Today’s feast of the Ascension is both a celebration of ABSENCE and one of PRESENCE. Let me explain.
The disciples had already lost Jesus once – when he died on the cross spending three days in the tomb to break the chains of death and gaining for us eternal life.
On the first day of the week, when his faithful followers found the tomb empty – St. Matthew said they were filled with both fear and great joy.
St. Mark said that trembling and astonishment came upon those who went to the tomb.
St. Luke says the women came from the tomb frightened and when they told their story their words seemed to be an idle tale - and the Apostles did not believe.
And St. John said the disciples, upon viewing the empty tomb, simply went back home.
It took them a while to overcome their fear, and trembling, and fright, and astonishment – and then all were filled with joy upon having Jesus back in their midst.
But now he was leaving again. And this time they knew it was for good. And so as with any great loss in life – a feeling of grief set in.
Perhaps they expressed their grief in a way like the author of this poem does:
I miss you in the morning.
When all the world is new.
I know the day can bring no joy – because it brings not you.
I miss the well-loved voice of yours - and your tender smile for me.
The charm of you, the joy of your unfailing love.
The world is full of folks, it’s true, but there was only one of you.
I miss you at the noontide, too.
The crowded streets seem but a desert now, I walk in complete solitude.
I miss your hand beside my own, the light touch of your hand.
The quick gleam in the eyes of you so sure to understand.
The world is full of folks, it’s true, but there was only one of you.
I miss you in the evening - when daylight fades away.
I miss the sheltering arms of you, to rest me from the day.
I try to think I see you yet – there where the fire gleams –
Weary at last, I sleep, and still I miss you in my dreams.
The world is full of folks, it’s true, but there was only one of you.
Like any of us who have lost a loved one –
Jesus would now be physically absent from them. And they will miss him. I wonder if anyone said such things to them as:
-Well, he’s in a better place.
-Or it was God’s will that he was taken.
-Or to Mary: well at least you had him for 33 years.
-Or God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.
While meaning well, most such trite sayings do little to lessen anyone’s pain.
The absence of anyone we have loved allows the feelings of grief to set in. And sometimes that grief can be so overwhelming, it can cripple us.
But we know the rest of the disciple’s story. They did not remain in their grief very long. Through the power of the Holy Spirit – they began to do what Jesus told them to do – to go out and witness to others the Good News of his life and message.
In that way, the disciples must have been like the woman in this story:
Once a widow’s son died in a tragic accident. The woman, crazy with grief, mourned the loss so deeply that no one could provide her with comfort.
At last a friend took her to a holy man where she made her sobbing plea:
“Use your powers to bring my son back to me. Surely you are able by prayer or through some means to induce the Almighty to lighten my grief.”
The old man spoke kindly to the woman. “Bring me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. Then I will use that seed to remove the pain from your life.”
Immediately the woman set out in search of the magic mustard seed. “First, I will visit the home of a wealthy family,” she thought. “Tragedy is less likely to strike them.”
Soon she approached a beautiful mansion, knocked on the door, and spoke to the woman who greeted her: “I am in search of a home that has never known sorrow. Is this such a place? Please, it is vital that I know.”
“Never known sorrow!”, cried the woman who had answered the door. “You have come to the wrong house.”
As she sobbed she began to describe all of the tragedies that had touched her family. She invited the widow into her home to explain in greater detail what had taken place.
The widow remained in the home for several hours – listening and showing compassion.
When she left to resume her search, the widow visited a modest home about 5 miles away. The experience was the same.
Wherever she traveled, from mansion to hut, she was greeted with tales of sadness and sorrow. Everyone found her a willing and attentive and caring listener.
After months of travel, she became so involved with the grief of others – that she forgot about her search for the magic mustard seed, never realizing that it had indeed driven the sorrow from her own life.
When the disciples did what Jesus did – and said what Jesus said – they made his spirit present – and their grief was turned to joy.
We followers of Jesus Christ today – are called to do nothing more – and nothing less.
And so in the coming days, we should pray: come, Holy Spirit – empower us as you did the Apostles.
In his book, Go down to the potter’s house, Don O’Shea has a story about a king who had two artists in his realm who were bitter rivals.
