Pet owners understand the bond that develops between humans and their animals. A priest describes the day he had to take his beloved dog Shannon to the veterinarian for her final day. The priest said he lay down on the floor of the vet’s office so Shannon could feebly lie down beside him and place her muzzle on his chest. He said he petted and stroked the dog for the longest time before he looked at the vet and said, “Okay.” Shannon slipped away easily and quietly. The priest lay there a while longer before he was ready to leave. Later he spoke of how hard he had cried and grieved for his furry companion of many years.
Saying goodbye to a beloved pet is hard, but saying goodbye to a brother or sister, father or mother, spouse or child, or best friend and confidant is even more difficult. We should be able to imagine, then, how hard the day of the Ascension was for the Apostles. At this we have to use our imagination to fathom their joy at having the risen Jesus back. In today’s reading, however, after having lost Jesus once, they lose Him again. Their loss is so deep that two men dressed in white — angels — had to shake them out of their grief by reminding them that “this Jesus who has been taken from you. . .will return.”
Acts tells us that the loss of Jesus was not an occasion of grief; rather, it was an event of blessing. Acts tells us that, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus remains. Further, the Ascension tells us that while we still feel human pangs of loss, not all is lost.
Acts is the story of Jesus still alive in the world through the work of the Holy Spirit within the Church. This is Pope Francis’s message in his apostolic exhortation “Joy of the Gospel.” Christ lives among us! If we come to experience this, our joy cannot be contained, and we must spread the joy.
Matthew’s Gospel gives us what we call the “great commission” which is nothing more or nothing less than spreading the joy of the Gospel. We are to make disciples of all the nations. We don’t have to be left in loss, staring up at the sky. We know with certainty that the early Christians definitely believed that Jesus intended for them to spread this message, and they understood fully that it is in the Church that the Good News of Jesus and the mission of Jesus are spread.
Our passage from Matthew’s Gospel contains the last words of Jesus that Matthew records. Matthew did not know Jesus, but he knew the Christian community very well. Those early Christians had an exuberance about their faith that was infectious. They brought hundreds of people to faith just through their witness. They baptized many. Matthew sees this as a direct result of Jesus’ command, and he puts it into words for us, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all, baptizing them.” This command should capture our attention.
In just a week we will celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Church. As we prepare ourselves for Pentecost, we might well ask what diverts our attention away from the joy that the Risen Christ offers. What keeps us from being joyful? What keeps us from feeling compelled to share our joy?
Does our lifestyle distract us? Are we caught up in the pursuit of what Charles Dickens calls “the Master Passion: Gain” — what we call wealth? Sometimes we disguise the pursuit. Investment firms urge us to pursue “security” for our retirement. While we do have to be prudent about retirement, the pursuit of “security” can distract us from our responsibilities to the poor, those who have no security at all.
Do our jobs distract us? Are we spending enough time with our spouses and children, or is our occupation distracting us from the “family commandment” to honor father and mother? Do our self-image or our fears distract us from sharing joy with friends? Are we worried about what they will think if we talk about God in our lives? Do our regrets distract us? Are we so trapped in our past that there is no room for joy in the present?
Do we need two men dressed in white to ask us why we are just standing around looking up at the sky? If so, today they stand before us.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.