Thursday, May 9, 2013

Homily for Ascension Thursday

Homily for
Ascension Thursday
May 31, 1984
Acts 1: 1-11
Don Bosco Tech, Paterson, N.J.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up to heaven?” (Acts 1: 11).

Why were the disciples staring up to heaven?  Because Jesus had just physically departed from them, and they felt a terrible sense of loss.  Their friend, their leader, their teacher was gone, and they were on their own.  Many of them apparently were looking for something to happen, like an immediate transformation of the world into a perfect place to live, a return to the garden of paradise, or something of the sort.

Not only has Jesus, risen from the dead, not changed the outward appearance of the world radically, but he has commanded the disciples to take over his mission of preaching the good news, and he has left them alone.

At least it seems that they’re alone.  Obviously they don’t grasp his meaning when he says, “I’m with you always until the end of the world” (Matt 28:29), nor when he tells them, “The Holy Spirit will come down on you” (Acts 1:8).  Jesus had been such a real part of their lives, and suddenly he’s not there.  No wonder they stared into heaven!

Our situation is quite different. We men and women of 20th-century America don’t look to heaven.  Jesus hasn’t been a real part of our lives.

Instead of looking for a transformation of the world into a radically better place, we take it for granted that the world will always be the same.  Activist songwriter Bob Dylan said in an interview the other day, for instance, that working for world peace is a waste of time because it’s just not going to happen.

Although the Holy Spirit has come upon us in Baptism and Confirmation, we haven’t allowed him to transform our lives.  He’s the Spirit of the living Jesus who’s always with us.  But what difference does he make in our lives?  Is Jesus for us a person of the past, or a living person, a present person, a friend, a leader, a teacher?

Once the disciples accepted the Holy Spirit, once they believed that Jesus was with them, once they realized that they were now Jesus’ messengers in a world that needs salvation, then they could stop staring into heaven and change the world.

They did change the world, or at least a substantial portion of it.  The apostles made the civilization of Rome more human by Christianizing it.  Missionaries brought not only Christ but learning and a new sense of human dignity wherever they went.

The apostles, of course, could only begin to carry on the good news of Jesus—that Jesus is life, that Jesus obtains the forgiveness of our sins, that all of us are God’s children.  Each succeeding generation of the disciples of Jesus has had to carry on the mission, to be the witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8).

Now Christ counts on us, on this generation.  Geographically, the gospel has been proclaimed just about to the ends of the earth.  In time, it has not.  To every human being, it has not. 

But now the angels wouldn’t say, “Men of America, why do you stand here looking up to heaven?”  The apostles looked for a heavenly solution to their problems and their hopes, and had to be fired into action on Christ’s behalf.  We don’t even think about heaven, about sin, about grace, about the lordship of Jesus Christ.  Our activity is entirely earth-centered:  jobs and money and vacations and SATs and girlfriends and arcades and cars—and on and on.

Men of America, are those realities of the earth going to transform the world we live in?  Will they make mankind less violent, less greedy, more helpful, more generous, and more closely-knit into a single human community in which all men and women are not only created equal but treated equally?  In which all men and women can read and write and work and have enough to eat and live out their days in peace.

We men and women of the 20th-century, particularly we of America, have to begin looking again to heaven.  We have to begin looking again for Jesus:  “this Jesus who has been taken up” but who “will return” too (Acts 1:11), this Jesus who is with the Father and also with us, this Jesus who shares with us his power to heal the sick and broken world, to forgive sin, to change the hearts of individual men and women, to make a real difference in the history of the world.

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