Acts of the Apostles 1:1–11; Ephesians 1:17–23; Matthew 28:16–20
Passing the baton
Jesus commissioned us to be his witnesses to the world and his teachers to the nations.
The critical moment in a relay race is the passing of the baton from one runner to another. More relay races are
won or lost at that moment than at any other.
The Feast of the Ascension might be compared to the passing of the baton in a relay race.
On this day 2,000 years ago, Jesus passed the baton of responsibility for the Kingdom of God to his followers.
Jesus commissioned them to complete the work he had begun.
In today’s first reading Jesus tells his disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. And in the gospel reading
he tells them to be his teachers to the world.
Practically, what does this mean? How do you and I, in the 20th century, carry out Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses to the world and his teachers to the nations?
There are as many ways to do this as there are Christians.
We can do what two 25-year-old university graduates
did recently. After completing their degrees, one from Georgetown and the other from Marquette, they entered
We can do what Albert Schweitzer did. At the age of 30 he abandoned his music career in Europe to study medicine
and become a missionary doctor in Africa.
We can do what the basketball coach of Spring Hill College, Alabama, did a few years back. At the age of 45 he resigned his position and began studies for the priesthood.
We can do what Mother Angelica did. In her 50s she began a religious television channel.
We can imagine the courage it took for these five people to do what they did.
But there’s another way to carry out the commission of Jesus. And it probably requires even more courage in the
What is it?
It’s to become witnesses and teachers in our homes, our work places, and our schools. It’s to carry out Jesus’ commission
wherever we find ourselves.
Practically, how do we do this? Do we suddenly turn into religious fanatics and begin preaching to our families, our friends, and those around us?
Not at all! We do it simply by making an effort to become the kind of person God the Father made us to be.
We do it simply by making an effort to become the kind of person Jesus teaches us to be.
We do it simply by trying to make an effort to become the kind of person the Holy Spirit inspires us to be.
We witness to jesus and teach others by our love when
others need us, by our patience when others annoy us, by our forgiveness when others wrong us, and by our perseverance
when we feel like quitting.
Our lives speak much more eloquently than our lips do
when it comes to witnessing and teaching. People would
much rather see a sermon than listen to one.
In his “Masque of Reason,” Robert Frost has God tell Job
that most people can’t think things out; they’ve got to see them acted out by other people.
In his book The Friendship Factor, Alan Loy McGinnis relates a beautiful story about author Norman Lobsenz.
Young Norman’s wife was in the midst of a prolonged, serious illness. Norman was emotionally and physically drained. The ordeal was taking its toll on him.
One night he was on the verge of collapse. Suddenly a long-forgotten incident from his childhood flashed into his mind.
The incident took place during an illness of his own mother when he was a child. He had gotten up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water. As he passed his parents’ bedroom he saw his father sitting at the bedside of his mother.
She was fast asleep.
Norman rushed into the room and cried, Daddy, is Mom worse? No, said his father, quietly. I’m just sitting here
waiting in case she wakes up and needs something.
The memory of that incident gave Norman the courage he needed to carry on.
There’s a similar episode in Keith Miller’s book The Taste of New Wine. It happened when his father was dying in a hospital. Keith writes:
As I sat there shaking my head, a small Roman Catholic nun . . .
came into the room.
She walked over to the other side of my father’s bed, picked up his hand, and patted it. She said gently, “Can you hear me.”
Keith’s father nodded his head. Then she said to him,
Have you ever accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?
His father shook his head, No. Would you like to do this? she said. Oh yes! he replied.
She then asked him to repeat after her: I accept you, Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior.
He did, and then died.
Witnessing to Jesus and teaching others about him is simply sharing with them our own faith and love. It’s sharing with them the one treasure we have to share.
The message of the Ascension is a simple one.
Jesus invites us to take from his hand the baton he received from his Father and to continue the work that his Father gave him to do on earth.
It’s witnessing to Jesus and teaching other people about
him, wherever we find ourselves, and in whatever manner
the Holy Spirit inspires us to use.
