There I was looking up into the clouds wondering what it must have been like for the disciples on the day of our Lord’s ascension into Heaven. He had just finished telling them, “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). I turned a page back in my Bible asking myself, “what things?” And so begins each disciples contemplation of the Risen and Ascended Lord and his or her individual place in the story of Salvation. What things are we witnesses of?
The seasons of Lent and Easter are summarized nicely in these verses of Luke, 24:45-47:
Jesus said to them, “Thus it is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentence, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
This story is summarized in the heart of every Christian in the Eucharistic acclamation: “Keep in mind that Jesus Christ has died for us and is risen from the dead. He is our saving Lord; he is joy for all ages.”
Christ has died. Lenten time of penance. Christ is Risen. Easter time of celebration. These two movements of the Christian reality, however, are often where we close the book, but the story doesn’t end there – and neither should our telling of it. The Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus was taken up into heaven. The Ascension of our Lord. Yes, Life conquers death with His resurrection, and is “seated at the right-hand of the Father” through his Ascension. This is recalled through the prayer of Psalm 110, prayed at Vespers every Sunday evening: “The Lord’s revelation to my master: “Sit at my right: your foes I will put beneath your feet.” Jesus our Lord now reigns from heaven, and does not leave us alone, but remains with us in particular ways to strengthen us against the things of this world which may try to make themselves first-place in our lives. Eucharist, and Holy Spirit.
Over the last 90 days – 40 Lenten days of penance and 50 days of Easter joy – we have immersed ourselves in the recollection of the Christian mystery, “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again!” And with the ascension we are standing with the Disciples looking up at the clouds rejoicing, and yet asking, what next? What do we do with the mystery we have lived in a liturgical way through the last 90 days?
“You are witnesses of these things.”
We are witnesses. What does that mean? The greek word used, μάρτυρες (martoores), reminds us of the word martyr, a word that has come to mean in our modern use one who has testified to the death of their belief in something. Is this what Jesus had in mind for us? Are we called to become martyrs? The Latin text uses the word “testes”, from testimoniare : to prove, to give evidence, to witness. The Christian life is a combination of both these words: martyr and witness.
First, we are called to be martyrs through our being baptized into Christ, as St. Paul teaches (Romans 6:3-4,11):
However, our martyrdom is not, usually, a physical death, but a letting ourselves die to the ways the world tries to shape our thoughts, our ways of acting, and even more craftily, to desensitize us from thinking about the right things, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise” (Phil 4:8). This ‘martyrdom’ accepts that the world will hate us because we stand against the current, stirring up in the souls of others the Truth the exists in every human heart. In this thought, we begin to see where our second word becomes intertwined in our every day living.
Jesus told his disciples “you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The idea of witnessing – to give testimony to our faith – is not a by-product of the Christian faith; it is the central stage on which Christ is made known and thus, made loved. Our witness sometimes requires words, but always requires right act. And what is it that we are giving testimony to in our daily lives? Are we proclaiming Christ through our words and actions in a way that leaves those who encounter us to confirm in their hearts a goodness deeper than civility expects. Our testimony — if rooted in the Christ-love we contemplate on the Cross — touches others to see Christ through our loving them.
How do we combine these two necessary components of the Christian life? To die to ourselves so to give living testimony of God’s love?
There is the old saying, “you are what you eat”. What is the nourishment that carries us from Sunday to Sunday? What is it that our senses take in when we are not at Mass being refreshed by God’s Word and His very Body and Blood in the Sacrifice of the Eucharistic Celebration? My confessor and I were discussing the media of today as a real stumbling block for all of us – priests, religious, and laity alike. Images are often suggestive and violent, lyrics and words do not lift up our thoughts to God, and the worst part, our society that claims to be believers in God see nothing wrong, as though the human being can separate itself from that which it takes in through its senses. We’ve heard the reasoning before: “It’s just a movie!” “The kids are just dancing!” “Abstinence isn’t a viable option.” All of these reasons try to justify a shift in moral norms. But do we have to listen to them?
What message do we send to those around us by the films we watch, the books we read, the music we listen to, the things we “like”. By our using media we morally might disagree with, we are choosing to support them – we create a market for them to thrive. It reaffirms the current trend that these are acceptable to us Christians. Our witness is lacking, in these small things, perhaps.
As we look up into the heavens at the Lord’s ascension, let us also reflect what made it possible. The Cross. Sacrifice. Obedience to the Father. Let us pray, that we too might follow the example of our Lord Jesus, that when our day to meet Him comes, He may not find us lacking.