A: Ascension of the Lord

Mother’s Day and the Ascension

May 8, 2005

Matthew 28:16-20

Today we gather together to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord and Mother’s Day.  It might seem that there is no connection between these two events but the truth is that the connection is rather strong.  Both are about life, new life, and both call us to hope and to responsibility.

There is a principle in Catholic theology, which says that the supernatural builds upon the natural.  That is, spiritual realities, invisible realities, build upon the visible realities of the material world.  This principle makes sense because it flows from our conviction that the same God who worked on the supernatural reign, saving us through Jesus Christ, is the same God who created the natural world and everything in it.  Therefore we should not expect that the supernatural events of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, are in anyway in conflict with the natural world in which we live. They both flow from the same God.  In fact, the spiritual order builds upon the observable visible world, which everyone recognizes and appreciates.  This is how Mother’s Day and Jesus’ Ascension are connected.  They both talk about life, new life, but on different levels: mothers on the natural level and Jesus on the supernatural level.

Why is it that we honor mothers?  Not because they are perfect; not because they are always right.  Mothers are weak and have the same flaws as every other person.  But they can make one claim that no one else can:  that new life comes through them, through their very bodies—that  through them the human race continues.  No man can make that claim.  No one who is not a mother can assume that accomplishment.  Mothers are the ones through whom life comes and new life is always a reason for hope.

In the 1970’s there was a TV mini-series called Holocaust.  It  chronicled the horrific events through which Hitler tried to exterminate the Jewish people.  The last scene in that series was a powerful one, for it took place in a concentration camp just before the camp was liberated.  The Nazi guards had already fled and the prisoners were sitting together in a large barracks.  The scene was one of desolation.  Many were dead, those who were still alive were malnourished and sick. They sat without a sound: too weak to move, to sad to weep.  Then the silence was broken by the cry of a baby.  One of the prisoners in the camp, a young woman, had just given birth to a child.  The heads of the prisoners turned in that direction and the young child was lifted up. The scene faded.  That terrible story of annihilation ended on a note of hope; because the life of any child is always a sign of hope, a new beginning, another chance, a fresh possibility.  Every child who is born is new hope for the world. That hope comes through mothers.

Now what mothers are on the natural level, Jesus is on the supernatural level; because through his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is always a reason for hope.  No matter where we find ourselves in life, no matter what mistakes we have made, no matter what doubts or fears we have to face, there is reason for hope because Jesus has risen and has ascended and sits at the right hand of the Father in power.  Jesus knows us and cares for us, we trust in him, we believe in him. He knows where our life is going. He is not a bearer of death but, like a mother, one who brings us new life, another chance, a fresh beginning.

Yes, new life is always a sign of hope. But hope leads to responsibility.  Each one of us at our birth was a sign of hope for the world.  Are we still a sign of hope today?  When people meet us are they encouraged or are they intimidated; are the uplifted or are they discouraged?  Are we able to stand before God and say, “I am still trying to be a sign of hope for the world, a person of integrity, a person of compassion, a person of service, a person of courage”?  We who were born as a sign of hope for the world have the responsibility to live as a sign of hope for others.  This is why on the supernatural level in today’s gospel Jesus sends out his disciples to all the nations to teach them what he has commanded them.  We who have received new life from Christ have the responsibility to bring that good news to others so that they can see in us a reflection of God’s love and find hope in a darkened world.

The supernatural builds upon the natural.  Both mothers and Jesus are bearers of new life.  Life is always a sign of hope, and we have the responsibility to bring that hope to others.  Live then as the hope that you are.  Christ is risen and ascended so there is no reason to be afraid.  He reigns in power and he cares for you.  Trust him.  You have received new life from Christ.  Live then as hope for the world.

 

Doubt as a Friend

May 4, 2008

Matthew 28:16 – 20

The glorious gospel that we just heard concludes the gospel of Matthew. In it the disciples behold the glory of the risen Lord, and Jesus sends them out from the mountain top to recreate the earth. Jesus has been given full authority on heaven and earth, and he uses that authority to begin the mission of the church. And yet in the beauty and the power of this gospel there is one phrase that strikes a contrary note—one phrase that shocks us by its negative thrust. When the disciples see the risen Lord they worship him but then we are told, “They doubted.” They doubted. How is it possible to doubt in such circumstances? How does one doubt in the presence of the risen Lord? What is this note of doubt doing in this otherwise glorious gospel?

I think it is inviting us to reconsider what doubt is and how doubt works. I would suggest to you that doubt can be a much more positive reality than that we usually see it to be. Normally we see doubt as the opposite of faith. You either believe or you doubt. But I think this gospel suggests that there are times doubt can be the companion of faith, even the friend of faith. Doubt can call faith to deepen and to mature.

You see it is not adequate for our faith to remain the same throughout our lives. We cannot take the faith that we learned as children and presume that such faith will serve us the rest of our lives. As we go through life, we grow, we mature. Faith must grow and mature with us. A simplistic faith is inadequate to the challenges of adult life. Here is where doubt can play a constructive role. Doubt can prompt us to question a simplistic faith so that our faith may mature. Doubt may invite us to reconsider an inadequate faith so that we might have a faith that helps us to live.

