting out demons, healing the sick, blind and the lame, raising the dead, reconciling sinners to God and announcing the greatest news ever heard, the Good News of God’s love for man.
e) His message brought him enemies from two groups, those who thought they had already figured everything out, and those who didn’t want to have anything figured out, from the rigorist Pharisees and the libertine Herodians. Together they conspired to kill him, out of sheer malice, but in accordance with God’s own plan preannounced by the prophets.
f) During the Passover, Jesus himself would pass willingly through suffering and death to eternal life and, like Moses, lead his people to freedom from sin and toward the eternal promised land. On the night he was betrayed, he left us the gift of the priesthood and the gift of the Eucharist. On the following afternoon, he left his mother to his beloved disciple, his body to the tomb and his soul to his Heavenly Father. He was hammered to a tree and died.
g) Then, three days later, the Light of the World burst through the darkness of those days, and he rose from the dead. He appeared to his desolate disciples, who were overcome with fear and joy. For 40 days he appeared to them. He strengthened them. He taught them. He loved them.
h) Today, we celebrate the end of that earthly, physical life. At the end of his 30+ years of earthly life, at the end of 3+ years of forming his disciples, at the end of 40 days of his work among his apostles and disciples, he was going to return home, just as he had promised. He took them up to a mountain, blessed them and ascended into heaven. And, as we read at the end of St. Luke’s Gospel, the disciples were “overjoyed.”
2) A beginning — The disciples were “filled with joy.” At first glance, that might seem strange. Why were they happy? Wouldn’t they have been sad to see Jesus taken away from them, to see the one they had left everything to follow be taken away in the clouds never to be seen again on earth in the same way? Why didn’t Jesus just stay on earth in his physical, bodily presence forever? The answer to all of these questions is contained within the mystery of the second thing we celebrate or mark today, a beginning. The beginning of the Church. The beginning of the Apostles’ mission. The beginning of the mission we now share.
a) Jesus, in taking the disciples up on the mountain, gave them his final instructions. He had been preparing them, and preparing us, for three years by what he said and did. His first words showed exactly who he knew he was. “Full authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He is Lord of the universe, King of Heaven and King of Earth. He was now going to give to his Church, through the leaders he had chosen and to all those who would become part of his body over the course of the centuries, a share in that power and a share in his mission. “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Jesus had given them the mission to take Him to all peoples, to help all people follow him (“make disciples of all nations”), to introduce them all into his own divine life and the Father’s family (“baptizing them”), and to teach them about the real purpose of human life, which is to love, which is what Jesus showed us by his own life and mission. This real love, as he said during the last Supper and as we heard last weekend, is shown by obedience to God. “He who keeps my commandments is the one who loves me.” So in his commissioning of the disciples, in telling them to teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you, he was instructing them to teach them all how to love.
b) But he also made clear to them that they wouldn’t be doing it on their own. His very last words in St. Matthew’s Gospel were, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” He is with us always.
1) He is with us in his word, which he left them, and which they preserved for us in Sacred Scripture. Through the Gospels, Jesus continues to speak to us live.
2) He is with us through the grace we receive in all of the sacraments, beginning with baptism. Grace is simply the fancy word to express our participation through God’s mercy in his own divine life. It is in grace that God abides in us and we abide in him, just like the vine and the branches.
3) He is with us through in the sacraments. He is with us always in the Eucharist, which is his real presence, which he gives to us when he says through the priest, “This is my body, this is the cup of my blood.” We receive the same body that ascended into heaven, just under the appearances of simple bread and wine. We receive his own forgiveness, when he says through the priest he himself has ordained, “I absolve you from your sins.”
4) He is with us in his Holy Spirit, which he sends to us, as he promised, to remind us of everything Jesus taught us, lead us into all truth, and testify to Him through, with and in us.
c) Before ascending into heaven, Jesus said, as we read in Acts, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We will be his witnesses, the witnesses that he is alive, that he loves us still and that he calls all people to himself.
d) This is the second thing we celebrate today, this mission, this new beginning, the continuation of which we now share. As much as Jesus said 1972 years ago, “Go into the whole world,” he says it to us, today, live, “Go!” Go throughout Fall River, throughout SE Massachusetts, through New England, go throughout the whole world and proclaim the good news to every creature. He loved us so much he wanted us to share in his mission of saving the world. He loved us so much and believed in his so much that he entrusted us with this share in the mission he himself was given by His Father. And we will experience his presence, his life, his gifts to the extent that we take up our role in that mission. Each one of us has a crucial role in the new Acts of the Apostles he’s writing for the 3rd Christian millennium. There are no bench-warmers on God’s team. Either we’re out there on the court with Him, wherever that court may be, carrying out faithfully our following him and taking him to others, or we’re really not with Him at all.
3) The end of this new beginning — The third and last thing we mark and celebrate on this great feast day is the end of this new beginning, the goal of the mission, the finish line of the race we’re doing in relay with Christians throughout the centuries and alongside Christ every worthwhile day in our life. The end of this new beginning is the place to which Jesus ascended, heaven, where he has gone to prepare a place for us. Heaven exists. Jesus has sent us on mission for precisely two reasons, so that we might ourselves arrive there and so that we might arrive surrounded by countless others for whom he died. None of us knows when we’ll cross the finish line, when Jesus will come to us to present us with our wreath and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of time,” but we do know that if we keep heading down this path on this mission, we will meet him and hear those words. Cheering us on are all the angels and the saints. Helping us, from the inside and the outside, is God Himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But God always leaves us free, and when we’re free, we have the choice to give up on the race. Some of us may be tempted to quit the race, just sit down, and stop heading our lives toward heaven. The Lord may send others to help us get there, but ultimately if we choose to sit on out, we won’t arrive. Some of us may be tempted to say, “I’m going to head in another direction.” If we do, he’ll come back and hunt us down and try to get us back on the road, but if we don’t come back with him, we won’t finish the only truly important race we’ll ever run. Many of us will wound ourselves along the journey with all types of sins, which fill us with all types of spiritual injuries. If we don’t go to the spiritual doctor, who is Jesus, in the sacrament he set up, we won’t make it to the finish line. It’s our choice.
Jesus has died and lives to give us everything we need to follow him along that road to the triumphant finish and eternal celebration in heaven. He tells us to keep our eyes on the prize, to keep our eyes on him, to keep our eyes on heaven, for which we were created. When we pray tonight, “Lift up our your hearts,” we’re called to lift up our hearts to Him who has ascended into heaven, to hear his encouragement, to hear his coaching, to hear his words of love. We lift up our hearts to the Lord and ask him, one day, to lift up our bodies and souls as well.