One day the king said, “I want to decide once and for all which of you is the better artist. You must paint the same subject, so that I can judge between you. And what I want you to paint is your vision of PEACE.”
The two artists accepted the challenge, and a month later came back with their paintings.
The first artist painted a dreamy landscape with rolling hills and a lake without a ripple on the surface. The whole painting spoke of contentment and stillness – which was his depiction of peace.
However, as the king looked at the picture – he could barely suppress a yawn. Then turning to the artist he said, “your picture is pretty, but it puts me to sleep.”
Then the second artist presented his painting. It showed a thundering waterfall crashing over a steep cliff. It was so realistic that one could almost hear the roar of the water as it crashed onto the rocks - hundreds of feet below.
“But this is not a painting of peace as I ordered,” the king said angrily.
The artist made no reply but motioned to the king to come closer to the painting to see all of its details.
It was then that the king spotted something which had escaped him at first.
There among the rocks at the base of the waterfall – a small shrub was growing. And in the small shrub – a bird’s nest sat in the branches.
And upon looking even closer – the king saw a bird in the nest – a sparrow, sitting calmly on its eggs, her eyes half-closed as she patiently waited for her babies to be hatched.
On seeing all these minute details – the king was delighted at what he thought was a perfect picture of peace.
Turning to the artist the king said, “I like your painting very much – as it conveys a very important message about peace – and that is– it is possible to be at peace even in the midst of the chaos of life swirling around you.”
Jesus spoke to his disciples about peace in the farewell he is giving them in today’s Gospel from John. He was soon to leave them – and he wanted them to know a few things before he left – like:
“Peace I leave with you, my own peace I give you. Not as the world gives it do I give it to you. So do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”
It was a strange time for Jesus to be speaking about peace – because everything was in turmoil around him. One of his own was about to betray him. Within the hour he would be arrested and before the cock crowed – would be denied three times by his closest friend.
How, then, was Jesus able to talk about peace?
Because the peace Jesus speaks of is being in union with God. And Jesus was in perfect union with God. Which is like the bird at the bottom of the waterfall. With the chaos of life swirling around him - Jesus could talk about peace even as his enemies were closing in on him and death was just around the corner.
Because the peace Jesus talks about is NOT tranquility – which is an external thing – something which occasionally can surround us.
But the peace Jesus talks about and offers to us – is a state of inner calm – which one achieves by being in union with God and with others.
So an essential component of the peace of the kingdom of God — is righteousness – being in right relationship with God and others – and hence there is no peace for the wicked.
Peace results when one trusts God, and when the desire to be like God is the dominant force in one’s life. This is something which we can have even if, and especially if, we are in the midst of turmoil, conflict, and unresolved problems.
It is not the outer circumstances of our lives which brings us peace – but the inner state of our minds and hearts.
This is the peace that Jesus offers us: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.”
This peace is not the calm of escaping from reality. It is something so deep it is independent of outer circumstances. It is the peace which surpasses all understanding, the peace which this world cannot give – and most especially – the peace no one can take away from us.
God, to believe in you and your word – even in the midst of the storms of life – can provide a place of peace for us.
In the midst of the seemingly impossible demands, deadlines and tasks at hand, our hearts and minds can be at rest in You.
Strength and boldness are released into us as we confidently rest in your peace.
In your presence we are refreshed, restored, and renewed in Jesus’ name. AMEN!
It happens to all of us. . . at weddings, at graduations, and at going away parties. It happens in nursing homes, cemeteries, in hospitals, and on playgrounds.
And many times we are embarrassed when it happens and we try to stop – but it’s always more healthy to continue than to stop.
Sister of Notre Dame, Melannie Svoboda, tells of the time it happened to her in a funeral home:
An elderly widow named Mrs. Benish lived down the road from our farm in a tiny white house nestled in a grove of trees.
Although she had several grown children, she lived alone. For many years she had been our babysitter, one we were fond of.
But when I was about 10 – she died suddenly in her sleep.
Hers was one of the first deaths to make a real impact on me. I remember going to her wake with the rest of my family and even surprised myself – when I burst into tears when I saw her motionless body in the casket.
