29 May 2022 at Saint William Catholic Church in Naples, FL
Acts of the Apostles 1, 1-11 + Psalm 47 + Ephesians 1, 17-23 + Luke 24, 46-53
Years ago, I was pastor of a parish with a parochial school. In those days we celebrated this feast on Thursday, and so we had a School Mass. I was younger then, and I will describe that young pastor by saying he didn’t know much. One of the lessons he learned was, do not use rhetorical questions. You may be sorry you did. That inexperienced pastor brought an empty box all nicely wrapped and asked the children what they thought was in it. Hands shot everywhere suggesting that it was holy cards, rosaries, or pictures of Jesus. There was a second grader turning red in the face with intensity shouting: Father! Father! Father! I gave him the microphone and he said: “It’s a Jack-in-the-Box”. To this day I have no idea what I said after that, but I do know that it was the end of asking children questions in public and my use of gimmicks to entertain them.
This day on which the church leads us to focus on the absence of Jesus Christ and the experience of the Apostles at his departure brings home something I have said many times from this ambo. There is always a question for us to ask when the Scriptures put before us an extraordinary event; like a cure, Jesus walking water, Noah building a big boat, or Moses talking to a burning bush. The question is not, “How did he do that?”. The question is “What does it mean?”
What does this experience of the Apostles mean is what matters, not where did he go or how did he do that? Staying with the text and paying attention to what follows gives us some clue. Those apostles experienced the physical departure of Christ. They must have then accepted that Christ, had done all that he intended to do. At the moment, it may not have seen like much had been accomplished. The world was just about the same as when he came. Maybe, it was even a little worse for those who followed him. They were afraid.
What was different? It was those people who had listened and followed him. Look at the difference Luke describes in the last verse when he tells us that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were in the Temple praising God. All the fear, the doubts, the sadness are gone.
When Matthew, Mark, and John present the time after the Resurrection, it is all compressed into one day. Only Luke stretches out a time between Easter and Pentecost. All those stories about visits of Jesus in an upper room, a trip to Emmaus, or miraculous catches of fish show us the gradual change that came over those who followed Jesus, and how they came to realize not just what had happened to them, but what they had become.
As a church, as followers of Jesus, we have just finished those forty days, and next comes Pentecost. One more time we are called to ask what have we become since the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus has been proclaimed among us. One thing is certain. Jesus has done all he came to do, and his earthly presence is no more.
If the promises of a new heaven and new earth are going to be fulfilled, it is not going to be by some blaze of glory or earth-shattering display of power, but rather by the slow, patient, long exercise of faithfulness, endurance, sacrifice, and love. It is found in the constant desire to do the will of God. The renewal of this earth is found in forgiveness, mercy, and the use of those gifts we shall celebrate next weekend. My friends, the Ascension is more about us than it is about what happened to Jesus and where he went. The presence of Christ is experienced by those who know to look for him within themselves. Christ did not move out of the lives of people. He has moved into those lives so that the virtues of ordinary human beings become Divine instruments with which God’s work in the world can be done.