Curated Homily illustrations from Fr. Tony Kadavil relating to Sunday’s readings; related videos
Passing the Baton
The critical moment in a relay race is the passing of the baton from one runner to another. More relays are won or lost at that moment than at any other.
The feast of the Ascension might be compared to the passing of the baton in a relay race. On this day over 2,000 years ago, Jesus passed the baton of responsibility for the Kingdom of God to his followers. Jesus commissioned them to complete the work he had begun. Practically, what does this mean?
How do you and I, in the 21st century, carry out Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses to the world and his teachers to the nations? There are as many ways to do this as there are Christians.
- We can do what two 25-year-old university graduates did recently. After completing their degrees, one from Georgetown and the other from Marquette, they entered the Seminary.
- We can do what Albert Schweitzer did. At the age of 30 he abandoned his music career in Europe to study medicine and became a missionary doctor in Africa.
- We can do what the baseball coach of Spring Hill College, Alabama, did a few years back. At the age of 35 he resigned his position and began his studies for the priesthood.
- We can do what a Poor Clare (Franciscan) nun, Mother Angelica, did. In her 50’s, she began a Catholic religious television channel, EWTN.
- We can do what St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) did.
Actually, there have been many persons given exciting commissions in their lifetimes. There was Michelangelo’s commission to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Sir Christopher Wren’s commission to re-build St. Paul’s Cathedral in London following the Great Fire (September 2-6, 1666), Walter Reed’s assignment to stop yellow fever at the “Big Ditch” in Panama (the Panama Canal), Chamberlain’s orders to stop the Confederates at Little Roundtop in Gettysburg and, more recently, the mission of the U.S. Navy Seals to get the terrorist master-mind, Bin Laden, dead or alive.
But I tell you, in my life and yours, there is an even greater commission. It is found here in Mt 28:18-20 where Jesus Christ turns to his disciples and says,
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Forrest Gump Gets Something Right
In 1994 Hollywood released a popular film called Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks in an Oscar-winning title role. The film can be base at times but has some interesting insights. At one point in the story, when Forrest is feeling rejected by the people he loves, he gets an urge to just start running. So, he walks out the door, jogs across the yard, and doesn’t stop. In fact, when he gets to the ocean and runs out of road, he just turns around and runs the other way. Throughout his run, he is videotaped on national news. When asked why he’s running – “World peace? Women’s rights?” – he answers, “I’m just running.” Unintentionally, he sparks a huge national following. The humorous and meaningful event that ends his journey takes place in the middle of a desert. Forrest stops, longhaired and long bearded, and turns around. The handful of sweaty joggers who have followed him shush each other: “Quiet, he’s goanna say somethin’.” “I’m kinda’ tired,” he says, “I think I’ll go home now.” Forrest walks through the small and silent crowd, and one of them yells after him, “Well, what are we supposed to do?!”
All people are looking for the answers to life’s deepest questions. But since our thirst for truth and happiness is infinite (because that’s how God made us), no finite worldly thing can satisfy us. The characters in the film, mindlessly following Tom Hanks’ Gump, personified that thirst for meaning. The fact that their hero abandons them without any explanation illustrates the inability of the things of this world (money, fame, politics, pleasure) to provide that meaning; eventually, we get tired of them; they let us down. Only Christ is infinite goodness, power, and wisdom; only he is “the Way, Truth, and the Life” that we are searching for. (E- Priest).
Disciples who completed Turandot.
Take a journey from the deep outer space, into the spiral milky way, then into one of its outer arms and behold the beautiful plant called “Earth”. “Nessun dorma” (English: None shall sleep) is an aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, and is one of the best-known tenor arias in all opera. The grandeur of the music matches the resplendent images of space.
The Italian composer Giacomo Puccini wrote La Boheme, Madama Butterfly and Tosca. It was during his battle with terminal cancer in 1922 that he began to write Turandot, which many now consider his best work. He worked on the score day and night, despite his friends’ advice to rest, and to save his energy. When his sickness worsened, Puccini said to his disciples, “If I don’t finish Turandot, I want you to finish it.” He died in 1924, leaving the work unfinished. His disciples gathered all that was written by Turandot, studied it in great detail, and then proceeded to write the remainder of the opera.
The world premier was performed in La Scala Opera House in Milan in 1926, and Arturo Toscanini, Puccini’s favorite student, conducted it. The opera went beautifully, until Toscanini came to the end of the part written by Puccini. He stopped the music, put down the baton, turned to the audience, and announced, “Thus far the master wrote, but he died.” There was a long pause; no one moved. Then Toscanini picked up the baton, turned to the audience and, with tears in his eyes, announced, “But his disciples finished his work.” The opera closed to thunderous applause and found a permanent place in the annals of great works.
