Photo by Reiseuhu on Unsplash

Ascension of the Lord

If you were to visit the ends of the earth, where would that take you? I would like to say I’ve been there and back. I love to travel and am always eager to use my passport. So last summer, I returned to Australia to visit with my good friend Msgr. Kerry, with whom I’ve traveled many times over the years. This most recent trip, we also visited Tasmania and New Zealand. It was my first trip overseas post pandemic. So some countries still had restrictions in place. But it was exciting that they were slowly lifting. For instance, we picked up a COVID test at the airport which we had to take the day we arrived and again 5 days later and report the results on a government website. Still I wouldn’t mind being stranded in Australia or New Zealand because of the pandemic. I can’t imagine what the bishop would do if I had to tell him I couldn’t come home. Definitely a missed opportunity.

I got over my fear of flying after my second trip overseas, the first one being when I moved to the States permanently 40 years ago. Each trip since has been somewhat less intense. Or maybe that was just me, considering I was on vacation. Still, when you’re on vacation, life can seem not as demanding or as rushed. Things were more calm and relaxed. But then again, that could have just been because it was Australia and New Zealand and the middle of winter. A few trips back, I traveled with Msgr. Kerry to Western Australia, to Perth and Fremantle and Albany. It occurred to me then that in southwestern Australia, I was as far away from home as I could possibly get—a 12-hour difference, the southern hemisphere, the other side of the world. If I jumped up even just for a few seconds, I would be that much farther away still without leaving the planet. So relative to Virginia, I was equally distant from home whether from the east or west, north or south. I was at the ends of the earth.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus instructed his apostles to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. I checked out a map of the world. If he meant literally as far away from Jerusalem as possible, that would be somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean, south of Hawaii and the equator, the closest anything being Tahiti. Can you imagine Jesus’ closest friends in Tahiti? I bet they didn’t even know Tahiti existed. Not only were these places at opposite sides of the planet, they were also worlds apart, one harsh and desolate amid vast expanses of desert, the other lush and verdant with tropical rainforests and awesome sunsets. But Jesus wasn’t literally sending his apostles to Tahiti. Instead he was telling them to be his witnesses at home—Jerusalem, among their neighbors—Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth—to people who were least like themselves, whose lives were most unlike theirs, whose culture and values were foreign to them, and who had never heard of him or his message of repentance and reconciliation. The church has long interpreted that detail quite literally through the centuries, providing motives for missionaries to explore new lands and embrace new cultures. But we can safely say the early church didn’t have very far to go to find new lands and cultures. And in less poetic language, Jesus was instructing his apostles to be his witnesses to all people everywhere.

And what does it mean to be a witness? One definition tells us a witness is one who can give a firsthand account of something seen, heard, or experienced. In a court of law, a witness is one who furnishes testimony. Simply put, a witness has firsthand knowledge or experience of someone or something, which they can now explain or speak about to others. Jesus had traveled with his apostles during his public ministry, teaching about the kingdom of God, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, reaching out to the stranger, the outcast, the children, and the sinner. His apostles were with him the whole time he was seen as a prophet by the crowds who came to listen to him. They sat with him at table the night before his passion. They saw him carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem, saw him nailed to it by the Roman soldiers, saw him taken down from it and laid in his mother’s arms after he breathed his last. They were aware his body was laid in a tomb. They heard he was missing from the tomb on the third day. They were in the upper room when he stood in their midst, extended peace to them, and breathed his Spirit upon them. They knew who he was and what he came to accomplish. Now he was sending them to do just as he did, to proclaim what he taught, to invite others to repentance and reconciliation, to draw them to experience conversion and a renewal of their minds and hearts, to challenge them to pick up their cross and follow in his footsteps. More than anything, he was sending them to bring others to himself, to get to know him firsthand, and experience his healing and forgiveness. These in turn would themselves become new witnesses to draw the next generation and still more peoples and cultures to know Jesus and follow in his footsteps … all the way to you and me and the ends of the earth.

Now we, too, have been drawn to him by other witnesses, those who have travelled the path of Christian discipleship before us, who have first met Jesus themselves and can speak convincingly from that firsthand experience, who have preached to us the good news of salvation that first transformed and purified them, who have themselves known and experienced the healing and reconciliation Jesus speaks of. If we did not find convincing the witnesses who came before us, there’s a good chance we would not ourselves be convincing to those who come after us. Then the message we proclaim would be mere hearsay, not our firsthand knowledge or experience. We all know what it’s like when the one proclaiming is not convincing, when they just seem to be going through the motions, when their heart and soul are somewhere else. People you meet will come to know your convictions when they see it. It’s not something you can fake. We ourselves might not always be as confident of our own convictions, but we still make an effort. So when you’re fearful or unsure, you put on a brave face and soldier on. And eventually you realize you had it in you all along when you emerge on the other side stronger, wiser, more confident, and at peace.

When Jesus instructed his apostles to be witnesses of his person, his message, and his purpose to all people everywhere, he knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We cannot be his witnesses if we do not know him, if we have not ourselves encountered him, if his message has not first transformed us, if his vision and purpose do not energize us. And it’s not something you can fake. I know we’re not all there yet. I don’t even know if I’m there yet. But we have to keep trying until we get there. I truly believe we will know because the Holy Spirit will tell us. Or better yet, we finally make it to Tahiti. And when we see that glorious sunset, we can’t help but know we’re there.

Rolo B Castillo © 2023