By Fr. George Berendt, PIME
Although I’m a ‘baby boomer’ I’m still too young to have actually seen it myself. My knowledge of it comes from old black and white newsreels and TV history documentaries. You of the iPhone and iPad generation have no idea of what I might even be talking about. My parent’s generation, those of the ‘Great Depression’ and ‘WW II’ who might still be alive – they have it etched on the back of their eyes.
The black and white iconic images I’m referring to come from the 1940’s. I can recall an image of a black man with a strange hat playing a squeeze box with tears running down his ebony cheeks. Then there are the white men in their fedoras and long woolen coats and women in their frumpy coats and lacey hats staring in shock and horror; all their eyes seem filled with fear. All the actors in these iconic WW II, black and white photos have a shocked, despondent and gloomy look on their faces. What caused all this anxiety and angst? FDR was dead.
A terrible war still raged on and our president died at a most inconvenient and problematic moment. We had enemies to the east of us and enemies to the west of us who wanted to grind us into the dirt. A war of unprecedented scale waged on and FDR, our leader, our president, our commander in chief who galvanized the nation from the depths of the great depression before the war, he who had led us and our allies for so many years during this world war was now suddenly gone.
FDR had the words to lessen our pangs: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” He set us on the road to recovery during the depression. With his will power and words he woke a sleeping giant, helping them to face a threat that until then the world hadn’t known. Now he was gone.
Could his mantle be passed on? Who would pick it up? Who would come forward and lead us through these troubling times? Could a transition be made now that he was gone? Hearts were filled with fear and doubt!
Today, the feast of the Ascension has a strange line in the first reading: “…a cloud took him from their sight.” He’s gone in an instant! The disciples were told to go to the mountain to worship him whom they had trusted. This was the same person, by the way, that they “doubted” (Mt 28:17). He whom they doubted they now worship; believers and doubters in the same breath. What chutzpah, don’t you think?
These “doubtful worshippers” adored him on the mountain top; he who had brought them so much joy, comfort, and consolation. Talk about a divided heart! It seems we have to stop bad mouthing Thomas alone for in the end all were doubters; all had reservations fermenting in their hearts. All had uncertainties bouncing around in their heads. So much so that Jesus could one day scold them, saying: “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” (Mt. 8:26).
I have no doubt that the early disciples of Jesus felt as our nation felt in the middle of a terrible war when FDR suddenly left us. His sudden absence, the fear of who would now lead us on, and help us end this terrible conflict must have diminished our nation’s confidence.
2000 years ago the infant Church faced the same dilemma, the same internal turmoil we feel when someone whom we depend on for so much is now gone. We know the feeling! It could be the loss of our parents, it could be the death of Steve Jobs of Apple, it could be the death of Pope John Paul II who led the church for so many years, and it could have been George Washington who so graciously moved on into civilian life after two terms as our first president.
We want to cling to what is familiar and find it difficult to imagine what could follow. It’s hard to imagine that we can possibly continue on into the future successfully without the “one” who was with us before. Now absent of the one who guided us, lacking the direction and push of the one who encouraged us, we feel cut off, adrift.
Yet 2000 years ago that is just what happened to our group. Just like Mary Magdalene in the garden who wanted to cling to the Lord and not release him. The Jesus of the past is gone and the Jesus of the Resurrection is now here. Clinging to a past Jesus will not serve us because a transformed, glorious, resurrected Jesus has emerged from the grave – a Jesus who promised to be with us “always” until the end of the ages (Mt.28:20).
Weak and sinful as we might be individually and corporately as a universal church, our Jesus, our resurrected Jesus, is still with us. Jesus has not abandoned us. No, no; not only is Jesus still with us but also we have received the Advocate who will also remain with us. The triune God walks with us day and night and as we heard in the first reading we will “receive power.” We will be given the power to “‘be witnesses” not only “in Jerusalem, Judah and Samaria,” but also “to the ends of the earth.”
Every baptized member of the church has been gifted with a “missionary vocation” to carry God’s Good News to Detroit, Port Huron, Chicago, Ottawa, Cancun, and Timbuktu; even to the end of the earth where the foot meets the distant horizon. The ascension of Jesus is God’s invitation to each of us to be the humble instrument that bears the Good News of salvation to those around us and to those who live far away. What did the angels say that day so long ago: “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Let’s go, we’ve all got missionary work to do!