When we begin a new phase in our life, it can be frightening. When we start a new job or enter into a new relationship or take on a particular challenge, we know that we will need God’s help. But in those times we may doubt whether God will be there for us. Such doubt does not need to be seen negatively, such doubt can be the opportunity for us to recommit ourselves to the belief that God will be faithful. There are times in our life when we have prayed for something and it has not been granted us. In those moments we can begin to doubt. Has God heard me? Does God care? Is it even worthwhile to pray? Those doubts need not destroy us. They can be the opportunity for us to develop a more mature attitude of prayer, one that does not simply ask for what we want, but also knows that every prayer must end with the prayer of Jesus, “Thy will be done.”

When we face tragedy in our life, it is easy for us to ask where is God? Doesn’t God care? Why would God allow this to happen to me? And that can give rise to doubts. Yet those doubts can be the opportunity for us to understand that God’s promise to care for us is not a promise that we will be protected from every pain or suffering. Rather God promises us to walk with us through every phase of our lives. Doubt can cause us to reevaluate an immature and simple faith and give us the chance to deepen and mature what we believe.

Now of course some doubt does lead to despair. Some doubt can lead to the end of faith. But that is not true of all doubt. Doubt can be constructive. So when we find ourselves doubting, we should not panic. Doubt is not necessarily the sign that we are losing our faith. It can be the sign that we are growing in our faith.

The apostles doubted the presence of the risen Lord, and Jesus nevertheless sent them out to preach the gospel. We can do that as well. If we allow doubt to undo a simplistic faith, it can lead us to maturity. If we allow doubt to challenge an inadequate faith, it can bring us to one that suffices. If we allow doubt to remove a faith that constricts us and holds us back, we can find the way to eternal life.

 

Standing Together

June 6, 2011

Matthew 28:  16-20

The selection we just heard is the ending of Matthew’s gospel.  It makes it clear that Matthew’s gospel ends with a promise by the risen Christ:  “Behold, I am with you always until the end of the age.”

Now this is the ultimate promise because all of us within ourselves know that we do not want to be alone.  We want someone to be with us.  We want someone to stand by us as we face the challenges of life.  Jesus promises us that he will stand with us always.  So, there is great comfort in this promise.  But there is also a great challenge.  For as we all know, Jesus’ command is that we are to love one another as he has loved us.  And if he has loved us by standing by us, we must love one another by standing together.

John Paul II used the word “solidarity” to described this call that we stand by one another.  Solidarity is an essential part of the gospel because when we stand with one other in solidarity, there is life, there is hope, there are new possibilities.

A good friend of mine, Mark, began his career by teaching in the 4th grade.  Just last week, he told me a story that is the perfect example of solidarity.  It was in Mark’s second year of teaching, in the middle of the term, when the principal brought a new boy to the 4th grade classroom.  His name was Thomas, and Thomas had Turrets syndrome.  Now for those of you who are not familiar with Turrets should know that those who have this syndrome are intelligent – often brilliant – people, but they are not able to control their bodies because of involuntary jerks and sudden movements that affect not only their movement but also their speech.

Thomas adjusted rather well to the 4th grade class, but his biggest challenge was reading.  In reading class each of the students took turns reading a paragraph out loud.  This was something that Thomas was embarrassed to do.  He understood the paragraph, but he knew that in reading it aloud there would be many false starts and stutters.  It was something that he was afraid to attempt.

So when Mark would ask, “Thomas, are you willing to read to the class today?”  Thomas would beg, “Please Mr. Harris.  Don’t make me read before the class!”  Mark never forced him to read.  But, he thought that it was important to keep asking.  This went on for months, until one day, Mark said, “Thomas, are you willing to read to the class today?”  “I can’t.” said Thomas.  But a girl in the next row said, “Yes you can, Thomas.  Give it a try.  If you get stuck, I’ll help you.”  And from across the classroom, another boy cried out, “Go for it Thomas.  Give it a shot.  If you get stuck, I’ll call out the word and all you’ll need to do is repeat it.”

Peer pressure is a powerful force. So Thomas very tentatively stood up at his desk and opened his book.  He began to read the paragraph.  Mark said it was the longest ten minutes of his life.  Because at every word – almost at every syllable – Thomas froze.  But then, someone would call out the word or the syllable and he would repeat it.  Thus, word by word, syllable by syllable, Thomas made his way through the paragraph.  By the time that he came to the end, almost everyone in the class had called out a word or had done something to help.  When he finally finished the last word, he closed his book and looked up.  The entire class burst into applause.  Then, Mark said that he saw something he had never seen before since Thomas entered the class.  He saw Thomas smile.  And, with a sweep of accomplishment, he took a triple bow.