Jesus instructs us in his Ascension message to finish his work of saving mankind by proclaiming His Good News by words and deeds.
There is the funny story of the raw army recruit standing at attention on the drill field. The drill instructor yells, “Forward, march!” And the entire ranks begin to move, all except this one raw recruit. He’s still standing there at attention. So, the drill instructor strolls over to him and yells in his right ear, “Is this thing working?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” the recruit yells.
Then the drill instructor walks around to the other ear and yells, “Is this thing working?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” The soldier says.
“Then why didn’t you march when I gave the order?”
“Sir, I didn’t hear you call my name.”
Some of us are like that soldier standing around waiting for God to call our names. But the great commission given by Jesus on the day of his Ascension is a blanket order. It has everyone’s name on it. And you can be sure that the Man in charge says, “Go! Make disciples! Teach!” It is your mission and my mission.
“I have no other plan — it must work.”
A beautiful old story tells of how Jesus, after his Ascension into Heaven, was surrounded by the holy angels who began to enquire about his work on earth. Jesus told them about his birth, life, preaching, death and Resurrection, and how he had accomplished the salvation of the world.
The angel Gabriel asked, “Well, now that you are back in Heaven, who will continue your work on earth?”
Jesus said, “While I was on earth, I gathered a group of people around me who believed in me and loved me. They will continue to spread the Gospel and carry on the work of the Church.”
Gabriel was perplexed. “You mean Peter, who denied you thrice and all the rest who ran away when you were crucified? You mean to tell us that you left them to carry on your work? And what will you do if this plan doesn’t work?”
Jesus said, “I have no other plan — it must work.”
Truly, Jesus has no other plan than to depend on the efforts of his followers!
The Unfinished Painting
Leonardo da Vinci had started to work on a large canvas in his studio. For a while he worked at it – choosing the subject, planning the perspective, sketching the outline, applying the colors, with his own inimitable genius. Then suddenly he stopped working on it. Summoning one of his talented students, the master invited him to complete the work. The horrified student protested that he was both unworthy and unable to complete the great painting, which his master had begun. But da Vinci silenced him. “Will not what I have done inspire you to do your best?”
Jesus our Master began to spread the Good News two thousand years ago, by what he said and did and, supremely, by what he suffered. He illustrated his message and he has left us to finish the picture. Will his life not inspire us to finish the picture? This is the message of the Ascension (John Rose in John’s Sunday Homilies).
One of the national coordinators of Sun Day held early in May every year is Denis Hayes. He worked as researcher at a Washington D.C. “think-tank” and has written a book on solar energy entitled Rays of Hope: The Transition to a Post-Petroleum World. Hayes claims that we are at the crossroads of making a critical choice for mankind – the choice between going solar or going nuclear for a power source. Hayes opts for the sun because it is “the world’s only inexhaustible, predictable, egalitarian, non-polluting, safe, terrorist-resistant and free energy source.” We’ve already learned to use the power of the sun to grow food, make wine and operate greenhouses. All we need to do is develop better technology to harness solar energy to heat houses, drive our cars and run our industry. People like Hayes are looking at the sky with its sun as the main source of our future energy supply.
Today we turn our attention to the sky for another reason: to commemorate our Lord’s Ascension into Heaven. In the first reading, from Acts, Jesus makes a promise: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down on you.” That Spirit is the power source that can give all the energy we need to live our lives to the full. (Albert Cylwicki in His Word Resounds)
Rebecca Pippert, the author of Out of the Salt Shaker: Into the World, tells of a time she was sitting in her car at a traffic light with her window rolled down. As the light turned green a car drove by and its occupant threw something into her car hitting her on the cheek. It didn’t hurt but she was so startled that she pulled over immediately. When she unrolled the paper, she discovered it was a Gospel tract. She says she was the apparent victim of what she refers to as “torpedo evangelism.”
I’m sure the torpedoer meant well. At least I hope so, but he or she did the wrong thing for the right reason in the wrong way. We can engage people in conversation about their Faith and their relationship with God in a non-judgmental manner. We can encourage. We can invite. We can offer counsel. But we leave the hard work, the heart work, up to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. You see, we are not on some sort of spiritual mugging mission!
Reaching Peak Performance
One of the superstars in that professional speakers’ circuit is a man named Charles Garfield. He is a psychologist from San Francisco. He makes up to 150 speeches a year, he says. Truth be told, he makes one speech 150 times. He began his career as a mathematician for NASA. He was part of the Apollo Project that put a man on the moon. He left NASA to study psychology. He became interested in what motivates people to reach their highest possible achievement in this life. He went to Berkeley and got a PhD in psychology. Then he interviewed 1,500 people on how they achieved what he called “peak performance.” He published that result in a book, and then he started on the lecture circuit. He said the one thing that all peak performers have in common is a sense of mission. “What you need in this life if you want to have fulfillment is a sense of mission.”