Embarrassed by my tears, I sought refuge in a chair in a remote corner of the room – away from everyone else.
Suddenly – a man appeared out of nowhere and squatted down on the floor next to my chair. I did not know who he was — but I will always remember what he said to me.
He began by saying, “you must have loved Mrs. Benish very much.” Unable to speak, I nodded a few times.
Then he said, “Always remember this: never be ashamed of your tears. Only rocks don’t cry.”
Even back then, I somehow comprehended the simple - yet profound - truth of his words. Rocks don’t cry. . . never be ashamed of your tears. . . you must have loved very much.
Yes, it is because we LOVE that we shed tears: both tears of joy – and tears of sadness.
It is because we LOVE those who are getting married, graduating, or leaving behind a job or a home — that we shed tears.
It is because we LOVE the one in the nursing home, or being lowered into the ground, or about to have surgery, or being picked on at recess – that we shed tears.
It’s only if we are a rock – unmoving, unengaged, unloving – that our tears can be spared.
As one of my mentors simply states: tears are the cost of our love.
Or as the writer Washington Irving says:
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness - but of power.
Tears are messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unfathomable love. So let the tears come.
And hopefully we will be blessed to have people like the stranger in Sister Melanie’s life who tell us it is okay to cry – or be blessed by people like Josh in our life.
Josh was a ten year old boy who, when out playing in the neighborhood –was supposed to be home by 6:00 for supper.
One night, he wasn’t home at 6:00. And the later it got, the more worried his mother became.
When he finally did arrive home, his mom wasn’t very patient with him and immediately launched into how she was worried and afraid that something had happened to him. She told him if he could not make it home on time –
he should have at least called. “Why were you late anyway?” she asked with more than a quiet, understanding voice. . .
Josh said, “well, I would have been home on time. But a couple of blocks from home I came across my friend Tommy. He was upset and crying because his bike was broken – so I stopped to help.”
“Why?” asked his mother in that rather loud motherly voice. “You don’t know a thing about fixing bikes.”
“I know that,” Josh said. “But I do know how to cry. So that’s how I helped my friend – I sat and cried with him. . .”
Josh knew the wisdom that comes from an old saying: Tears of sadness shared – are halved. While tears of joy shared – are doubled.”
We can’t always FIX things for people – in fact, most times we are kind of crazy if we even try. But what we can do – is share their tears – especially their tears of sorrow.
We cry because we love – and we can help others BECAUSE we love – as Jesus calls us to do in the Gospel: “as I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
And do as the 3rd Eucharistic Prayer for Special Occasions calls us to: We need to “keep attentive to the needs of all so that, sharing their grief and pain, their joy and hope –
we may faithfully bring them the good news of salvation and go forward with them along the way of Christ’s kingdom.”
We are all members of the Good Shepherd’s flock. And we follow him best when we imitate his care and concern for others.
The words of the Good Shepherd are words of healing – and so should ours.
His are words of peace, love, and hope – and so should ours.
Together, we walk on the journey of life. And together we help bear each other’s sorrow and share each other’s joy. . .
And we should have no shame of shedding tears, because after all, we are told in the shortest verse of the New Testament, that Jesus wept. He wept over the loss of his friend, Lazarus.
Tears are a sign of our love, our humanity and our vulnerability.
Pope Francis has referred several times in his homilies to “the gift of tears” which he believes leads us to showing mercy and empathy to those in need.
And then, as Christians – we live in the possibility and hope of what Eric Clapton sings in one of his songs:
Beyond the door.
There’s peace, I’m sure
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven.
But we don’t have to take Eric Clapton’s word on that – we have God’s word that we heard both last week and this week in the Book of Revelation – which captured my attention and heart and led me to preach this homily.
Last week, the Book of Revelation told us:
“For the lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
And today we heard: “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, God will always be with them as their God – and God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”
Yes, there will be no more tears in heaven because all of those things that cause us to shed tears of sorrow here on earth will be no more – no more death, or mourning, wailing or pain. No more sickness, failed dreams, frustrations or bullying.
