by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“You Galileans, why are you just standing here looking into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from among you into heaven will return as certainly and mysteriously as he left.” Acts 1, 1-11
“Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations…And know that I am with you at all times; even to the end of time.” Matthew 28, 16-20
Even a cursory look at the Gospels reveals that their authors wrote with purpose and a sense of order, each intent on supporting the communities to which they belonged as they tried to deal with opposition and persecution as they went about living and proclaiming the “kingdom of God” in a world that was reluctant to accept them and their message. So, it was by design, rather than by coincidence, that Matthew, in his very first chapter, identifies Jesus, as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy and names him as “Emmanuel…God-is-with-us” (Matthew 1, 23 and Isaiah 7, 14), and then, in his concluding chapter, records Jesus’ parting words as “And know that I am with you at all times; yes, to the end of time” (Matthew 28, 29). Matthew is in no doubt that God, in the person of Jesus, has made his home among us and still dwells within us. The challenge, of course, for all of us is to live our lives as disciples of Jesus, ever-conscious of the fact that God is always in and among us.
In this context, I share with you some insights of two contemporary American poets, Christian Wiman and Mary Oliver. In his book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Wiman makes several comments that are very apposite to today’s gospel-reading and echo what we heard in the gospel-reading of the Third Sunday of Easter:
“If every Bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go, Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man to whom they had pledged their very lives; this man whom they had seen beaten, crucified, abandoned by God; this man who, after walking the dusty road with them, after sharing an ordinary meal and discussing the scriptures, had to vanish once more in order to make them see.” (Christian
Wiman, My Bright Abyss, Macmillan, NY 2013)
Earlier, in the same book, Wiman observes: “…the very act of attention troubles the tyranny of the ordinary”. This is a wake-up call for us to look for God in the ordinary, in the mundane events of life, in the people we meet, in nature, in art, in everything and everyone we encounter. Isn’t it interesting that, in today’s first reading from Acts, the two men in white who appeared to the disciples after Jesus had disappeared from their sight, brought their attention back to the ordinary: “Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?” The Divine is present in the ordinary experiences of life. The Divine is all around us.
Mary Oliver, in her poem, My Work Is Loving the World echoes the same sentiments
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished. (September 2013)
What does all this have to do with the liturgy that puts the focus on the ascension of Jesus into heaven? Most cars, these days, are fitted with devices for guiding drivers to destinations with which they are not familiar. These instruments are called Sat Navs or TomToms or Garmins, or have some other commercial name. When we take a wrong turn, the little voice comes to our rescue and announces a need to alter course with the word “recalibrating”. Today’s first reading gives us a glimpse of the disciples engaged in the process of recalibrating after the departure of Jesus has forced them to take measures for plotting new directions in their lives.
The disciples had settled into a level of comfortability. Jesus had been their guide and companion for three whole years. They were used to having him around. One moment he was with them and, then, suddenly he was dead. Then followed his resurrection and his startling reappearances among them. Finally, with next to no notice, he was taken from them. To make things even worse, two strangers appear and reprimand them, telling them that they have no reason to be surprised at what has just happened. After all, God, the Divine Being is not someone we can hold on to, or someone we can treat as a possession or a security blanket. That’s the attitude or mindset that the two mysterious men are intent on shaking out of the disciples. And that’s something that’s worthy of our reflection. We can easily slip into thinking that we deserve to feel that God is near us because we have done our level best to live good, moral lives, to support the needy and to be faithful to prayer. Yet, there are times when we feel as low as ditch water or as dry as dust when it comes to feeling God’s presence.
But Jesus’ parting words could not be clearer. He says nothing about looking after ourselves or assuring us that we will feel him or God or the Holy Spirit close to us. Instead, he urges the disciples, and us, their successors, to get out there and be good news to everyone we encounter.
Almost another lifetime ago, when I presided at Australian Catholic University graduation ceremonies, I often reminded the graduates that they might well be the only gospel that some people would ever hear, see or encounter. That was a reminder for myself as much as for the hundreds of graduates in front of me. There is nothing particularly unclear, confusing or wishy-washy about the wording Matthew gives to Jesus’s parting message to his disciples. Moreover, he took the calculated risk that his disciples would be able to measure up to the task, of course, with the help and guidance of God’s Spirit. Jesus envisaged a community made up of all nations, with no peoples excluded. Describing himself as the one with all legitimate authority on earth and in heaven, he sends his followers to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to follow all that he has commanded, never forgetting that he is with them at all times. There’s a universal ring about that. Yet, even though we live in countries made up of people from all nations. I wonder sometimes if we really make them all welcome in our church and social groups. Perhaps it’s more comfortable to exclude those who live life differently.