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The Ascension and the Christian’s mission today

The first Apostles took seriously Jesus’ command to preach the Gospel to all nations, and the fact that we are Christians here today centuries later is proof positive of how seriously they heeded His command.

Window by Henry Holiday depicting Christ ascending into heaven from St Mary the Virgin's church in Buckland, Oxfordshire. (Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP)

Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., for the Solemnity of the Ascension, 25 May 2017, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.

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If you were part of an organization from the very beginning and present at the death or retirement of the person who began it all, undoubtedly you would pay very close attention to his final remarks since they would give you a clue as to his deepest hopes and aspirations for that group.  This was very much the situation with the Apostles as they witnessed the ascension of Our Lord.  Having walked with Jesus for three years and having shared in His joys and in His sorrows at the most profound level, they now heard Him take His leave of them and this earth – commissioning them to be His witnesses unto the very ends of the earth.

Those first Apostles took seriously Jesus’ command that they preach the Gospel to all nations, and the fact that we are Christians here today centuries later and thousands of miles away from the birth of Christianity is proof positive of how seriously they heeded His command.  From its very origins, then, the Church has had an outward, missionary thrust.  In Baptism we were incorporated into the Body of Christ.  He is the head, and we are the members.  The work He began here on earth, He has now transferred to us to continue.  Are we twenty-first century Christians “mission-minded”?  Have we, with all our modern technology and advanced communications media, done half as well as the early Apostles in preaching the gospel?  I think not, especially not in the past forty years.

It seems to me that many modern Christians have lost their sense of mission and purpose.  They have experienced a kind of identity crisis and don’t know for sure any longer how valid and important the Christian message is – and that is why they have stopped inviting others to become members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.  If we have truly caught on to the message of the risen and ascended Christ, we would understand that He has entrusted the spread of the Gospel to us, and that He is presently engaged in preparing a place for those who have been faithful to His commission to be His witnesses in the time and place He has positioned us.

When the Apostles heard that first command to be witnesses and preachers for Jesus, they obeyed.  And what was the result?  Their ministry was fruitful, and they experienced the joy that comes from doing God’s work.  Today we are called upon to place ourselves in the tradition of that long line of men and women throughout the history of the Church who shared the good news of the risen Christ with all whom they encountered, preaching the Gospel not only with our lips, but with our very lives.

The Apostles were effective evangelizers because they had heard and internalized three assurances of their Master: “Peace, I leave you; my peace I give you” (Jn 14:27). “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).  “No one will take your joy from you” (Jn 16:22).  Peace leads to confidence, and confidence provides joy.  I hope you’ll not be overly offended if I observe that all too many good, serious, “traditional” type Catholics are not very peaceful individuals, nor particularly joyful.  Not a few tend to be very angry people who have made a career, indeed an unholy apostolate, of negativity, looking for battles and searching under every rock for a heretic.  Indeed, sad to say, such types would not know what to do with themselves if the Holy Spirit solved every problem in the Church tomorrow.  To be sure, there are problems in the Church, but they can only be addressed effectively in peace, with confidence, and in the joy of the Holy Spirit.

The French have a proverb which says that to leave is to die a little, and we know how true that is in our experience of life.  However, a look at the reaction of the Apostles to the departure of Jesus reveals no such sentiments of loss or sorrow.  On the contrary, they seem filled with joy and a sense of mission.  Since Jesus has returned to the Father, He has given us the task of being His Hands and His Heart for the people of today.  Is this really a “mission impossible”?  No!  And so. . .

When you preach the Gospel and people laugh,
remember that I am with you;

When you have shared your faith with your child and done your best and he turns from that faith,
remember that I am with you;

When you give your love to your spouse and find yourself rejected,
remember that I am with you;

When you work for the poor or the sick and receive no gratitude,
remember that I am with you;

When you pray and feel no satisfaction,
remember that I am with you;

When you take your stand for Christian values and are mocked,
remember that I am with you.

If you find yourself wondering why God allows these things to happen, then I have to tell you today what the angel told the Apostles 2000 years ago: Don’t stand looking up into the skies waiting for an answer; do the job Jesus has given you to do and have the same kind of confidence in yourself that Jesus has in you.  After all, He has gone to prepare a place for you in Heaven; with your best efforts and the help of the promised Holy Spirit, you will be faithful witnesses.

Jesus, then, is the source of our confident assurance: What the Father has done for Jesus, He will do for us; where Jesus has gone before, we will most surely follow.  Our faith tells us that Jesus is home with the Father, at the finish line, calling us home, cheering us on.  And so, in spite of any setbacks, we have every reason to be hopeful and joyful. Yes, St. Paul got it right when he asked: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31).

About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 33 Articles

Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

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