Today we commemorate a crucial point in the story of our salvation. Christ having done all that he came to do now ascends to the Father. His great work is now handed on to his disciples to bring to completion. But this is no task that can be worked out in a few years. No, it is an undertaking that will take his followers till the very end of time to bring to its glorious conclusion
The role we undertake as members of the Church is to spread the Good News throughout the earth and to live our lives in such a way that will give glory to God. Our ultimate goal is that all nations and people will come to worship the one true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.
You might be wondering why God has chosen to entrust this great work to a group of weak and fallible human beings. Surely God could utter the command and all people would bow down and worship him, if that’s what he really wants.
The only problem is that by issuing such a command people everywhere would be under the obligation to worship God. It wouldn’t be their spontaneous free choice; it would be done out of compulsion and not out of love. So, God chooses us inadequate and feeble creatures to convey his message, his Good News, to the people of the world.
It is important to understand that God does not want us to worship him because he needs it or because he would gain any advantage from it. It would not add one jot to his greatness nor would it inflate his ego in some strange way. God does not desire our worship and devotion because it will do him any good, but because it will do us good.
If you think about it, kneeling in worship before Almighty God is the place where we ought to be. If God is the author and sustainer of our being; if we owe him everything; if he is the fountain of our forgiveness and salvation then surely down on our knees before him is precisely where we ought to be most of the time. It is only due to our complete lack of understanding and our total inability to appreciate his true greatness that we fail to worship him every moment of the day.
What will happen when the Kingdom of God is fully realised is that we will be put in right-relationship with God. At the moment we are out of harmony with him, we largely go our own way and mostly we find ourselves ignoring him. Of course, when we talk about all nations and peoples worshiping God we are using symbolic language. We don’t know what it will be like on that Last Day. We can’t even begin to describe what it will entail and, to be honest, the word worship doesn’t really convey to the ordinary person very much at all.
To get a glimpse of what is meant we need to look to the lives of the saints, those who have come to know and love God closest of all during their journey here on earth and who spend far above average lengths of time worshiping him. Again, to the man in the street the saints seem to live rather boring lives; but a closer look soon proves that the very last thing they are is boring.
The saints see the hand of God at work everywhere. The saints live their lives lost in prayer; looking at them we might think that what they are doing is boring but to them it is sheer ecstasy. The words that they use to describe what we call mystical prayer are drawn from the vocabulary of love and love, as we all know, is anything but boring.
How is it that we will complete this task that Christ laid before the Apostles on Ascension Day? The answer is, as always, in the scripture text set before us. After explaining what he had accomplished Jesus tells the Apostles, “You are witnesses to this.” That then is our task: to be witnesses. There are two aspects to the role of witness 1) to actually experience the subject in question and 2) to tell others about it.
Obviously, one comes before the other. You can’t give witness to something that you have not experienced. Some people here might feel that their experience of God has been inadequate up to now and therefore they don’t think that they have anything to communicate to others.
I suggest that this sort of thinking is actually wide of the mark. If you are sitting in Church today it is surely because you already have some experience of God. It is surely because you already hope and trust in him and because you know that it is in celebrating his Eucharist that we can come closest to him. You came here today quite freely and must therefore have had a good reason and the reason must be because you already know God and want to spend time with him and do what he wants.
Now while you might not have reached the heights of mystical prayer, that’s already quite a lot. Let me suggest that, compared to the people around you, you actually know God quite well. There are surely particular times in your life when you have been very close to him, times when he was the only one you could rely on, times when you spent extended periods in prayer. If that’s not experience of God, I don’t know what is!
It is this that the people in the world around us want to know about. They thirst for meaning and purpose; all too often they find themselves filling up the empty holes in their lives with material possessions, and all kinds of inappropriate things. They want to hear from us. Or maybe, they don’t want to hear from us but want to see people who do find their lives fulfilling and who have direction and moral purpose. They want to look at us from afar and only later, when they are already convinced that what we are doing is right, come to know us better.
I was talking to a lady recently who had spent some time in a mental hospital –a more common experience than many of us might think. She was feeling especially depressed and anxious about her mental condition and among all these difficulties was experiencing doubts about her faith. Anyway, this lady went to mass in the hospital in the hope at least of finding some peace and tranquillity. The priest came along to say the mass and our friend was deeply impressed that he treated these psychiatric patients just the same as he treated his own parishioners in the Church. He just accepted them and talked to them normally even if the behaviour of some of them was a bit bizarre.
That priest didn’t know he was giving quite a powerful witness to Christ on that particular day, but he was. It certainly gave our friend the hope and faith that was needed at that low point of her life. This is the sort of thing that any one of us could do, just treating other people in a kind and respectful way; fundamentally treating other people as Christ would treat them. This is witness. This is transforming. This is what God wants us to do.
Christ rose from their midst and returned to the Father. In our text Luke tells us that they worshipped him and went back to Jerusalem full of joy. That’s exactly how it ought to be for us each Sunday as we return home from the Eucharist, going back to our ordinary lives full of joy and trust in the Lord. Our neighbours see us go to mass every Sunday morning. But it’s how they see us coming back that is our real witness to them.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket