Several years ago I had the privilege of being at one of the ‘Interession for Priests’ retreats, given in Dublin every summer by Sr. Briege McKenna and Fr. Kevin Scallon. This particular year they were celebrating 25 years and the retreat I was at was given by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa. Fr. Cantalamessa is a Capuchin priest and the preacher to the Papal Household (to the Pope). He is an extraordinary preacher and it was a very inspiring few days.
One of the themes that he kept coming back to is that ‘Jesus is Lord’; just that. The essence of our faith is really very simple and this is one of the key elements of it. Jesus is Lord and if we believe in him and ask forgiveness for our sins, then we have eternal life with him. ‘If you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved’ (Rom 10:9). Some months later when Cantalamessa was visiting the national seminary of Maynooth, he gave one talk and again he kept coming back to this fact: Jesus is Lord. One of the professors sitting beside me said quietly, ‘It seems a bit too simple really!’ I know what he meant, but the truth is that it is very simple. We tend to make it more complicated.
In today’s first reading from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke recalls the Lord’s ascension into heaven. Just before Jesus ascended the Apostles asked again, ‘Lord has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ In spite of all the time with Jesus and the extraordinary things they had seen, they still had a very earthly way of thinking. ‘When will we have the power and glory? When will our nation be properly reestablished?’ Yet Jesus was showing them that this was not important at all. Worldly ways and worldly thinking are not important. Preaching about Jesus and our eternal life in him was the only thing that mattered. They were to receive power, but not worldly political power where everyone would acknowledge their greatness. Instead they were to receive the power of the Spirit, which would enable them to preach about Jesus, what He has done for us, what our life is about and how we have life in him if we choose it. That was the only thing that mattered. All of them were to suffer for their preaching too, but that also was secondary. They would be misunderstood by the world, as so many who preach the Gospel still are, but that message must be proclaimed all the same.
Why was it so important that they proclaim this message? Because God is the only one who makes sense of why we are here in the first place and God wants his people to know this. And so Jesus came among us to teach us about God and to offer his life in atonement for our sins, so that we might have eternal life with God; or to put it another way, so that we might reach ultimate happiness and the total fulfilment that all of us long for. That message is just as important today as all of us look for happiness and fulfilment. In spite of the great advances of humanity, most people are still very much aware that although we have achieved great things, something far deeper in us looks beyond human achievement and we know that we will never be totally fulfilled by human accomplishments. So the Spirit gently encourages us to look to the things of God, the only place where we can find fulfilment.
In modern missionary work it is sometimes argued that we should not be talking about God, but only helping those who are in need. While it is true that we must do all we can to help those who are in need, the message of the Gospel should also be preached to people because they have a right to hear it. People have a right to know what God has done for them. It is up to each person whether they choose to believe it or not, but they have a right to hear the message that we have eternal life in God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our material needs are important, but if we neglect the spiritual needs, we may lose any sense of purpose and what our life is about. This is just as bad as being without food as it can cause people to despair. So we try to continue to pass on the message that the Lord Jesus asked us to: Jesus is Lord and in him we have eternal life with God.
Jesus ascending to heaven before the Apostles’ eyes was also a confirmation to them and to us, that something wonderful awaits us when we die. This life is not everything, but only a preparation for the world to come. Hopefully we will enjoy it and find some contentment in it, but we must not lose sight of what also awaits us. Life after death is real and this is what God wants for us. If we believe that, then it makes the harder times here on earth a lot more bearable. Our life here can be difficult, but it is worthwhile because something unimaginably wonderful awaits us.
Now as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven. They worshipped him and then went back to Jerusalem full of joy and they were continually in the Temple praising God (Lk 24:51-53).