Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Ascension, Year A
May 5, 2005
Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20
1) We read at the beginning of today’s Gospel that, when the eleven disciples — meaning APOSTLES — went to Galilee and saw Jesus at the top of the mountain to which he had sent them, “they worshiped him, but some doubted.” We see these doubts in his disciples’ hearts throughout his post-resurrection appearances. They doubted when Mary Magdalene told them that the Risen Lord had appeared to her (Mk 16:11). They doubted again when the disciples of Emmaus told them they had seen him (Mt 16:13). The most memorable case is that of St. Thomas — “doubting Thomas” — who refused to believe even when the other ten apostles insisted they had seen him, responding, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25). These doubts show us that the apostles were not a bunch of gullible simpletons, ready to believe anything, however fanciful it seemed. Like many people today, like many of us here, they often doubted and were easily skeptical.
2) Hence we hardly be surprised that when Jesus met the eleven at the top of the Galilean mountain before he was about to ascend into heaven, they would be doubting even while they were adoring him. What is remarkable is not their doubts, but the fact that Jesus basically ignores their doubts. Despite their reservations, Jesus gives them the greatest mission ever received: “Go and 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.”
3) That task is not just long ago and far away. Jesus gives the same charge today. Now, as then, he issues this command to all his followers, fervent believers and skeptical doubters alike. We may think that before we can become Jesus’ messengers, we must first overcome all our doubts and hesitations. We must have all our questions answered. We must be completely ready in mind, heart, soul and strength. It’s not true. The faith of Jesus’ first missionaries was often frail. The same has been true in every age and is true today. Ours is always a faith seeking greater understanding of the mysteries and truths of the faith, but — like a swimmer who can improve only by entering the water — we deepen our understanding only by living the faith and spreading it.
4) Just as he chose the eleven before us, Jesus summons us to his missionary service just as we are, with our doubts and faults, hesitations and sins. He does not send us as his messenger to the dubious, skeptical multitudes BECAUSE we are fit for the task, but IN ORDER to make us fit for the task. It is by sharing our faith with others that our own faith is strengthened and deepened. By giving, we receive. Jesus trusted us enough to give us this share in his mission of the salvation of the world. He trusted us enough to ascend to heaven and take off our spiritual “training wheels,” equipping us with his teaching and with the promise of the Holy Spirit to help us be his witnesses to a world that cannot and will not be saved without him.
5) So on this great solemnity, we focus on the commission we have received and reflect on how Christ wants us to carry out that mission of “preaching the Gospel to every creature.” Few of us are called to preach about Jesus Christ from Church pulpits, but each of us is called through baptism, and strengthened by Confirmation, to proclaim and bear witness to Him by our conversations and especially our conduct. It is through the witness of our daily living that most of us are called to give testimony to the fact that Jesus is alive, that he is our Savior, our Lord, and our God.
6) When our new Holy Father was my age — 35 — he was playing a huge role at the Second Vatican Council. Moved by the Holy Spirit, the fathers of that Council wrote very beautifully about this witness of daily living that lay people are called to give. They said that the laity “work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven… [making] Christ know to others especially through the testimony of a LIFE RESPLENDENT in faith, hope and love” (LG 31). We carry out the great commission, in other words, by letting our faith, hope and love SHINE. The fathers added that there are certain locations that can be reached only by holy lay people allowing the Gospel to radiate in precisely this way: “The laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where ONLY THROUGH THEM can it become the salt of the earth” (LG 33). No one can preach the Gospel to young children better than parents at home. No one is better equipped to bring the Gospel to the un-churched and those who no longer practice the faith than the Catholic lay people who work with them, who go to school with them, who live in their neighborhood.
