Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord: Witnesses
The most recent trend in TV dramas has been long series with numerous intricate plot lines. A good series will pull all the plot lines together before it ends, but so often you have to be reminded of them before each episode. So a series will begin with, “Previously on” whatever the series is.
St. Luke does something like that. He concluded his gospel, today’s gospel, with the Ascension of the Lord and the directive to the disciples to be witnesses to the world of the wonders of the Kingdom of God. Then St. Luke writes another book, this one about the Early Church and the ministries of Peter and Paul from Jerusalem to Rome. This book is the Acts of the Apostles. Now at the very beginning of Acts, today’s first reading, we hear again about the Lord’s Ascension and the directive to the disciples to be witnesses to the world of the wonders of God’s Kingdom. This is very much a “previously, in the first days of the Church,” moment.
Of all the wonders and preaching of the Lord, St. Luke prepares us for the story of the Early Church by recalling the Ascension and the Lord’s mandate that his disciples be witnesses to the world. Jesus has left to judge the living and the dead, and, yet, he is still mystically present in the Holy Spirit. The main focus of the disciples is to be witnesses. The whole Acts of the Apostles is about their witnessing. It is also a call for us to be witnesses.
When we hear the term witness our natural inclination is to consider a witness in a court room. But being a witness is much more than reporting on an incident. In calling the disciples to be witnesses, Luke is telling them, and us, to report on the entire story of salvation history. We are to proclaim to the world that the spiritual is real, that mankind sacrificed the spiritual for the pleasures of the world, and that God loves us so much that he restored the spiritual through the sacrifice of His Son. We are to proclaim that there is more to life than what meets the eye. Jesus Christ is still with us. His Holy Spirit empowers us. Our sins will be forgiven. Everlasting life is offered to us.
We are to be witnesses, but how? Obviously, what we say is of minimal importance. We are to witness with our lives. People should, as the old hymn said, “Know we are Christians by our love.” It should be clear to all around us that God is the center of our lives. We need to live in a way that proclaims Christ. Our lives should be our witness. We need to follow the example of so many who have and who are forfeiting their physical lives for the sake of their spiritual lives. The world martyr means witness.
We probably will not be called upon to make the choice of choosing Christ or denying Him, although many in Iraq, in Asia and in Africa, are making that very choice as we speak. However, we will be called upon to choose Christ and accept social suicide. We need to give witness to the fundamental truth of love in the world. We need to stand against hatred. A Christian cannot close an eye to those who further hatred. But the Christian who stands against a hate monger will often be despised. A Christian cannot stand with those who promote the destruction of life, but a Christian who stands against those who support abortion will be ridiculed. A Christian cannot allow the poor and the stranger among us to suffer, but a Christian who works for social justice will be dismissed as a bleeding heart.
That is on the negative, but there are wonderful positives. Being a witness to Jesus Christ means letting others know that life can be so much more than a series of failures and successes. Being a witness to Jesus Christ means proclaiming to the world that meaning and purpose and fulfillment can have the infinitely wonderful dimension of eternal union with God. Being a witness to Jesus Christ means proclaiming with our lives that happiness is offered to all who dare to embrace God.
The next episode of the series is beginning. “Pay attention,” the readings say, “to what has taken place: the spiritual is real, the way of the Lord must be promoted to the world. We must be God’s witnesses.”