This is what the Ascension is all about. It’s simply taking seriously Jesus’ invitation to be his witness to the world
and his teacher to the nations.
Acts of the Apostles 1:11; Ephesians 1:17–23; Matthew 28:16–20
Jesus is with us all days, even to the end of the world.
Let me reread the last two sentences of today’s gospel.
Then I’d like to ask you two questions about them.
In the last two sentences, Jesus says to his disciples:
“[T]each them to obey everything I have commanded you.
And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”
Now let me ask you the first question: To whom does the you in those sentences refer: “I will be with you always”?
Obviously, it doesn’t refer to just the disciples of Jesus who were with him at that moment. It also refers to those disciples
who would follow in their footsteps. It refers to his Church,
which would continue his work after he ascended to his Father.
The second question is a little harder: Have you ever wondered whether Jesus was really with his Church?
For example, when you see even leaders of the Church failing to live up to the teachings of Jesus, do you ever wonder whether Jesus is, indeed, with his Church?
Or when you see members of the Church ignore needy brothers and sisters, do you ever wonder whether Jesus is, indeed, with his Church, inspiring its members to lead lives
of love and generosity?
Let me share with you a true story that might help clarify the question about Jesus being with his Church. It concerns
a nine-year-old boy, named Charlie, who lived in New York City.
One day Charlie and his father boarded a commuter train at 111th Street to go downtown to his father’s office.
When they got on the train, the father took Charlie over to the map and traced his finger along the blue line that showed the route of the train downtown.
He explained how they would transfer at Delaney Street.
He also explained how they would cross a bridge and then go underground. Finally, he explained how the train would skip certain stops during rush hour.
Soon they arrived at the office. Charlie spent most of
the morning meeting his father’s friends and looking
at magazines in his father’s office.
Then just before noon his father said to him, “Charlie, it’s time for you to go home now.”
Charlie’s eyes widened. His mouth dropped, and his face turned pale. The thought of going home all by himself
frightened him half to death.
His father walked him over to the station, put him on the train,
patted him on the head, and said, “You’ll be fine, Charlie.
Just follow the directions I gave you earlier.”
Charlie was excited as the train leaped forward and roared out of the station. But his excitement turned to fear when he noticed that the train skipped certain stops. But then he remembered what his father said earlier about rush hour.
Soon the train disappeared underground. Charlie’s heart beat faster when he noticed how it twisted and turned. He didn’t remember it doing that earlier.
Finally, the train emerged from the darkness and roared over the bridge.
Charlie was so nervous by now that he almost missed his transfer at Delaney Street. But he managed to get off just
Minutes later Charlie breathed a sigh of relief. He began to recognize familiar street numbers: 107th Street, 109th Street,
and, finally, 111th Street.
The train screeched to a stop, the doors opened, and Charlie stepped off. He was so proud and so happy. He had actually made it home all by himself.
What Charlie didn’t know, however, was that his father was in the next car on the train, watching over him all the way.
He had been with him every foot of the trip, just in case he needed help.
The story of Charlie and his father bears a striking resemblance to the story of Jesus and his Church.
Before departing on Ascension Thursday, Jesus gave his Church all the directions we needed to journey through life
to our heavenly destination.
Like little Charlie, however, we sometimes notice the Church taking unexpected twists and turns. And sometimes this alarms us.
When this happens, we should recall the story of Charlie.
We should also recall the promise of Jesus to be with us always on our journey through life.
Even though we can’t see him, we know he’s there, ready to help us, just in case the need arises.
And so the feast of the Ascension is a challenge and a consolation.
It’s a challenge in the sense that it exhorts us to follow the directions that Jesus gave us for journeying to our heavenly destination.
It’s also a consolation in the sense that it reminds us that Jesus is with us every foot of the way. He is sitting in the
next car, just in case we need help.
This is the message of today’s feast. This is the assurance we celebrate today. This is the good news of Ascension Thursday.
Acts of the Apostles 1:11; Ephesians 1:17–23; Matthew 28:16–20
Be my witnesses.
With hands upraised, Jesus blessed . . . his disciples . . .
