May 24, 2020
Remember when....? How many times have we begun a sentence with those words and then continue with some nostalgia event or memory of the past. (Fr. Tom, remember when you were a newly ordained priest? OK, you’re right that was a long time ago!) We do it in church all the time. It makes me chuckle when I hear that, or catch myself saying that, recalling the “good ol’ days.”
The problem with the “good ol’ days,” though, is that we have very selective memories! If we are going back to the good ol’ days, then we also must remember that there were no Masses on Saturday nights for the sake of convenience, let alone the comfort of watching Mass in the comfort of our homes. And remember, also, you couldn’t have anything to eat or drink from midnight on, not even the coffee you’re holding in your hand right now! In the good ol’ days every female would have to wear veil or hat or a Kleenex on their head when they came to church. And if you wanted to marry someone who is not Catholic in the good ol’ days, you would have your wedding in the rectory, not the church. Those Latin hymns and prayers were so beautiful, we’re they? If only we had a clue what we were praying. In the good ol’ days!
There’s also a danger of treating the Feast of Ascension in the same way. If we think about Christ’s ascending to glory as some sort of nostalgic event, it remains, at best, a nostalgia event. We can create a wonderful image of Christ being lifted up to heaven and all the apostles looking up at the sky with their eyes fixed to the clouds and their mouths open wide in wonder.
The problem is that in all likelihood the only wonder-ing going on was the disciples wondering: “NOW what are we going to do?!” It may, indeed, have been a moment of profound awe. But I am quite certain that it was also a moment of profound fear. They were still asking in hope if he was going to restore the kingdom of Israel. What would they do now? As Matthew recorded in the gospel, “They worshiped, but they doubted.”
So, if we are going to celebrate the Feast of Ascension truthfully, let us not only remember the nostalgic memory of Christ being lifted up to the heavens, but let us also remember the command that accompanied it: Go and make disciples of all the nations. Teach them to observe all that I commanded you. If we are going to tell the story, we have to tell the whole story!
The truth is that celebrating the Ascension is less about Jesus going up into heaven and more about the work we have yet to do. This is not a liturgical nostalgia trip 40-some days after Easter; this is serious business!
We are called today to renew our commitment to this Body of Christ, the Church. We are called upon today not to rest in what has been accomplished, but to commit to what must be accomplished: to proclaim the gospel of Christ’s love. We can’t sit back reminiscing about all Christ has done when there is so much left for us to do.
As long as injustice and poverty destructive addictions still rule, we have work to do. As long as prisons are filled or violence remains a norm, or even a remnant of discrimination exists, we are not done. As long as people hunger for money more than for Christ, and as long as power over others trumps compassion for others, we have not made disciples of all the nations. As long as young people disconnect from our parish community or anyone feels alienated or not fully welcomed into our church, we have much yet to accomplish.
As long as the vulnerable are at risk or children are neglected, as long the power the love and forgiveness of Christ remains unknown to anyone, we haven’t earned the right to be nostalgic. The only thing we have is the invitation to have our eyes opened and our hearts enlightened. This Feast of Ascension is clearly not about what has happened so much as it is about what yet needs to happen.
If that truth seems a bit overwhelming and daunting, and you stand today, like the disciples did, looking up to heaven, asking, “Now what?” Remember what Jesus promised: “Behold, I am with you always until the end of the age.”