”To “have a mission” means to be commissioned to give oneself fully and freely, to something that is greater than oneself. If accepted, fulfilling that mission becomes one’s reason for doing and suffering everything entailed, gladly. The most important mission of all is offered to each of us by Jesus Who at the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel, commissions His Apostles and us, saying:
“All power in Heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20).
Not only does the Church have a mission to perform in this world, but everybody in the Church is has a part in performing that mission, if one chooses to accept it and live it out.
Nietchze and Hitler
Nietchze, the German philosopher, said, “God is dead and the stench of his corpse is all across Europe.” He advocated humanism and proposed the development of a “superman” of Aryan heritage, protected by selective breeding and superior education. The Nazi Party picked up his idea, and men like Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Mengele, Himmler, and Rommel set about building such a society in Germany’s Third Reich. But it all ended with bullets, bombs, chaos, and suffering such as the world has seldom seen.
The Christian Faith has no less a plan. But it involves a higher order. Hitler would have renewed man by his own efforts. We seek to renew the human race by the work of God. Our mission as given by the ascending Jesus is not to make converts or Church members, but baptized, obedient, evangelizing disciples!
In one of the great cathedrals of Europe there is a baptistery that tells the story. The water flows through it reminding us that Jesus says he is the living water. To be baptized, a person walks down three steps, each one marked by a word: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Descending the steps the convert is plunged beneath the water to die to sin and then raised from the depths to newness of life in Christ. To leave the baptistery now he must climb three steps, each one marked by a word: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
So it is that a new creature is born, a new breed of man, a citizen of a new kingdom, a breed apart. Dead to sin, he is alive to God and sent forth to grow and love and give light to a lost and dying world. He doesn’t do it alone. He does it in the Church, in little communities. In these, people demonstrate, in their way of being together, God’s eternal kingdom come upon them. It took Michelangelo over ten years to paint the Sistine Chapel. Our missionary commission lasts until the job gets done, until life is over, “until the close of the age.”
“Alter your course 10 degrees north.”
Have you heard the story of a sea captain who was guiding his ship on a very dark night? He saw faint lights in the distance and told his signalman to send a message, “Alter your course 10 degrees south.” A prompt message returned, “Alter your course 10 degrees north.” The captain became angry because his command had been ignored, so he sent a second message, “I command you to alter your course 10 degrees south!” Again a message promptly returned, “Alter your course 10 degrees north.” Infuriated, the captain sent off a third message: “I am the captain and this is a battleship. Alter your course 10 degrees south!” Once again a prompt reply came, “Alter your course 10 degrees north – I am a lighthouse.”
These last words of Jesus are the signal we are to obey. No wonder we label the call “the Great Commission.” The tragedy of the Church – our great sin – is that the Great Commission of Jesus is our “great omission.”
Plus Ultra = “More beyond!”
“In Fourteen Hundred Ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue!” In 1992 the world marked the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ adventure in the Santa Maria. As we all now know, Columbus did not end up where he was headed, which is why some native Americans are now called Indians. This man from Genoa believed, “God granted me the gift of knowledge … (and) revealed to me that it was feasible to sail … to the Indies, and placed in me a burning desire to carry out this plan.” Columbus set out with a belief that he had tested with his mind, and with a Faith to which he was willing to give his life! How many of us can walk in Columbus’ shoes? When, on Friday, August 3, 1492, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, eased away from their moorings at Palos, in southern Spain, Columbus was putting his beliefs and his Faith into the realities of life. Before the reports of his trans-Atlantic travel penetrated the Old World, Spanish coins had stamped upon them an outline of the Straits of Gibraltar. Underneath the outline of the Straits was the Latin inscription Ne Plus Ultra. It translates, “No more beyond,” meaning that the world ended in the great expansive voids of water beyond the Straits. There was nothing more. But once Columbus returned home and told of what he had seen, of what he had discovered, and once that report was widely shared, new coins were minted. The inscription was changed to Plus Ultra. It translates, “More beyond!”
That is the mountaintop affirmation which came to the disciples in Galilee and the word that ends Matthew’s Gospel.