And was taken up to heaven. Luke 24:50–51
One morning, seven-year-old Jenny was sitting at the kitchen table eating her cereal. Just then, her father entered the kitchen. He rushed right by her to get something.
Jenny got up, went over to him, grabbed his arm, and said,
“Daddy, you forgot something. You forgot to say ‘good morning’ to me.”
He gave her a hug, and said, “Sorry, Jenny, I was thinking about a problem at work.”
Then, still holding on to his arm, Jenny said, “Daddy, did
you say Your prayers yet this morning?” “No,” he confessed rather sheepishly.
“Come with me,” she said, “This will take just one minute.”
Then she led him out of the kitchen into her own room.
Walking him over to her prayer corner, she said, “Close
your eyes, daddy.” He obeyed.
Then, closing her own eyes, she said in a soft voice,
“Jesus said, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am with you always’ ”
Then she paused, opened her eyes, and said, “Daddy, just think about that for a minute and you’ll feel better.”
I like this story for two reasons. First, it’s exactly what a lovely, little girl would do. Second, it’s exactly what her father
needed at that moment.
He needed to recall Jesus’ promise to his followers in his final words to his disciples, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus says:
“I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”
What is true of Jenny’s father is true of all of us.
We tend to get so preoccupied with the day-to-day problems of life, that we need to pause daily and recall what Jenny grasped so firmly and expressed so beautifully.
We need to recall that Jesus is as truly present to us now,
as he was to his disciples during his life on earth.
Let us take a closer look at today’s feast of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. It is one of the most important feasts of the liturgical year and involves a twofold celebration.
First, it celebrates the triumph of Jesus over sin and death
and his glorious return to the Father in heaven.
There he reigns at the right hand of the Father, as head of his body, the Church, and as king of all creation.
This brings us back to the story of Jenny. The feast of the Ascension does not celebrate the glorious culmination
of Jesus’ bodily presence in the world.
Rather, it celebrates the glorious mystery of Jesus’ continued presence among us in an entirely new and more powerful way.
It celebrates the fact that Jesus is no longer present among us
through his human body in a physical way.
Rather, he is present among us through his mystical body in
a spiritual way. He is present as head of his risen body, the Church.
And so the first thing we celebrate on this great feast is the enthronement of Jesus in glory in heaven; and his continued presence among us as head of his body, the Church.
This brings us to the second dimension of our celebration
of the feast of the Ascension.
We celebrate the commission Jesus gives to us, his disciples.
It is spelled out for us in today’s first reading and in today’s gospel reading.
In the first reading, Jesus says to his disciples:
When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and will be witnesses for me . . . to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:8
In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples that after he ascends to heaven, they should return to Jerusalem to pray and prepare for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
When the Holy Spirit comes, they will be filled with power to go forth and be witnesses to the ends of the earth.
We might compare the feast of the Ascension to the passing of a baton from one runner to another in a relay race.
Practically speaking, what does this mean to us gathered here?
It means that we are called to continue the work Jesus began on earth, when he was present among us in his physical body.
Does this mean that we must go forth and actually preaching about Jesus, as Peter and the other disciples did?
For example, does it mean setting up information centers in shopping malls, and inviting people to come in for coffee
and explaining what we are doing at these centers and why
we are doing it?
Maybe it could mean this for some of us, especially if we are retired, financially secure, and a part of a team.
But, for most of us, it probably means something less dramatic. At the very least, it means living the Gospel
in our own daily lives.
At the very least, it means being witnesses to Jesus in our own families, as little Jenny was.
Only if we begin taking our Christian calling seriously
will the message of Jesus take hold in our world.
And, if we step out in faith and do it, it will ripple out across the world. And, if enough of us do it, that ripple will grow into a tidal wave.
And that tidal wave empowered by the Holy Spirit will renew the face of the earth in a way we never dreamed possible.
This is what we celebrate in today’s feast.
First, we celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ new presence among us in his spiritual body, the Church.
Second, we celebrate the commission Jesus gives us to witness to him at the very least by our own faith and example, as did little Jenny.