7) Jesus who gave us our marching orders at the moment he was ascending into heaven will one day judge us on how faithful we have been to them when he comes down from heaven. He will judge us on whether our life was one resplendent in faith, hope or love, or one that bore witness to other sets of values, with God on the periphery or not present at all. When he comes, he won’t judge us on what type of car we drove, but on how many people we drove who didn’t have transportation. He won’t judge us on the square footage of our house, but on how many people we welcomed into our home; He won’t judge us on about the clothes we had in our closet, but on how many people we helped to clothe; he won’t judge us on what neighborhood we lived in, but on how we treated our neighbors; he won’t hold us accountable for what our job title was, but whether we performed our job to the best of our God-given ability; he won’t judge us on what our highest salary was, but on whether we cut any corners to obtain it and how we shared it. Everything in human life is an opportunity for proclaiming in deeds. Our deeds speak much louder than our words, and if we ever want our words about Christ to hit good soil, we must till the soil of those around us by a radiant Christian example.
8 ) Twenty years ago this solemnity, our new Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, gave a beautiful radio address in his native Bavaria. In it he stressed this connection between Christ’s Ascension and our commission to proclaim Christ’s Gospel by deeds of love. It is a connection that he has tried to put into practice in a priestly life resplendent with faith, hope and love. As successor of St. Peter, he will be calling us to that same type of life, for he tells us that putting the great commission into practice is THE WAY OF OUR ASCENSION WITH CHRIST.
9) Cardinal Ratzinger began this short, beautiful reflection by focusing on the meaning of the Lord’s Ascension:
“Surely all of us … are familiar with those delightfully naïve pictures in which, above the heads of the apostles, only the feet of Jesus are still visible beneath the cloud that envelopes him. … It seems to me that precisely in the apparent naïveté of this picture something very profound comes to light. All we see of Christ in this historical account are his feet and the cloud.
His feet — what do they signify?
First of all, we are reminded of a curious passage in Matthew’s account of the Resurrection, where it is said that the women clung to the feet of the Risen Lord and adored him. As the Risen One, he surpasses all earthly standards; it is only his feet that we can still touch and we touch them in adoration. …
We might reflect [moreover] that it is only when we prayerfully follow his footprints that we come closer to his actual steps. …
[But] at the same time, it becomes obvious that we do not find the footsteps of Christ if we look only downward, if we only measure his footsteps and try to grasp faith with our hands. The Lord’s movement is upward, and it is only by moving upward ourselves, by looking upward and rising upward that we know him.”
10) In order to follow Christ’s footsteps and live the type of life to which he calls us, our new Pope tells us, we need first to seek his feet where they are, above. We need to lift up our heads and hearts and to pursue the things of heaven. St. Paul told us as much 40 days ago on Easter Sunday, when he exhorted us: “If Christ has been raised, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1-2). Once our values are those of Christ in heaven, we can start to recognize his feet and reverence them in disguise in the various feet around us. That leads, our new pope concludes, to the concrete application of the great commission by deeds of love in this world:
“The true ascent of mankind takes place precisely when a man learns to turn in humility to another person, bowing deeply at his feet in the position of one who would wash the feet of the other. IT IS ONLY THE HUMILITY THAT KNOWS HOW TO BOW DOWN THAT CAN RAISE A PERSON UP.”
11) We learn that humility from Christ himself, who at the first Eucharist bowed down to wash his apostles’ feet, getting those feet ready to bring his Gospel to the ends of the earth. Immediately afterward, the Lord manifested an even greater humility, taking on the appearances of bread and wine to feed the apostles (those “sent out”) with his own body and blood. The Eucharist is the way par excellence that Jesus keeps his promise at the end of today’s Gospel, “Know that I will be with you until the end of time.” It is also the way that he prepares us and nourishes for OUR mission to share in HIS mission of the salvation of the world.
12) To live the Eucharist, to “do THIS in memory of” Christ, means to be bow down and wash others’ feet. It means to do in memory of Him what He did out of love for us, to say to others by our deeds, “This is my body,” “this is my blood,” “this is my sweat,” this is my life” given out of love for you.
13) As we prepare now to receive the body and blood of the One seated at the Right Hand of the Father, we ask Him for all the help he knows we’ll need to live up to this mission and with courage go into the whole world, beginning here in Hyannis, and proclaim this Gospel to every creature. Our ascent to heaven with him will take place when we learn from him to bow deeply at his feet in the position of one who would wash another’s feet. It is through this humility that we will be exalted with him forever (Mt. 23:12).