It was June, 18. 1815. Wellington and Napoleon were fighting the battle of Waterloo. This was a decisive battle. Life for many, many persons hinged on its outcome. At last, word was transmitted to London by means of semaphores – a visual code with reflected sunlight spelling out the message letter by letter. A sentry picked up the message from his post atop a great cathedral. Letter by letter he passed on the message to London. The first word was “Wellington.” The second word was “defeated.” Suddenly a very dense fog settled in upon the cathedral, making it impossible for the light to penetrate the mists and allow the message to be forwarded any further. The fog grew thicker, and its darkness was mirrored in the hearts of the Londoners who had received the word, “Wellington defeated.” It meant that Napoleon had won. The English of London were a conquered people. Hope was gone. Liberty was no more. England was ruled by another. But as suddenly as it had come, the fog lifted. The sentry returned to his tower, and went back to his duties, feverishly attempting to transmit the whole message. And London saw it – the good news breaking upon the city and telling the full story: “Wellington defeated the enemy!”
Whether the semaphores’ message to London is history or fiction, it does convey the truth of Christian Faith! That truth became visible in Joseph’s garden as the earliest followers of Christ made the discovery that His Body was not in the tomb, and the angel told the women that He had risen. And they He met them on the road! The victory message of Jesus’ word to the women, and later to the Apostles themselves is still being heard through the centuries whenever and wherever the Gospel is proclaimed and lived — that human life is both meant, and able, to become Life lived in two worlds – one temporal, the other eternal.
“I am the smartest man in the world”.
A ridiculous story with religious significance has been making the rounds lately. It is about a pilot and three passengers a Boy Scout, a priest, and an atomic scientist in a plane that develops engine trouble in mid-flight. The pilot rushes back to the passenger compartment and exclaims, “The plane is going down! We only have three parachutes, and there are four of us! I have a family waiting for me at home. I must survive!” With that, he grabs one of the parachutes and jumps out of the plane. The atomic scientist jumps to his feet at this point and declares, “I am the smartest man in the world. It would be a great tragedy if my life were snuffed out!” With that, he also grabs a parachute and exits the plane. With an alarmed look on his face, the priest says to the Boy Scout, “My son, I have no family. I am ready to meet my Maker. You are still young with much ahead of you. You take the last parachute.” At this point, the Boy Scout interrupts the priest, “Hold on, Father. Don’t say any more. We’re all right. The world’s smartest man just jumped out of the plane wearing my backpack!”
For such “smart” people who do not believe in an afterlife, today’s feast of the Ascension seems a myth. But it is the guarantee of their Resurrection and Ascension to Heaven for Christians.
Are we going to them?
95% of North American Christians will not lead a single person to Christ in their lifetime and I cry, “Lord, help us!” Some of you know the story: 36 million Americans (14% of the population) live in poverty. Of those, the portion living in our urban centers has increased from 30% in 1968 to about 47% today. Are we going to them? And are we going to the 57% of the 36 million poor who remain in rural America? Seventy million individuals in the United States are under the age of 18—are we going to them? Nearly one million foreign-born people immigrate to this country every year. Are we going to them? Thirty-two million people in America speak some language other than English as their primary language. Are we going to them? We have more unsaved and unchurched people in our nation than ever before in our history—172 million. Are we going to them? Ninety percent of the population of the United States now lives in urban settings. Are we going to them? Over 150 million people in America claim to be “born-again Christians.” We have to question what that means. And we wonder if people are not interpreting the Christian Faith as mere mental assent to correct doctrine, accepting forgiveness and professing Christ as an insurance policy – a way to get into Heaven when we die and leave this earth – missing the whole notion of discipleship, growing into the likeness of Christ. If all born-again Christians were disciples, would there not be greater signs of the transforming power of Christ at work in the world?
“The City of the World increasingly oozes its decay.”
Peter Kreeft, a professor at Boston College, has perceptively noted, “…the City of the World increasingly oozes its decay.” We saw signs of it in the half-time show of the 38th Super Bowl. One hundred million people – how many children were among them? – saw Justin Timberlake rip off a portion of Janet Jackson’s upper clothing, exposing a private part of her body. We cringed at that and the media talked about it for days. But not much was said about the “dirty” dancing and lewd lyrics, including words about getting a woman naked before the song was done. Other singers through lyrics and dance displayed sexual lust as they gyrated with female dancing partners. The truth, friends, is that that particular halftime show is not the exception in television fare. In fact, it was rather tame compared to what constantly flows from television and the Internet. “The City of the World increasingly oozes its decay.”
But what about disciples of Jesus? What about the Church? What about the City set on a hill? What are we doing about “the fact that all the septic tanks on the hill are backing up”? We need disciples with a passion for shedding the light of Christ into every dark corner of the world.
Gaze Heavenward but go worldwide!