When we stand with others in solidarity, new things are possible.  Each of us knows, with which person God is calling us to stand.  It might be someone at school or maybe a family member who has received some bad news.  It might be a co-worker who is insecure, a friend who is grieving, or an acquaintance who is sick. Jesus promises to remain with us always.  But often, Jesus uses us as agents of his love.

So, listen to the call of Christ and stand with the person to whom he directs you.  For, when you do that, you are Christ to another and you bring new life into the world.

 

Doing It Poorly

June 1, 2014

Matthew 28:16-20

K. Chesterton, a great Christian philosopher of the last century, wrote this in 1910. “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” Now obviously Chesterton is playing with the common saying, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” and has turned it on its head. When we first hear his version, we are quite sure that he is wrong. But with more reflection, it becomes clear that Chesterton is revealing a profound truth. Anything worth doing, anything important, is something that we should do even if we do not do it well, even if we do it poorly. Now Chesterton was quick to point out, that his saying does not apply to everything. There are certain technical actions such as brain surgery or discovering the North Pole that you should not attempt unless you are confident that you are good at it. But he also went on to say that these things are not the most important things. The most important things in life—such as falling in love, raising children, helping those in need—are all things that we should do, and must do, even if we do not do them very well. “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.”

Today’s gospel has some striking parallels to Chesterton’s saying. It is the Great Commission scene which ends Matthew’s gospel. In it the risen Christ sends out his disciples to spread the Good News to the ends of the earth. But even in this glorious scene there are two indications that not all is well. Right at the beginning we are told, “The eleven disciples went to Galilee”. There are eleven disciples because one of the twelve, Judas, betrayed Jesus and afterwards went out and hanged himself. So the disciples are incomplete because of betrayal and suicide. The eleven disciples that do arrive in Galilee are also flawed. They worship Christ but they also doubt. So how is it possible that this incomplete and doubting group of disciples is going to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth? Why is Jesus sending them? Jesus is sending them because proclaiming the Good News of God’s love is worth doing, even if the disciples do it badly.

What is true for the disciples is true for us. We are not perfect people, but our flaws do not excuse us from doing those things that are worth doing. We must love our families, even if sometimes we do not love them well and if the love that we offered is not always reciprocated. We must guide our children, even though our patience runs thin and the advice that we offer is sometimes rejected. We must proclaim the good news of the gospel to the world. Jesus sends us as he sent his disciples. We must show by our lives that God is real, even though our lives are sometimes marked by selfishness and fear. We must proclaim with our words that God’s love is present, even though others might sometimes see that our words do not match our actions.

The world needs to know the presence of God. There are many who wait for the comfort of God’s love. That is why Christ sends us out to proclaim it. We are compromised and flawed to be sure, but Jesus still sends us. This is because announcing the Reign of God, proclaiming the presence of God, is worth doing—even if we do it poorly.

 

Why Are You Looking Up at the Sky?

May 28, 2017

Acts 1:1-11; Matthew 28:16-20

When today’s first reading from the Book of Acts describes Jesus’ Ascension, it says that Jesus was lifted up and a cloud removed him from the disciples’ sight. It also says that the disciples kept intently looking at the place in the sky where Jesus had ascended. Then, it tells us that two angels appeared and said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee why do you stand there looking up at the sky?” Now the answer to the angels’ question is obvious. The disciples stood looking at the sky because that was the place from which Jesus had left them. Although they always knew that Jesus would be present to them spiritually, they understood that from this point forward they would not be able to see him as they did during his ministry and after his resurrection. Things had changed. Jesus would no longer be physically present to them. So they stood looking looking up into the sky, looking after what they had lost.

As long as we live, our lives will change, and in those changes we will lose things that are valuable to us. It might be the loss of a particularly fulfilling job placement. It might the loss of our health. It might be the loss of a person that we love through death. But when something that is dear to us is taken away from us, then we like the disciples are inclined to look up, fixating on what we once had, but is no longer ours. It is for this reason that the next words of the angels are important, not only to the disciples but to us. The angels say, “This Jesus who has been taken up to heaven will return again in the same way that you saw him go.” You see, the angels do not dispute the fact that Jesus has left. His visible appearance is a thing of the past. But they promise the disciples that he will come to them again in a new way.

The angels’ message to us is this: When one good thing is taken away, another good thing will be given. This is why we cannot stand looking at what we have lost. We need eyes to see the next good thing, the next blessing that is possible in our lives. When things change in our jobs, in our family, in our country, it does us no good to think over and over, “I wish things were the way that they used to be.” Instead we must look for those places where new possibilities emerge. When our health fails, when we lose energy and perhaps mobility, when someone we love, a spouse or a friend, dies, the way forward is not to think over and over again what we used to be able to do and who was there to do it with us. The way forward is to believe that there are new ways to live, new paths to joy, and new relationships to support us.

When one good thing is taken away, another good thing will be given. The scriptures today challenge us to believe this message of the angels. They remind us not to stand looking up into the sky, looking at what we have lost. If our eyes are always in the sky, we will not be able to see the next good thing that God is bestowing on us here below.