And we will know God is with us – which is another cause of our tears here on earth when we think God has abandoned us –
when we forget that God is always with us. God never gives up on us.
That God is always willing to give us another chance – ALL because GOD LOVES US!
I do think, however, Clapton is only partially right — for I do believe there will still be tears of joy in heaven. I mean when I get to see my mother and father again – and you get to see your loved ones again – and they get to see us – how could there not be tears of joy??? Which, when shared – will double.
How quickly time flies – as it is already the 4th Sunday of Easter – I don’t remember Lent going by this fast!
So two stories today.
The first is about a pop quiz given to a class of nursing students in their first year of training.
Most of the students did well on the quiz until they came to the last question – which they all left blank, with a few unsuccessful guesses. . .
The last questions was:
“What is the name of the person who cleans your dorm?”
The students all thought the question was a joke. But when they got their quizzes back – they all had it marked wrong.
They all protested but the professor said, “her name is Jill.”
And went on to say, “you will meet many people in your careers. All of them are significant. They deserve your attention and your care and most especially your respect. Even if all you can do is smile and wish them a good day – do it!”
The students all remembered the lesson – and all spoke to Jill the next time they saw her.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ demands that we respond to every person the same way the Good Shepherd responds.
Every person deserves our attention and our care and most especially our respect – because each person possesses the sacred dignity of being created in the image and likeness of God. Every person is a unique reflection of God.
This is why the charity of a Christian must reach beyond his or her own family and friends – beyond the parish community – and even beyond the needs of one’s own country.
As Christians, we have to be concerned about those who are hurt, starving, suffering, or dying throughout the world.
Our charity cannot be limited by anything including the parameters of our faith community.
Mother Theresa, for example, reached out to the poor of Calcutta. Most of these people were Hindi — not Christian. We help others because WE are Catholic – not because they are Catholic – everyone is created in the image and likeness of God. . .
Maybe someone is waiting to hear our words and see our actions that include them into the Lord’s flock.
It’s so easy to say that we need to reach out to others – but often times difficult to do.
It seems like we’re always on the run – totally oblivious to a neighbor who is rather down.
Or as parents who might be so caught up in the hectic schedule of our children with gymnastics, dance, school, scouts, sports – that we might not notice that our children have needs far greater than all the activities we take them to.
It’s often the case that others tend to need our support and love the most – when we are at our busiest.
Following the Good Shepherd requires our never being too busy to be aware of and to respond to those around us who need our love and attention.
The second story is about Maria, a little 9 year old blind girl, who lived with her father in a large New York City apartment building.
Maria’s father usually did not leave her alone – but he had to run our and pick up a few things - so left her watching – listening actually –
to a television program.
He spent more time out than he planned and when he rounded the corner to their building – the street was full of fire trucks and hoses, and fire personnel.
He looked up and to his horror – it was his section of the building that was ablaze.
And there, on the ledge outside the window of his apartment – was a terrified Maria – huddled into a ball.
The fire fighters could not maneuver the truck in such a way to reach the girl, so they had set up a net and told her to jump. She was frozen in fear.
Then her father took a bull horn and called to her. “Maria,” he said, “Daddy’s here. I’ll take care of you. You just need to jump when I tell you to. Are you ready?”
Maria stood up and said, “I’m ready.” Then he shouted – “Okay, jump on three. One. Two. Three.” – and she jumped safely into the net. She was so completely relaxed that she did not even strain a muscle from the three story fall. All because she trusted the voice that she knew loved her.
There is a voice calling us to jump – to take a risk.
But sometimes the noise of our lives is so loud, that we don’t hear the voice. But the voice is still there – and we need to hear it.
It is the voice of the Good Shepherd – the voice of Jesus speaking to us in the quiet of our hearts, in the love of our family and friends, in the cries of the needy calling out to us.
The voice of the Good Shepherd calls us out to us calmly and lovingly.
He tells us to jump from our places of comfort – to take a leap of faith. He tells us to trust in him because he is taking care of us.
The Good Shepherd is the risen Lord. He is with us. He will never leave us alone. Today we ask the Lord to allow us to slow down and hear his voice. And to respond to his call with open hearts.
Moments in time...