Nicky often boasted about his deep faith. Once, a storm arose and the rains threatened to flood Nicky’s house. A fireman rushed in and said, “Come, I’ll carry you away!” Pointing upward, Nicky exclaimed, “Jesus is the way!” The downpour continued and the waters reached Nicky’s waist. A fisherman rowed by and screamed, “Jump in, I’ll steer you to safety!” gazing heavenward, Nicky retorted, “Only Jesus saves!” Later, rising rainwater forced Nicky to climb onto the roof. The pilot of a helicopter hovering overhead shouted, “I’ll help you!” Nicky replied: “I trust in God alone!” Nicky drowned in the raging waters. In Heaven, he complained: “Lord, I trusted You, but You abandoned me!” God replied, “No, I didn’t! I tried to save you as fireman, fisherman and pilot! Why didn’t you do anything besides gaze Heavenward?” [Francis Gonsalves in Sunday Seeds for Daily Deeds; quoted by Fr. Botelho.]
He is the same yet different…
Lech Walesa worked for years as an electrician in the Gdansk shipyards. During those years, he and his fellow workers founded the movement which came to be known as “Solidarity.” Walesa became its leader. This brought them into open conflict with the Communist leaders. Eventually the workers won out. The Communist regime collapsed and democracy returned to Poland. Then on December 9, 1990 something happened which a few years prior would have been unthinkable. Walesa the shipyard worker was elected first president of a free and democratic Poland. It was a great honor for Walesa. His fellow workers were delighted. They too felt honored because of their association with him. However there was sadness too. They knew that it would change forever the way they related to him. They knew they were losing him. However they were hoping that he would not forget them and that he would help them from his new and more influential position.
The illustration may go some way in helping us to understand what we are celebrating on this great feast of Ascension. [Flor McCarthy in New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies; quoted by Fr. Botelho.]
The power within
A priest, Walter Ciszek, SJ, (November 4, 1904-December 8, 1984) spent twenty-three years in Russia, fifteen in in the harsh Siberian slave labour camp, following his five years in the dreaded Lubyanka prison in Moscow. He was finally released from Russia and returned to the United States in 1963, part of an exchange for two Soviet spies held in USA. He died in 1984 at the age of 84. After his release, Father Ciszek wrote With God in Russia (1964), and then, in 1974, He Leadeth Me. In the second book he tries to answer the question: “How did you manage to survive in Russia?” He says: “I was able to endure the inhuman conditions in which I found myself because I experienced somehow the presence of God. I never lost my Faith that God was with me, even in the worst of circumstances.”
What was true of Fr. Walter Ciszek is true of each of us. Jesus is with us; God is with us in the power of his Holy Spirit. [Vima Dasan in His Word Lives; quoted by Fr. Botelho.]
In the familiar story entitled “Footprints,” a man at the end of his life wanted to know why in tough times there was only one set of footprints in the sand. After all, the Lord had promised to walk with him all the way. The Lord replied by telling the man that He had never left him in times of trial. When the man saw only one set of footprints, it was then that the Lord had been carrying him.
The Lord was with Fr. Ciszek for twenty-three years of hardship in Russia, and did not leave him when he was released!. The Lord was with the man walking in the sand. May the risen Lord be with us all the days of our life. (Albert Cylwicki in His Word Resounds; quoted by Fr. Botelho.)
Run the race well
Many years ago, a great Arctic explorer started on an expedition to the North Pole. After having spent two years in the freezing and lonely place, he wrote a message, tied it to the leg of a carrier pigeon, and let it loose to make the two thousand miles journey to Norway. The bird circled thrice, and then started its southward flight in the freezing cold for hundreds of miles; it travelled and crossed the icy frozen oceans and wastelands until it reached and dropped into the lap of the explorer’s wife. The arrival of the bird proved that everything was well with her husband in that deserted, lonely and frozen arctic North.
Similarly, the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of the Pentecost proved to the disciples that Jesus had entered the Heavenly sanctuary after His Ascension as He had promised. Now He was seated at the right hand of God the Father, for His redemption work was over. The coming of the Holy Spirit was the fulfillment of the promise of Christ. [John Rose in John’s Sunday Homilies; quoted by Fr. Botelho]
Witnessing to Christ
Ruddell Norris was a conscientious young man. But he was also a shy young man. He found it hard just to talk to people, much less to discuss religion with them. Then one day he got an idea. Ruddell did a lot of reading, and he was aware of the many pamphlets about the Catholic faith. So he decided to set aside a part of his weekly allowance to buy pamphlets. Ruddell placed his pamphlets in places where he thought people would pick them up and read them. For example, he placed them in waiting rooms and in reception areas. One day a young woman who was a friend of his family told his parents how she became a convert and how her husband returned to the Church. “It all started with a pamphlet,” she said. “I found it in the hospital waiting room.” You can imagine the boy’s excitement when he learned of the impact just one of his pamphlets had. He was just trying to obey the missionary command of Christ.
