Ascension Acts of the Apostles 1:1–11; Ephesians 1:17–23; Mark 16:15–20
Witness and Preach Jesus commissioned us to witness to the world and to preach to the nations.
An American army chaplain had just given the homily at a Mass for American servicemen in a cathedral in Europe.
The theme of the homily was: “Be proud of your Catholic faith; don’t be ashamed to practice it in public.”
After the Mass a sailor, obviously moved by the homily, stopped the chaplain in front of the cathedral.
“Would you hear my confession, Father?” he asked.
“I’d be happy to hear it,” said the chaplain. With that the sailor knelt down right on the sidewalk in front of the cathedral.
“Never mind kneeling,” said the chaplain. “People will stare.”
“The heck with them, Father!” said the sailor. “Let ’em stare. I’m proud of my faith.”
The sailor’s spirit of witness may have been a bit overly enthusiastic, but he certainly had the right idea.
In today’s first reading, Jesus tells his disciples, “[y]ou will be witnesses for me . . . to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
Jesus’ command includes all of us. By our baptism and our confirmation we are all called to be witnesses to Jesus.
But our baptism and confirmation go even further. They call upon us to do even more. In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “preach the gospel to all people.” Mark 16:15
That too is something all of us must do.
Proclaiming the good news about Jesus is not reserved for priests and religious alone. It’s a responsibility we all share by our baptism and confirmation.
This raises a question.
How can the average person preach about Jesus in today’s world?
Let me share with you a story of how one person answered that question.
Ruddell Norris was a conscientious young man. But he was also a shy young man. He found it hard just to talk to people, much less to discuss religion with them.
Then one day he got an idea.
Ruddell did a lot of reading, and he was aware of the many pamphlets about the Catholic faith.
So he decided to set aside a part of his weekly allowance to buy pamphlets.
Ruddell placed his pamphlets in places where he thought people would pick them up and read them. For example, he placed them in waiting rooms and in reception areas.
One day a young woman who was a friend of his family told his parents how she became a convert and how her husband returned to the Church. “It all started with a pamphlet,” she said. “I found it in the hospital waiting room.”
You can imagine the boy’s excitement when he learned of the impact just one of his pamphlets had.
The story of Ruddell Norris underscores an important point about proclaiming the Good News: There are many ways to do it.
We can proclaim it directly, as Ruddell did. Or we can proclaim it less directly, for example, by praying and by giving financial support to the missionary activity of the Church.
The Feast of the Ascension is one of the most important feasts of the entire liturgical year. That’s why we celebrate it in a special way.
We might compare the Feast of the Ascension to the passing of a baton from one runner to another in a relay race.
On this day 2,000 years ago, Jesus passed the baton of continuing his work on earth to his followers.
The way we complete that work is by witnessing to our faith, as the sailor did, and by proclaiming it to others, as Ruddell did.
This, then, is the twofold responsibility that the Feast of the Ascension sets before us. Each of us must respond to this responsibility in our own way, as the Holy Spirit inspires us.
Let’s close with these words of Jesus to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. They take on special meaning for us in the light of today’s feast:
“You are like salt for the whole human race. But if salt loses its saltiness, there is no way to make it salty again. It has become worthless, so it is thrown out and people trample on it.
“You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. . . . In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:13–16
Series II Ascension Acts of the Apostles 1:1–11; Ephesians 1:17–23; Mark 16:15–20
Change in Presence The Ascension marks a new mode of presence and action for Jesus in our world.
The exterior wall of the Tribune building in Chicago contains a number of unusual, protruding stones.
Each of these stones is identified by a plaque telling where it originally came from.
For example, there’s a stone from the great pyramid of Egypt, there’s a stone from the Taj Mahal of India, there’s a stone from the Arch of Triumph of France, and—the latest addition—there’s a stone from the Berlin Wall.
When the architect designed the building, he wanted to make the world present in it.
If the architect had designed the Tribune building today, he might have taken a different approach. He might have made the world present in it in an even more powerful way.
For example, he might have filled the lobby of the building with a solid wall of television sets monitoring by satellite the great capitals of the world.
Or, if he and the Tribune people
wanted to outdo themselves, they might have made the world present in a remarkable, flesh-and-blood way, by stationing live representatives from the nations of the world in the lobby of the building.
This example illustrates an important point: there are varying ways and degrees of making something present.
The stones in the wall of the Tribune building are one kind of presence. Live satellite TV coverage is another. And flesh-and-blood representatives are yet another.
This brings us to the great feast that we celebrate today: the feast of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven.
This feast does not celebrate the end of Jesus’ presence in the world. On the contrary, it celebrates a change in the way Jesus is present in the world.
It celebrates the fact that Jesus is no longer present in the world through his human body in a physical way. Jesus is now present in the world through his mystical body in a spiritual way. He is present through his Church:
“For where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them.” Matthew 18:20
And so the feast of the Ascension does not mark the end of Jesus’ presence in the world. It simply marks the change in the way Jesus is present in the world.
Jesus is now present through us, his followers.
This leads us to an even more important point.
The Ascension marks not only a change in Jesus’ presence in the world. It also marks a change in Jesus’ activity in the world.
Jesus no longer acts through the members of his physical body, but through the members of his mystical body.
