Note: In some dioceses, the celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord is transferred from the traditional date, 40 days after Easter, to the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles
This reading describes the episode in which the risen Jesus, who had appeared alive to his apostles on several occasions, finally disappears. The author reports that “he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.’’ The apostles, as one might expect, were dumbfounded, having never witnessed or even imagined such a thing. Then, the account goes on, two men in white confronted the apostles and asked, “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” The men went on to say that Jesus would return, which is part of our faith. That abrupt question—“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?”—didn’t imply that they should go back to their former trades and wait for Jesus to reappear. On the contrary, it implied that they should get busy spreading the word that Jesus had conquered sin and death, was alive, and was inviting all people to encounter him and carry on his work of healing, generosity, and justice. It’s the same invitation he extends to us.
This is an exuberant psalm that urges those who believe in God, “clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness.” God has given us existence itself, life, the earth and everything in it, and he has given us spirits that will live forever. Do we believe this? No wonder we should clap and shout!
When I was beginning my senior year in a public high school, my mother mentioned that my father would be pleased if I attended Seton Hall University.
Sixty years later, I still don’t know why that was Dad’s preference, but it’s an indication of how indifferent I was as a student that, based only on my mother’s remark, I applied to, was admitted to, and attended Seton Hall.
It didn’t take more than a few days for me to realize that I wasn’t going to sleep walk through four years at The Hall as I had done in high school. Everything about the two experiences was different.
For example, in high school, I schmoozed with as many teachers as would tolerate it, creating personal relationships that I imagined would influence grades. At the Hall, I saw most of my instructors for only one semester, and then only in class. There was little opportunity for a con artist.
Also, the curriculum in my high school in the late 1950s probably hadn’t changed much since the late 1940s. It wasn’t particularly challenging, which explains, in part, how I graduated.
At Seton Hall, I was required to take courses in disciplines that I hadn’t known existed. With only a semester instead of a whole academic year to master the material, the urgency of the situation quickly became clear to me. I realized in short order that the high school more or less had to keep me, regardless of my grades—The Hall not so much.
Somehow—maybe for Dad’s sake—I became a student and, in a way, I have been a student ever since. And yet, beyond shocking me into the rigors of scholarship, my time at Seton Hall affected my life in an even more important way; it made me a more mature Catholic.
Like many passages in scripture, this one delivers messages in layers. One layer has to do with the immediate circumstances of the prophet Elijah. This prophet had invoked the wrath of Ahab, king of Israel, who had married a Phoenician woman, Jezebel, and turned to worship of Baal. Elijah, on God’s instructions, declared that, until Elijah said otherwise, there would be a drought in the land. Also on God’s instructions, Elijah sought out the widow mentioned in this passage while hiding from Ahab.
The lesson more immediate to us, however, is found in the humility and generosity of the widow, a Gentile, who risked her life and the life of her son by giving Elijah something to eat. Jesus would call attention to this incident as a sign that God’s mercy extends beyond Israel—a radical idea at the time. (Luke 4:26) Moreover, Jesus calls his disciples—that’s us—to the same level of generosity, which we see demonstrated again in today’s gospel reading.
“The Lord secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry …. gives sight to the blind …. Raises up those who were bowed down …. protects strangers.” God’s own mercy is magnified by the extent to which we participate in it. So many people are without homes or food or health care. So many are marginalized, neglected, mistreated, only because they are “other”—they speak a different language, wear different clothes, or have a different complexion than the dominant population. It’s an enormous problem, but ours are the lips, hands, and feet with which God can address it.
In the 1997 movie As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays Marvin Udall, author of more than sixty romance novels. Udall lives alone in an upscale New York City apartment where he writes love stories.
He also washes his hands again and again during the day, each time peeling the shrink wrap off of one bar of antiseptic soap after another, passing each one across his hand only once and then throwing it out, because it has been contaminated. And he rinses his hands in water that is as hot as he can stand.
When he ventures outside of his apartment onto the busy Manhattan streets, he uses all kinds of maneuvers to make sure that he doesn’t come in contact with the other pedestrians.
So, from that point of view, Marvin Udall is clean, but there are other aspects to his personality. He is not interested in anything or anyone that does not serve his needs. He is rude. He is insulting. He is openly abusive of people he doesn’t approve of, such as homosexuals and Jews.
If Jesus had known about Marvin Udall—clean on the outside, on the inside not so much—he might have used him as the subject of a parable to answer the critics we read about in the synoptic gospels—asking why Jesus’ disciples or, according to Luke, Jesus himself did not follow the Jewish practice of washing their hands before eating.
When we visited Krakow in Poland many years ago, our guide pointed out a monument to Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
I mentioned to the guide that there is a street named after Kosciuszko near my home in Whitehouse Station. She was surprised, but I don’t know why.
Kosciuszko came to the American colonies to take part in the revolution against Great Britain; he was one of the best engineers in the Continental Army.
He went back to Europe and led military resistance against attempts by Russia and Prussia to overrun their neighbors.
It would take hours to describe what Kosciuszko achieved and what he endured over 40 years of campaigning for human freedom.
Because of his passion for democracy and religious tolerance, he is the only person in human history to be a national hero in four different countries.
There are cities named after him in Mississippi and Texas; a county in Indiana; an island in Alaska; two bridges in New York and one in Connecticut; a park in East Chicago; a museum in Philadelphia; a mountain and a national park in Australia; numerous monuments and statues and uncounted streets, and a portrait in the lobby of the Polish-American Citizens Club about a mile from my house.
Rabbi Leon Klenicki wrapped up an interfaith-dialogue meeting I attended by saying, “We all believe that the Messiah is coming. Whether it’s the first coming or the second coming we can sort out after he arrives.”
The remark got a good-natured chuckle from the Jewish and Christian people in the room.
Of course, Rabbi Klenicki, a leader in interfaith dialogue, knew that differences between the two religions were more complex than his comment expressed, but still, his message was important.
His point was that in order for Jews and Christians—or any two or more communities—to coexist in peace there must first be good will. Another way to say that is that in order for any two or more communities to coexist in peace there must first be love.
Amid the information flying past me on the internet recently, I noticed a post by the magazine Commonweal with this statement attributed to Dorothy Day: “We must love to the point of folly.” That is not a soft-soap message from a Hallmark card. That is the unvarnished reality that governs our successes or failures as civilized people, and, for us, as disciples of Jesus.