(Anonymous; quoted by Fr. Botelho).
Jonathan Livingston Seagull:
At the conclusion of Part One of Richard Bach’s book, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, two radiant birds come as Jonathan’s brothers to take him higher, to take him home. Jonathan balks, but the birds insist: “But you can Jonathan, for you have learned. One school is finished, the time has come for another to begin.” It was a moment of enlightenment for Jonathan. He realized that he “could fly higher, and it was time to go home.” Taking one last long glance across the sky and land where he had learned so much, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull “rose with the two star-bright gulls to disappear into a perfect sky.”
There are striking similarities between this episode in Bach’s book and Luke’s account of our Lord’s Ascension in today’s readings. First, the “school” and the “learning” mentioned in Jonathan recall how Jesus “taught” his disciples until the day he was taken up into heaven. Second, the “time for another school to begin” for Jonathan, reflects Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit upon his apostles so that they could be his “witnesses to the ends of the earth.” Third, the two “star-bright gulls” suggest the presence of the “two men dressed in white” who spoke to the apostles after Jesus ascended. Fourth, when Jonathan “rose to disappear in the sky,” it was reminiscent of Jesus being “lifted up in a cloud which took him from their sight.” Jonathan Livingstone Seagull can be taken, then, as a modern myth to help understand the significance of Christ’s Ascension. (Albert Cylwicki in His Word Resounds; quoted by Fr. Botelho).
Broken but Renewed
In 1981 Peter Cropper, the British violinist, was invited to Finland to play a special concert. As a personal favour to Peter, the Royal Academy of Music lent him their priceless 285-year-old Stradivarius for use in the concert. This rare instrument takes its name from the Italian violin-maker, Antonio Stradivari. It is made of 80 pieces of special wood and covered with 30 coats of special varnish. Its beautiful sound has never been duplicated. When Peter Cropper got to Finland, an incredible nightmare took place. Going on stage, Peter tripped and fell. The violin broke into several pieces. Peter flew back to London in a state of shock. A master craftsman named Charles Beare agreed to try to repair the violin. He worked endless hours on it. Finally he got it back together again. Then came the dreaded moment of truth. What would the violin sound like? Beare handed the violin to Peter Cropper. Peter’s heart was pounding inside him as he picked up the bow and began to play. Those present could hardly believe their ears. Not only was the violin’s sound excellent, but it actually seemed better than before. In the months ahead Cropper took the violin on the worldwide tour. Night after night the violin, everyone thought was ruined forever, drew standing ovations from concert audiences.
The violin story is a beautiful illustration of what happens when God comes into our broken lives and makes us whole again. We need His touch, His Spirit! (Mark Link in Sunday Homilies; quoted by Fr. Botelho).
The ascended King of the universe
Monarchy has been the most common form of government in human history. There is a good reason for this. When the reins of power are in one set of hands, a government can act quickly and efficiently. But there is also a perennial problem with monarchy. What happens when a good king dies? How can you ensure that the next king will be just as good? The times of greatest prosperity and peace in every civilization have come under the rule of wise kings. But most kings are not wise. Most kings, like most human beings, tend to be selfish, weak, and shortsighted. And so history shows the same tragic pattern happening again and again: a great king brings peace and prosperity to a wide realm, only to have it shattered after his death. Charlemagne united and Christianized most of Europe, but when he died his empire was divided among three selfish and petty sons, who tore it asunder. King Louis IX of France, St Louis, reigned for almost 70 years. His vast kingdom spread justice and mercy as the sun spreads light, but his sons and grandsons ended up sowing the seeds of division that would soon tear apart the rich fabric of Christendom.
What the peasants of France sang upon St Louis’s death, “To whom will poor folk cry out, now that the good king is gone, who loved them so?” reverberates throughout history: But there is one King, wiser and better than any other, who has come back from the dead. His name is Jesus Christ, and his Kingdom will last forever, because he has ascended to the everlasting throne, where he sat at the beginning, sits now, and will sit without end. (The E-Priest).
