Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tasked to be witnesses in a world that longs to know Christ (Reflections on the Lord's Ascension, Matthew 28:16-20)

It has got to be one of the most difficult experiences for parents to let go of their children when the time for them to 'leave the nest' comes, to set them free, and to allow them to explore and find their own place in the world. There’s always that fear that they won’t make it, or that the world will be too hard on them. On the part of a young man or woman leaving home, the situation isn’t any easier. There’s much more excitement perhaps, but the fear and the difficulty of saying goodbye to familiar and secure surroundings is just as real.

We all know how it is and how it feels to say goodbye. At one point or another in our lives, we’ve all found ourselves saying goodbye, perhaps to a good friend who’s leaving, a parent or child, or relative who’s dying, a girlfriend or boyfriend with whom we’ve decided that things aren’t working out, or perhaps a job we’ve loved for so long but must now leave in order to seek new opportunities.

Goodbye’s are never easy; but they’re a necessary part of life. We need change in order to grow, whether as children or adults. Without change, something inside us always remains asleep.

Years ago, there was a best-selling book entitled Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I’m sure you’ve read it, or heard of it at least—it’s a very short read. It was a fairy tale about a young seagull’s growth from childhood to adulthood.

At a critical point in the story, two beautiful white seagulls appear and tell young Jonathan that it was time for him to take an important step in his life. It was time for him to learn to fly as high as he wants. Jonathan hesitates, but the two birds insist, saying to him: “one part of your life is over; the time has come for another part to begin.”

All of a sudden, Jonathan realizes that it is indeed time for him to leave familiar surroundings and to become accustomed to flying into the skies beyond the clouds. He takes one last look at his beloved home, says goodbye to it one last time, then soars into the sky and disappears behind the clouds.

There’s a striking resemblance between stories of goodbye, of growth, of endings, and the Feast we celebrate today, the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. Like the young seagull in our story, like those of us who find ourselves at turning points in our lives, Jesus too, in our gospel reading today, had finished an important phase in his life and was beginning another. He was leaving his disciples behind. And yet his departure did not signal the end of his work on earth, merely the completion of its first phase. Now he begins the second phase, to be continued by those he tasked to carry on his work.

There’s a story that when Jesus returned to heaven after his resurrection, the angel Gabriel was surprised to see him back so soon. After all, he had only been on earth 33 years and that was too short a time to accomplish such a big job like saving the world.

“Back so soon?” Gabriel asked Jesus.
“Well, I would’ve stayed longer, but they crucified me”, Jesus answered.
“Oh they crucified you?” said Gabriel. “I guess that means you failed huh”.
“No”, said Jesus. “You see I gathered a small group of disciples. And I’m sending them the Holy Spirit. They’ll continue my work”.
“But what if they fail?” asked Gabriel.
“Hmm”, Jesus replied, “then I guess that’s the end of it. You see, I don’t have other plans”.

Jesus preached for only three years and to a tiny nation called Israel. Today’s feast remembers and celebrates the expansion of that work, as he commissioned his twelve disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations and promised the Holy Spirit to continue guiding them.

But now the original twelve disciples are themselves gone; leaving us, Christ’s followers today, to continue the work they had begun two thousand years ago. As Jesus depended on the twelve after the Ascension, so he now depends in a very real way, on each one of us—to witness to him through our commitment to our faith and the goodness of the lives we live.

Being a witness to Christ is perhaps as daunting and challenging in our day and age as it was for his first disciples two thousand years ago. But it is an equally consoling as well as humbling thought that like them, we do our work with the knowledge that Jesus continues to lead and guide us.

Today’s Feast is an invitation for us to give ourselves completely to making this world just a little better for ourselves and for others. It is the only way to fulfill Christ’s command to be witnesses to the gospel.

Jesus may have ascended to heaven, but our job, as his followers, is right here. We must continue his work, preach the Good News through our lives, fulfill his command to make disciples of all nations and trust that he will be with us “until the end of the world”.

What we celebrate today is the fact that two-thousand years ago, on the day of his ascension, Jesus passed on to you and me, the responsibility of being his witnesses, his representatives, his instruments. We celebrate the fact that Jesus passed on to you and me, the responsibility of completing God’s work on earth: the work of preaching the Gospel, of feeding the hungry, of clothing the naked, of caring for those who are needy, those who are oppressed, those who are in pain.

In his book "The Song of the Bird", Anthony de Mello tells the story of a man who came to understand what it means to be God’s instrument.

“On the street (he relates) I saw a small girl cold and shivering in a thin dress, with little hope of eating a decent meal. I became angry at God and said to him: “How could you allow this to happen? What are you doing about it?” But God didn’t answer me... Later that night, God did reply, quite suddenly. “How could you say I haven’t done anything about it? I certainly did something about it. I made you”.

This is what we celebrate today, you and I, we who are the church, we share this responsibility, and no one is exempted from it. Each one of us must decide how best to carry out our part in that responsibility. Because one day, we can be certain that it is how we are going to be judged.

“Then the Lord will say to those on his right: ‘Come. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me drink; in prison and you visited me. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was naked, and you clothed me.’ Then the just will ask him: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we welcome you from home or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we visit you when you were sick or in prison? Then the Lord will answer: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me’."

Let us end our reflection with a prayer.

Lord Jesus,
on this feast of your ascension into heaven,
Give us new eyes to see your face in the faces of those in need.
Give us new ears to hear your voice in the voices of those who cry in pain.
Give us new tongues to tell your story to those who need to be consoled.
Give us new hearts to share your love with those who need it most.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)