This week we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord. In some places it is still celebrated as Ascension Thursday and in others it is celebrated as the Sunday before Pentecost. While I like the more 'chronological/scripturally correct' feel of celebrating it on the Thursday which is ten days before Pentecost in union with how it actually took place, I see the value of having the feast on Sunday also. Not everyone can go to daily Mass, even on those holy days of obligation; but by moving it to a Sunday, everyone is able to celebrate this important feast day in which Jesus prepared the apostles for the coming of Pentecost by giving them their final instructions before He left them in the hands of His Holy Spirit. The Ascension is very important since it is part of the mysteries begun with the Resurrection. It teaches us much about the mission Jesus intended for those of us who would follow in the work of building up the Kingdom of God.
In the Acts of the Apostles Luke wrote that Jesus took the apostles, to whom He had been regularly appearing after His resurrection, out to an area near Bethany. Jesus then instructed them to remain in Jerusalem because the event He promised (at Pentecost) would indeed be fulfilled very soon. He told them that they would receive a second, but different, baptism: “John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”(Acts 1:5) Jesus told them they would receive power when the Holy Spirit descended and this would enable them to become witnesses to the entire world. In other words, Jesus was reminding them that His work was only just beginning. His ascension was not an end, but it was the ushering in of the new age of the Holy Spirit, and they were to be the ministers of the mercy, compassion, and love which Jesus had brought into the world. They were to be His presence among the people, empowering others to do the same, bringing the faith outwards to His people.
What is very important in all of this is that we realize the power given to the apostles was not for them alone. It was to be shared. They were to empower others to leadership, that is, to ordain them with the powers they had received from Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Not only that, the Holy Spirit would be offered to all followers through baptism and what is now called confirmation. All of us were given access to other graces, too, which we receive through the sacraments and through prayer. In the act of ascending to the Father, Jesus was teaching the apostles that the Holy Spirit was going to be accessible to the world in new ways. Jesus accomplished the work of redemption and now His Spirit is doing the work of sanctifying.
Each of us is similar to the apostles in that we have a mission and purpose in our lives. It may not seem like we are here to share our faith to the ends of the earth, but actually we are. Depending on how we have been called and the circumstances of our lives, we are to live our faith wherever we may be. Additionally, we need to recognize how important it is that we pray for one another in accomplishing that to which we have been called. We need apostles (bishops), presbyters (priests), and deacons as much today as they did in the first century. We need consecrated men and women to bring the message of Jesus into places where others of us may not be called to go. Yes, it is important that we pray for vocations, especially in this Year of Consecrated Life, but yet that is not enough. While prayer is (always) good, the Holy Spirit is counting on us to extend His invitation to those who may need affirmation in what they may have considered only lightly: choosing to live consecrated or ordained life. They may need that extra push to see what others may recognize in them.
However, our prayer for vocations should not be reserved only for consecrated religious life and clergy. All of us have a vocation and each vocation is important. Those who are called to be married or single are to be witnesses no less than those in religious life. If we want people to be attracted to Jesus, we all need to love the way Jesus loves. We may be as eloquent as St. Paul, but if we do not practice the mercy and compassion that Jesus lived and taught, who would listen to us, leave alone want what it is we have? As St. Peter said when he healed the crippled beggar after Pentecost: “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have, I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.” (Acts 3:6) We need to take what we have been given and enable others to ‘rise and walk’ in whatever way we can. This is not about trying to heal people physically, though we should pray for others whenever we can, but rather it is about unbinding them through works of mercy and compassion. All of us have access to a limitless share of this, (given us through grace), and it is worth more than silver and gold.
We all need to spend time discerning a vocation, but after we choose, to never pray about it again makes no sense. Just as we celebrate the Ascension and the time leading up to Pentecost every year, this would be a perfect time to pray about where we are in living out our vocation. It is a good time to take our spiritual pulse and ask the Spirit to enliven us at Pentecost with a renewed sense of how to live out that to which we are called. We need to continually discern how we might be better disciples, how we may need to be more open to the Spirit for the gifts of mercy and compassion, especially toward those who we find difficult and pose a challenge to us. We need to reach out to those who are hurting or angry because they have been neglected or ‘under-loved’ who need mercy and compassion to heal their wounds so that they realize they are loved and loveable; and to those who are lonely and feel forgotten who need the mercy and compassion of loving acts of kindness done for them; and to those who are elderly, ill, imprisoned, or marginalized who need to know they never cease to have value in the eyes of God, and that they, too, are needed to build the Kingdom by their prayer, mercy, and compassion. If we do not share these things, how will anyone receive them and also pass them on? This is what Jesus asked of the apostles and it is what He is asking of us. We do not have to do anything that is outside of the area of life to which we have been called. Rather He calls us to share what we have been given, mercy and compassion, in the place where we are. We may have to reach a little outside of our comfort zone from time to time, but where love, mercy, and compassion are, Jesus is.
The Ascension, then, teaches us that we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus, sharing that which we have been given. Therefore, we need to sit with the Apostles and Mary in whatever is our Upper Room and discern anew how we can be ‘apostles’ of mercy and compassion in the land where we reside. We need to discern what this means for us in our daily living, to ask for mercy and compassion (forgiveness) from God which will release us from what holds us bound, and then we need to give what we have received as a gift. Our kindness is what touches people, and it is this gift which will soften hearts to the rest of the message of Jesus. Some will reject us, as they rejected Jesus before us, but we never know when one simple act of kindness can change a life. Let us be like the apostles following the instructions of Jesus: let us trust in the gifts we have been given, with an eye to Heaven, but with our hearts attuned to the Holy Spirit knowing that we are given great gifts to share.
May we pray for all vocations, that men and women would answer the call to religious life and the priesthood; that those called to married and single life may understand that to which they are called and live out of the graces of the sacraments! May we continually discern how to live out our own vocation! May we learn from the ascended Jesus how to keep our eyes attuned to Heaven and our hearts attuned to the movements of the Holy Spirit! May we continue to pray for mercy, compassion, kindness, and peace to fall afresh on our world through the loving actions of the disciples of Jesus! And may we remember that we are never alone, but that Jesus is ever in our midst! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of our Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus Christ! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first two photos are mine. They were taken in the Rockies of Colorado.
The icon is The Holy Spirit, The Paraclete, The Lord and Giver of Life by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/all-categories/product/281-the-holy-spirit-the-paraclete-the-lord-and-giver-of-life
Finally is a painting by Nicolas Poussin called Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man (1655). It can be found at http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/24.45.2
Heart Speaks to Heart