To put it in another way, Jesus no longer acts by using his own human voice to address people, his own human heart to love people, and human hands to reach out to people.
Rather, he acts through us—you and me. He uses our voice to address people, our heart to love people, and our hands to reach out to people.
This is what we celebrate on this great feast.
On this day 2,000 years ago, Jesus passed on to us, his followers, the responsibility to let him be present in our modern world.
On this day 2,000 years ago, Jesus passed on to us, his followers, the responsibility to let him continue to speak, love, and reach out to people in our modern world.
On this day 2,000 years ago, Jesus passed on to us, his followers, the responsibility to let him continue to work in our modern world.
This is the reason that we gathered together here today. This is the mystery that we celebrate in this liturgy today. This is the challenge that Scripture holds out to us today.
Let’s close with a prayer that sums up what we have been trying to say:
God of mercy and love, look down upon your children, gathered here about your Son’s table.
Give us a new mind to appreciate our calling: to be the new body by which your Son is present in our world.
Give us a new heart to carry out our calling: to be the new voice, the new heart, and the new hands by which your Son acts in our world.
Give us a new spirit to be what we are: the new body by which your Son speaks, loves, and reaches out to people in modern times.
Series III Ascension Acts of the Apostles 1:1–11; Ephesians 4:1–13, 22–23; Mark 16:15–20
Other Christs We are called to be “doubles” for Jesus.
The disciples went and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them. Based on Mark 16:15
The star of every major movie usually has a double. The purpose of the double is to fill in for the star during the shooting of difficult or dangerous scenes.
For example, the double will fill in for the star on a runaway horse or on a leap from a moving car. In other words, the double does what the star can’t do or shouldn’t risk doing.
Sometimes the double even lives with the star for a while. The reason for this is to better study the star’s mannerisms and bodily movements.
This helps the double fill in for the star with such skill that the average person won’t be aware that a substitution has been made.
This brings us to the feast that we celebrate today: the Ascension of Jesus to his Father in heaven. Above all, it brings us to the practical meaning of the feast for each one of us.
Jesus needs doubles today. Jesus needs them because he can no longer do what he used to do when he walked about on earth—teaching people, blessing people, healing people, and forgiving them. Jesus needs doubles who will be willing to live with him—so to speak—and study him, in order to resemble him more closely.
To borrow the words of Saint Paul, Jesus needs doubles who will strive to be able to say what Paul was able to say:
It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.
The life that I live now, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loves me and gave his life for me. Galatians 2:20
Some years ago, Time magazine ran a story on what it called “The New Missionaries.”
These are Christians who study Jesus in detail and do for people today what Jesus can no longer do, now that he has ascended to the Father.
Time focused on one particular missionary, especially, to illustrate. It focused on Sister Emmanuelle, whose ministry is in Cairo, Egypt.
Her day begins at 4:30 each morning. She wakes up in a dirt-floor hut that has a gaping hole in the roof.
After washing in a bucket of water, she puts on a plain white dress and hangs a small crucifix around her neck.
Then guided by an old battered flashlight, she walks through the darkness to the nearest church to attend Mass.
Her walk takes her past piles of rotting garbage, heaps of junk, and packs of snarling dogs.
Sister Emmanuelle is a double, or stand-in, for Jesus to several thousand garbage pickers.
Cairo’s poorest of the poor keep body and soul together by salvaging whatever they can from the city’s garbage dump
About nine o’clock, she begins a class for about 40 children. She teaches them how to speak, correctly, their native Arabic tongue.
But her eyes really light up and sparkle when she moves from language study to Bible study.
All the while, she waves away clouds of buzzing flies that fill the air around the garbage dump.
After her Bible class Sister Emmanuelle makes her rounds, visiting families to find out what their most pressing needs are. She writes these down in a little notebook that she carries in her pocket. Sister Emmanuelle is a very gentle person. But as Time magazine points out, she can become tough as nails, especially when she is seeking government help for her garbage pickers.
Time ends its story saying that Sister Emmanuelle epitomizes the new missionaries. They are people who double, or stand in, for Jesus.
They do for the hungry, the homeless, and the powerless what Jesus can no longer do for them.
How long will Sister Emmanuelle be able to do all this? Her answer is as firm as it is joyful: “I want to stay here until the day I die. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
Few of us are called or gifted to do what Sister Emmanuelle does. But all of us have been called and gifted in some way to double for Jesus—whether this be in our own home, the workplace, or a classroom.
What the story of Sister Emmanuelle does is to remind us of our own unique gifts and calling. Saint Paul writes:
The Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all.
The Spirit gives one person a message full of wisdom, while to another person the same Spirit gives a message full of knowledge.
One and the same Spirit gives faith to one person, while to another he gives the power to heal. . . .The same Spirit . . . gives a different gift to each person. 1 Corinthians 12:7–9, 11
In other words, each of us has been called and empowered by our baptism and our confirmation to double for Jesus in some way for the good of all.
From a practical point of view, this is what the feast of the Ascension is all about. It’s about taking to heart the words Jesus spoke to his disciples just before ascending to his Father. He said:
“When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me . . . to the ends of the earth.” Acts of the Apostles 1:8
It’s about taking to heart the words of Jesus to his disciples in his Sermon on the Mount:
“You are like salt for the whole human race. . . . You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. . . .
“In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:13–14, 16