Hebrews 9:24-28, 10:19-23
How many of us love a good cliffhanger?
When I think of a good cliffhanger, I think of season-ending episodes of popular TV shows that leave us anticipating, what’s going to happen next?
Today is Ascension Sunday. I looked up the definition of the word “to ascend” in Webster’s dictionary: “to move gradually upward.”
As we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord today, we see Christ’s ascendance to heaven from two perspectives from the same author. St. Luke also wrote Acts of the Apostles.
One is from the closing words of Luke’s Gospel. The other is from the opening words to Acts. A cliffhanger of sorts.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ Ascension happens on Easter Sunday.
In Acts of the Apostles, the Ascension occurs 40-days after the Easter Resurrection, 10-days before Pentecost.
We see the same story told from two slightly different perspectives.
One has the Apostles, in anticipation, asking if Jesus is going to “restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus rebuffs this question and reminds His followers only God knows the answer.
The other gives mission-instructions to His Apostles to preach “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” in Jesus’ name to all the nations.
In a word, one perspective creates “anticipation.” The other perspective lays out a “mission.”
These are the two words I would like for us to meditate on today as we absorb what God is telling us.
In the Gospel message, Jesus blesses the apostles as he hands on His mission to His disciples and promises them His assistance in the form of the Holy Spirit as they carry it out. They wait in anticipation of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ return.
How many of us are followers of Christ who wait in anticipation? We go to Mass. We pray. We take Communion weekly. We live the love of Christ in our relationships. We contemplate Jesus, but mostly we wait for something big to happen.
Now how many of us are followers of Christ who focus more on mission? We go to Mass. We pray. We take Communion weekly, then we actively take Christ to others.
It’s OK to anticipate: anticipate Pentecost, anticipate the Second Coming, anticipate the restoration of the kingdom of Israel, anticipate the reign of Jesus here on earth again.
But anticipation without participation in the mission of Christ is NOT what Jesus would have us do. Jesus calls each and every one of us to act as his hands, his heart and his voice in building up the Kingdom.
Mission is not always easy. Mission is messy. Mission means rejection and scorn. Mission can be dangerous.
But if we are to honor our ascended Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, mission is what we are called to do.
Now some do extraordinary things with their lives as they live out Christ’s mission. Some give their all like the apostles.
I’m reminded of a good friend, a Maryknoll priest who served the poorest of the poor in Honduras and Guatemala for 20-years. I’m reminded of how dangerous that life was for him and his fellow disciples of Christ. I’m reminded of one terrifying moment in his life as a missionary for Christ when the Holy Spirit saved his life.
As a priest who worked in remote areas he would travel by boat for hours every weekend to serve Mass to the small rural communities dotted along the hundreds of miles of rivers.
One time in early 1982 when civil unrest was at its peak in Central America, Fr. Dave LaBuda was working in the Peten region of Guatemala one weekend. He was joined by another priest Fr. Charlie Texiara.
As Fr. Dave and Fr. Charlie were traveling up river, they were stopped by Guatemalan military authorities. The men were seen as suspicious and immediately placed into a makeshift prison-cell as the lieutenant radioed headquarters.
Fr. Dave had just returned from Nicaragua. Both priests had identification papers from two regions where guerillas had strongholds in Guatemala.
Since both spoke fluent Spanish, they understood the lieutenant’s words as he asked for his commander, saying, “I don’t believe these men are priests and I want permission to shoot them.”
Fr. Dave and Fr. Charlie were freaked out. They saw no way out of their predicament.
Hours went by as the men sweated it out in the hot afternoon sun sensing the end of their lives was near. The anticipation was unbearable.
The lieutenant kept radioing headquarters, but his commander could not be found.
Eventually, the lieutenant brought both men out of the prison cell. They thought this was the end.
But in their moment of terror Fr. Charlie noticed the lieutenant wearing a big class ring from his military academy and started to ask questions about it.
The lieutenant began to regale them of his graduation day when he got the ring 10-years earlier. He told them of finding a priest as they strolled through town after graduation to bless the ring. A gringo priest.
Fr. Charlie told the lieutenant, “I was that priest!” The lieutenant immediately recognized him and said, “Padre!” And gave him big hug.
After that, he let them go… to return to their mission. Both men felt they dodged a big bullet and are thankful to the Holy Spirit for saving their lives that day.
The anticipation of the experience may have been extreme, but it did not deter them from their mission. With the help of the Holy Spirit, they returned to tending to the people of God later that very day.
Now I am not advocating each and every one of us put ourselves into harm’s way for Christ. But I am asking us, are we just waiting around in anticipation or are we active in Christ’s ministry, Christ’s mission?
And if we are not active in Christ’s mission, do we feel the tug of the Holy Spirit spurring us to step up our participation?
I’m sure there are people here today who are known by family members as having a “great voice” when singing in the shower, but who have never graced us with that voice by singing in the choir.
I’m sure there are people here today who are considered by friends as gracious hosts, but who have never served as greeter or usher at one of our Masses.
I’m sure there are people here today who have compassionate, loving hearts who offer friends and family the ministry of presence, but have never served communion to the sick and dying in hospitals or hospices in our area.
I’m sure there are people here today who are good cooks and could easily spend one weeknight a month at the Interfaith Shelter at the old Perpetual Help convent cooking dinner for its low income residents.
I am not asking us to give our all, but I am asking us to move gradually upward, to ascend, in how we share our time and talents with our faith community.
As we await the promise of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, I pray we will feel God’s presence calling us to deeper participation in the mission of Jesus Christ.
As we await the promise of the Second Coming, I pray we don’t just go around staring at the sky, waiting for Jesus to come back down. But I pray we open our hearts and notice Jesus all around us. And most importantly I pray we become Jesus to others by seeing Christ in ourselves.
In the coming weeks, our parish community will share with you some ways you can become more active in the mission here at Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Perpetual Help parishes.
As a final thought for reflection, Pope Francis tweeted the following on Twitter this week and I thought it fit our Gospel message perfectly:
"Every Christian is a missionary in the extent he or she witnesses to the love of God. Be missionaries of the tenderness of God!"
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