May 31, 2014

Ascension of the Lord: "Go this Way"

(James Tissot - the Ascension of Christ)
"Why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus . . . who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return."

Acts 1:1-11
Eph 1:17-23
Mt 28:16-20

The other day I had one of those one thing after another moments in ministry.  None of them were related but rather individual needs: A meeting, school, cemetery and hospital. All were of course worthy and I wanted to be as present to each as I could. Not always an easy task.
I was due to conduct a graveside service at an old pioneer cemetery about 25 miles from the parish and not being there before I dutifully set my GPS on what I thought were the coordinates of the town I was given.  Well, I got to the town but no obvious cemetery. After driving a bit outside the area in the direction where I thought I would view the cemetery, I returned to find someone and ask for directions.  By now the time was growing near when I was to arrive and I knew I would likely be late.  I had no phone number to call so began to grow a bit anxious.

I found a gas station, the only one in this small farm town, and asked the attendant if he knew the way to the cemetery.  After all what are the chances he would not know in this little Burb?  Yet, he didn’t know.  In fact he had not heard of the specific cemetery so he suggested I cross the street to some folks who were simply loading their car with supplies from the hardware store.  I asked them and they didn’t know either!  What’s going on I wondered?
But, one of them very kindly offered to walk across the street and ask at the telephone office, a small unassuming building.  And as luck would have it, someone in there did know.  After offering me directions I realized that the named cemetery was not only not near this town I had come to but at least ten miles the other direction!  “How complicated could this be” I wondered.

So, I set out and once I found my way I arrived fifteen minutes late for the graveside service and found the small family patiently waiting. All was well and they were grateful. Yet I, being who I am about time, was a bit frazzled but thankful I was shown the way there. "We thought you might be lost, Father" the daughter said. "I was ," I answered.

This Sunday we are shown the way of Jesus on this Solemn Feast of the Ascension of the Lord.  The Apostles, still unclear of Jesus' mission, anxious, lost and filled with sadness at his leaving, are shown the way to go and what to do in his name: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And so the very foundation and purpose of Jesus’ mission and the existence of the Church he founded is laid. That his universal mission is not just for one nation or class of people but for all humanity. The Apostles are entrusted with the task of making that known and adding to the number of believers. But first, they must wait and pray for “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak;” the Holy Spirit. 
The mission given to the Apostles, then, and to us by association is not just a function – to baptize – but an invitation to a new way.  Without the directions Jesus offers us we would indeed be lost for none of us can find our way alone.  So where did the Apostles go after this? Back to Jerusalem and that may indicate our direction as well. That God is found not by staring at the sky but by getting on about the task that Jesus entrusted to all who would believe.

Pope Francis has coined the phrase “missionary disciples.”  His words are not unique to our time nor to him but we hear them today from the mouth of Christ himself. It is in essence to do what Jesus did and to teach what Jesus taught. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit, next week’s Feast of Pentecost, is our moment to recall that jump start from the Spirit – like a dead car battery being recharged by a powerful volt or a person whose heart has stopped being shocked into beating again.
So, now we meet this Christ not as an afterthought or a past historical person but as present to us today as he was to the Apostles after the resurrection but albeit in a different form.  No longer is he present to us in a way that we can see him in the flesh as an “icon” of the invisible God, as one source I read put it. 

Now he is present to us in the written word of the Gospels and in the forgiveness, the food, the sign of anointing with oil, water, and fire in the power of cleansing and healing through his sacraments.  As we are touched by our sacramental moments we are touched by the risen Christ alive and in glory.
To be fully Christian, I think, is to accept the call to a relationship with the Lord Jesus so that we know him not just in abstract but as a living person who is the icon of God made visible among us.  If I truly, deeply believed that and if the overall direction of my life revolved around that conviction how could any of us resist showing others who are lost – the Way to Christ in his Church?  

Mediator between God and man,
Judge of the world and Lord of hosts,
he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state
but that we, his members, might be confident of following
where, he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

(Preface of Solemnity)