01 June 2014

Are we standing around looking at the sky?

Ascension of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic/Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Audio File

Right there in front of them. . .right before their eyes. . .“as they were looking on, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” Place yourself in this scene. You're just standing there with your friends, listening to your teacher lecture. He's repeating some of the same stuff he's said a thousand times before. You have absolutely no idea what he's talking about. One of your more impatient classmates asks Jesus if and when he plans on restoring the kingdom of Israel. Ah! Finally, a real question! Let's get this revolution started! Then Jesus starts taking about times and seasons and the Holy Spirit and Jerusalem and being his witnesses all over the world. And just as your eyes are about to glaze over. . .WHOOSH!. . .he flies up into the sky in a cloud, disappearing from sight. Like everyone else who sees this, you're standing there stunned, looking up into the sky, shocked, amazed, wondering what just happened. Then two guys dressed in white show up and ask, “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Why are we standing here looking at the sky!? Um, b/c our teacher just got kidnapped by a cloud? Here's another question just for us: why do the guys in white ask the stunned disciples why they are looking up at the sky?

Had the disciples been paying attention to Jesus' answer to the question about restoring the kingdom of Israel. . .had they been paying attention for the three years they were with him. . .they would not have been at all shocked by his ascension into the clouds. Not only would they not have been shocked, they would've been expecting it. And they would've watched his rise for a second or two and then waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit so that their work could begin. Before he disappeared into the sky, Jesus had instructed his students, “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.” That's pretty clear. Make disciples. Baptize them. Teach them my commandments. Not all that complicated really. So, why the hesitation? Notice how the disciples approached Jesus that day on the mountain in Galilee, “When they saw [Jesus], they worshiped, but they doubted.” They offer him due praise and adoration, but they also doubt him. How do they both worship Jesus and doubt him at the same time? The answer to that question tells us why they are standing there looking at the sky.

Seeing your teacher and friend kidnapped by a cloud is pretty amazing. It's worth a gawk or two. But when you think back to the work he's given you to do – make disciples, baptize them, teach them his commandments – his sudden disappearance is a little traumatic. He's leaving us with all this work! All that doubt that you felt comes roaring back and you start to wonder if you can really finish all that he's given you to finish. Even before he charged you with making disciples and teaching them his commandments, you knew that he would going away. Not how exactly but that he would be. So, you do what comes naturally: you worship the Son of God as you should but you also feel the pressure of uncertainty, the heavy burden of not-knowing whether or not you can do all that he asks of you. In the drama of his ascension, you forget that he said, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Then two guys dressed in white show up and ask you why you're standing there looking at the sky. You answer, “I'm mourning. I'm wondering where to go from here, how to get started on all I have to do.” And there's another week to wait before the Answer comes in fire and wind.

Right before Jesus gives them the Great Commission, the disciples worship their teacher. They give him thanks and praise for his presence among them. But under their adoration is a shadow of doubt, just a hint of uncertainty and fear. Can we go on without him? How do we follow him if he's gone? What's happens to us once he leaves? All of them are disciples. All of them are baptized. All of them are well-educated in his commandments. Yet, they doubt. These men and women are not fairy tale heroes. They are not mythical figures that embody archetypal truths. They are men and women. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Real flesh and blood folks. Jesus doesn't teach them fables to guide them through life's hard choices. He doesn't offer them sage advice or moral lessons. In word and deed, he reveals to them the purpose and plan of his Father. He brings them into the history of salvation and makes them participants, players in his Father's program of redemption. Of course they doubt! What ordinary person wouldn't doubt, knowing that he or she is cast as an agent in the rescue of Creation from sin and death? The Holy Spirit has not yet come to them, so their worship and doubt is perfectly ordinary. 
Let's ask ourselves a question: are we standing around looking at the sky? Do we understand our commission from Christ solely in terms of waiting and watching for his return? If so, then our doubt has won out over our zeal for witness; that is, if we still think of our faith as a life lived watching the sky instead of as a means of bringing others to Christ, then we are failing to carry out Our Lord's commission. Jesus says, “Make disciples. Baptize them. Teach them my commandments.” That's our fundamental task. Whatever else we may be doing as his followers, whatever else we may think is necessary for our growth in holiness, our job description as Christians is crystal clear. And yes, even as we carry out Christ's commission, we will doubt. We will be afraid. We'll fall and get back up. We'll fuss and fight with one another over big questions and small. But when our lives together as brothers and sisters in Christ become an elaborate picnic of standing around looking up into the sky, we must immediately remember Christ's words to his friends, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Why are we staring at the sky looking for Christ? He is with us always.

Jesus' ascension directly challenges the disciples and us to think hard about how we are spending our time and energy as followers of Christ. There is a heaven. And we are made and remade to spend eternity there. There is a time and place to build an interior castle, to wander around in our own souls, seeking the presence of God. We should ponder the divine mysteries, explore our vocations – run after all the things of heaven! But none of these is an end in itself, none of these is our charge. We are disciples. Baptized and well-educated in the commandments of Christ. We are still here b/c there are still some out there who have not heard God's freely offered mercy to sinners. There are still some out there who have not seen God's love at work in the world. They've not seen me or you following Christ. Do they see us standing around looking up at the sky? Wondering what could possibly be so fascinating about a cloud? Make sure they see you and hear you doing Christ's work and speaking his word. That's the only reason any of us are still here.
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  1. If you live in the Archdiocese of Newark you've stopped looking up into the sky a few days ago and are now hanging out in the upper room waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit!

  2. The beginning elicited a chuckle or two from me. I took notes as I listened, and this is what struck me: I really liked the phrase "pressure of uncertainty" - what a wonderful description! And I appreciated how you stressed that these were "flesh and blood" people - good reminder. . . the penultimate paragraph was terrific. What really brought it all home to me was the question: are we standing around, waiting and watching? And the reminder that we will doubt and we will be afraid. But none of that can stop us, for we must read/listen to your final paragraph, which I thought really brought it all home: "Make sure they see you and hear you doing Christ's work and speaking his word. That's the only reason any of us are still here."

    I found it to be excellently preached - the evening preaching was better than the early morning, which I watched. I have really enjoyed this past week of Fr. Philip homilies - just like old times! Thank you!

  3. "Kidnapped by a cloud." Love it.

  4. We were always told, as Deacons, to be prepared in case your priest leans over and says, "I'm not feeling good today, do you think you could do the homily?" So, it's a good thing I read your homily, because it happened! Bad thing was that I did such a good job and setting up for Pentecost, they want me to preach again this weekend!
    Thanks for being there on the interwebs!!!
    Peace and Come Holy Spirit!!

    1. Just sharin' the fruits, brother, just sharin' the fruits. . .


  5. Looking for the saints to lead me to the shrine, where heaven and earth meet. seems to be working...