Bottom line: Although Jesus has disappeared from our sight, he did not leave us. And he tells us, "You will be my witnesses."
Today we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord. Our first reading gives a clue to the meaning of this mystery. You will notice that St. Luke does not speak about Jesus "going away," but that "a cloud took him from their sight." There is a difference between "leaving" and "disappearing." When someone leaves, it suggests separation, even finality. When a person disappears from sight, he might still be very close - in another room. Or even closer. Have you never had the experience of thinking that someone has disappeared, but then realized he is standing right next to you? The fact that the disciples no longer see Jesus does not mean that he has gone from them.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are in a better position to understand how someone can disappear from sight - and still be very close. We have movies like "The Matrix" that involve a separate dimensions of reality - one unseen by the other. And scientists are now speaking about the possibility of parallel universes or "multiverses." All this should not sound strange to us. As Christians we have always known that a parallel realm exists, that it has an effect on our everyday reality and that we can interact with it.
Jesus wants us to know about this other dimension - and he wants something else. He wants us to witness to it. You will notice that the word "witness" comes up in both the first reading and the Gospel. Pope Paul VI said, "The world needs witnesses more than it needs teachers." You know, it is relatively easy to be a teacher. Most people are eager to share their knowledge - and especially their opinions. It is much harder to be a witness: To tell others what onr has experienced. That can be risky and demanding. Two people can live under the same roof and never share their deepest experiences.*
What are the experiences Jesus wants us to share - to witness to others? It could be a lot of things, but today's Gospel gives us the starting point: "Repentance, for the forgiveness of sins."
Let me tell you about a man who gave a powerful witness to repentance and forgiveness. He was a slave trader, with little religious feeling. Or to be more accurate, whatever religious sentiment he had, he numbed with alcohol. Once when he piloted a slave ship across the Atlantic, a violent storm broke out. Something caused him to cry, "Jesus, have mercy on us." Wen the storm subsided, he reflected on what happened - and he gave up the slave trade. The captain was John Newton. You can see his name in our parish hymnal; he wrote a song that begins with these words, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me..."
Now, you and I may not have had such a dramatic experience as John Newton. We haven't enslaved others for personal gain. Or have we? We have not bought and sold other human beings, but at times we have not treated someone as a person, but as an object, an instrument of selfish desires.** We have sinned, but - like John Newton - we can repent and beg forgiveness. We can open ourselves to the "amazing grace" that lets us make a fresh start. And like Newton, we can witness to what Jesus has done for us.
Each person here has a story - an experience of Jesus' amazing grace. That story has enormous power. Sometimes we complain about our bishops and other spiritual leaders, that they need to do more. Fair enough, but we also need to ask what we are doing. Are you and I witnessings to our faith?
As the school year comes to an end, we are also wrapping up our religious education programs. We look forward to a bit more time with family and friends. And hopefully, some recreation. Will we also be witnesses - to forgiveness, to hope, to a new beginning? Will we show that we believe in the new dimension Jesus has opened for us - by prayer, by making Sunday Mass our priority? Those are the things our children will remember more than any lecture. They might forget your words of wisdom, but they will remember your witness. They will remember your reverence, your prayer, your practice.***
Jesus has ascended into heaven and he wants us to be his witnesses. Like the apostles, we start in Jerusalem, that is, right where we find ourselves. In gentle ways we can witness to Jesus' power, to how he he gives forgiveness - a second chance. Although Jesus has disappeared from our sight, he did not leave us. And he tells us, "You will be my witnesses."
*We have a special challenge today. Even when describing a personal experience, people tend to fall into the irritating habit of using the second personal pronoun ("you"). Recounting some personal struggle (grief, addiction, etc.) they make it sound like a lecture: "Well, you start doing crazy things. Then you just come to a point where you realize you're not getting anywhere. You face what's happening and you move on..."
**Pornography is a clear example, but in other ways we treat people as objects. When I examine my conscience at the end of the day, I reflect on how I have treated people: Did I see the other person as an object (that is, someone I could get something from or a nuisance, who I wanted to get away from) or did I see the other person as a fellow human with an eternal destiny?
***A good example of this is Cardinal Newman. He was one of the greatest intellectuals in Church history, but he recognized that souls are ultimately not won by arguments and programs, but by credible witnesses. The truth of the Gospel, he said, "has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such menÖ, who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it." (From Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford, Sermon V)
From the Archives (Ascension Homilies):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
Kenneth L. Woodward (former religion editor for Newsweek) lays it on the line:
The New York Times isnít fair. In its all-hands-on-deck drive to implicate the pope in diocesan cover-ups of abusive priests, the Times has relied on a steady stream of documents unearthed or supplied by Jeff Anderson, the nationís most aggressive litigator on behalf of clergy-abuse victims. Fairness dictates that the Times give Anderson at least a co-byline.
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