St Paschal Baylon Visits the King
We don’t think much about this, but it is the truth behind everything we believe: if Christ had not ascended into Heaven, we would not be able to pray to him at any time and in any place, and we would not be able to have him close by in the Eucharist, because he would still be limited by time and space. One of the saints whom the Church commemorates on May 17, thought about this truth a lot, and learned to take advantage of it. St Paschal Baylon was a Spanish peasant, a shepherd for the first 24 years of his life. He could barely read, but he loved Christ, and he had a special understanding of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. He had to stay with his sheep from dawn to dark, which made it impossible for him to go to Mass every day. So he did the next best thing. At the hour Mass was being celebrated, he would kneel on the hillsides, gazing at the Church in the valley, and pray, uniting himself to Christ Who was renewing his sacrifice and presence through the priest’s ministry. Eventually, St Paschal found his vocation to become a religious brother. He joined the local Franciscan community and encouraged everyone by his virtue, joy, and good humor.
During free moments between duties, he could almost always be found in the chapel, speaking with Christ in the Eucharist. To casual onlookers he was kneeling on a hard stone floor here on earth, but in truth he was enjoying the presence of our King who sits forever on his throne in Heaven. He died when he was only fifty-two, at the very moment that the bell rang to signify the consecration at Mass. (E-Priest).
The Holy of Holies Open to All
But what exactly are we to be witnesses of? Jesus tells us right before he ascends into Heaven that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name. If Christ had not ascended, we would not be able to preach that. His Ascension finishes the job of reconciling fallen humanity to God, because it brings our human nature back into a right relationship with God. It guarantees that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was completely accepted by the Father. Reconciling fallen humanity with God has always been the main problem that religion tries to solve. In the Old Testament, the Israelites achieved this right relationship through what was called the sacrifice of atonement (at-one-ment: the sacrifice that made sinners, once again, one with God). This sacrifice took place in the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of Moses’ tent of worship and, later, of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Holy of Holies was separated from the inner altar of incense by a huge, thick, ancient curtain. Only the High Priest was allowed to pass through the curtain, and even he could only enter once a year, on the Day of Atonement. That ancient ritual foreshadowed Christ’s Ascension. In his Ascension, Christ was taken up into the real, eternal Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the universe, Heaven itself. But instead of coming back out, he stayed there, in his human nature, as our representative, as the everlasting bridge of reconciliation between mankind and God. Through Faith in Christ, we have no more doubts that our sins can be forgiven; we don’t have to wait for the Day of Atonement; we can live constantly in a right relationship with God. This is what we are witnesses of. This is the message we have received: every human heart’s deepest longing can finally be fulfilled, because Christ’s sacrifice has been accepted by the Father. (E-Priest).
Blessed Antonia Mesina’s Wordless Witness
The most important way that the Church bears witness to Christ’s unconquerable goodness is through the example of Christians – not our words, but our example. When you and I live as Christ lived, following him, we reveal his salvation to the world. Our English word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness”. The Church’s martyrs are her greatest witnesses. By refusing to do evil, even at the cost of their own lives, they make the power of Christ’s goodness shine out. One of the saints that the Church commemorates on May 17 is a recent and eloquent example of this. Blessed Antonia Mesina (meh-SEE-nah) was the second of ten children born to a peasant family on the Island of Sardinia, off the west coast of Italy. She grew up between World Wars I and II.
After just four years of school, she was forced to leave her studies behind and take over the housekeeping for her mother, who had fallen ill and was confined to bed. Antonia didn’t let either her lack of education or her poverty keep her from loving Christ. When she was ten, she joined Catholic Action, Italy’s national apostolic movement for lay people. She was a model member, energetically fulfilled her commitments and recruited other young people to join the group. Honoring Christ and living in friendship with him became her first care and highest priority. On one afternoon when she was 16, she went out to gather wood for the stove at home. Alone, she was accosted by another, older teenager, a young man who tried to rape her. She resisted, and he became violent. She continued resisting, and he continued beating her, trying to force her. But she knew that her body was a Temple of the Holy Spirit, and she would not submit. The young man became furious, and he beat her to death. Antonia refused to do evil. In that way, she was a witness to Christ’s unconquerable goodness, a martyr. This is what the whole Church has done in a thousand ways throughout the ages, and what each one of us is called to do in our own circle of friends and acquaintances. (E-Priest).
“Dr. Carpenter is upstairs.”
Many years ago there lived a very poor family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina by the name of Carpenter. The oldest boy loved the outdoors and knew them well, but he didn’t know much else. He was a teenager before his father took him on his first trip to the city, where he saw paved streets, skyscrapers, and electricity for the first time. The boy wanted to stay there and get an education. His father arranged for him to board with some family friends, who generously financed his studies when he decided to become a doctor. He graduated with honors, but declined all job offers to practice medicine in the city. He said he was going back to the mountains, where there were many sick people and few doctors.
For many years he ministered to the sick. Some paid; most couldn’t. He gave his very best and helped everyone he could. In his old age he was in broken health himself and almost penniless. Two small rooms above the town grocery store were his home and office. At the foot of the creaky stairs leading up to his office was a sign with these words: “Dr. Carpenter is upstairs.” One morning someone climbed those stairs to find the devoted doctor dead. The entire community was plunged in grief. They wanted to erect some kind of monument to him. But they decided to simply write these words on a large tombstone: “Dr. Carpenter is upstairs.”
Jesus is the Divine Doctor of our souls. He is “upstairs” in Heaven, where he ascended after his Resurrection. But he is still alive and eager to help us through the Sacraments, the Bible, and the Church. Every time we turn to him in prayer, we climb the stairs to his office. Because he is upstairs, Dr. Jesus is always in. [This illustration adapted from Stories for Sermons, Vol. 2, by Fr. Arthur Tonne, p. 12.] (E- Priest).
Aesop enlightens the judge
The amazing fact of the Ascension lifts our gaze to Heaven. Because Jesus is now in Heaven, body and soul, we are assured that Heaven is not just a nice idea, a myth, or wishful thinking. It is a real place where Jesus has gone ahead to prepare the way for us. One of Aesop’s Fables shows just how new this Christian revelation really was. Aesop was a Greek slave who lived before the time of Christ. He was renowned for his natural wisdom, which was recorded in his famous fables, or short stories with deep lessons. One day he was ordered by his master to go to the public baths (in ancient times public baths were like country clubs) and get things ready. On his way, he was stopped by one of the official judges of the city. The judge asked him where he was going. Aesop, thinking that it was none of the judge’s business, answered, “I don’t know.” The judge was offended by this reply, which he considered disrespectful, and marched him off to prison for punishment (disrespectful slaves could be punished without a trial). When they arrived at the prison, Aesop turned to his captor and said, “Judge, when I told you, ‘I don’t know where I am going,’ I was speaking the truth. Little did I think that I was on my way to prison! You see, it is true indeed that we never really know just where we are going.” Faced with this explanation, the judge had no choice but to let Aesop go free.
This ironic story illustrates the absolute uncertainty of pre-Christian humanity about what happens after death – they just didn’t know. (E- Priest).
“But what am I going to do without you?”
Caroline had tears in her eyes. “Are you sure you want to move so far away?” Her beloved great Aunt Ingrid smiled. “Oh, Florida is not that far away. Besides, you’ll be starting high school in a few weeks. You’re going to make so many new friends you wouldn’t have time for me anyway.” Caroline couldn’t remember when her aunt had moved in with her family those many years ago; but under Aunt Ingrid’s tutelage, Caroline had matured from a sullen only child to a vibrant young woman with many interests. “But what am I going to do without you?” Caroline cried. “You’ll be fine. But just in case you get bored, I left something behind for you,” Ingrid said as she gave her niece a last long hug goodbye before stepping into the cab. When she returned to her room, Caroline found Ingrid’s package on her desk. Inside the box was a pair of knitting needles used by five generations of women in the family; a fountain pen that had belonged to Ingrid’s late husband, a writer; a coveted family cake recipe; a beautiful journal that reminded Caroline of the summer afternoon her aunt made paper in the kitchen; and a framed photograph of Ingrid and Caroline sitting at the piano after Caroline’s first lesson. An inscription engraved on the frame read Precious moments last forever. Caroline began to understand that, even though she felt left “out on a lonely limb of the family tree” without Ingrid, the memories of family lived on in her heart and spirit and attitude, connecting her to generations long past and still to come. Caroline placed the picture on her nightstand. Then, picking up the fountain pen and journal, she started to write a poem for Ingrid.
The Ascension of the Lord is not the marking of a departure but the celebration of a Presence. The risen and ascended Jesus is a living and life-giving Presence with us. [Bits & Pieces, April, 2004 quoted by Connections).
Marine Commissioning ceremony:
I’ve had the privilege of being present when two of my nephews were commissioned as Marine officers. They had been through months of rigorous academic, physical, and leadership training, and it was a proud moment for their parents when the new officers, resplendent in their “dress blues,” received their second lieutenant pins. The most moving part of the commissioning ceremony was the officers’ oath, ending with the solemn words, “I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion. … I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter, so help me God.” My nephews’ commissioning marked the beginning of a commitment of service to their country and their fellow Marines. Although the details of their future deployments were as then unknown, they had been well prepared, authorized and empowered for the work that would be asked of them.
Today’s readings are about a different kind of commissioning, often referred to as “the great commission” given by the ascending Jesus to his disciples. (Sharon K. Perkins Catholic News Service) L/21
Anecdotes on this page compiled by Fr. Tony (http://frtonyshomilies.com/) 2021.