The Church marks the Feast of the Ascension this weekend and the nation marks Memorial Day. Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day as a custom was born to decorate the graves of those who died in the Civil War. Over 20 towns claim to be the birthplace of this day of remembrance, but in May of 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson officially declared Waterloo, New York as the first to decorate the graves of victims of war. Dates are also debatable, but most historians trace it to the year 1868. Through the years there was some tension between the remembrance of Civil War dead, and the southern states refused to honor them on the same day as the northern states did. Congress declared the last Monday in May as Memorial Day in 1971 to honor ALL Americans who died fighting in ANY war.
Scripture tells us that forty days after Jesus rose from the dead he gathered the eleven disciples on a mountaintop outside of Galilee and commissioned them to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you … and behold, I am with you always, until the end of time.” He then ascended into heaven.
Whenever we see numbers in the scriptures they are symbolically important. The number 40 means a long time. The Israelites journeyed in the desert for 40 years. It rained 40 days and nights in the story of Noah’s Ark. Jesus was in the desert for 40 days. This is scripture’s way of saying that these events lasted a long time. In the story of the Ascension, the event takes place 40 days after the Resurrection. This is significant because Jesus did not simply appear to the disciples after he rose from the dead – he was walking the earth and visiting with them for a substantial period of time. This was proof that he did indeed rise from the dead, because he was with them for a long time.
The other significant number is 11. There are not 12 disciples present at the Ascension event; they are one short. Judas Iscariot was no longer living so, in a sense, the group was not whole. I often say that the entire team was not present, the band was missing a member, the group was not complete. Not only were they missing a member of the team, they were certainly wondering how they were going to accomplish the great commission of Jesus to “…make disciples of all nations, baptizing them….” So it is no wonder that they had an odd combination of worshiping Jesus and doubting. The passage says when they arrived on the mountain and saw Jesus, “….they worshiped, but they doubted.”
When we probe the Greek foundation of the word doubt, we see that it most often does not refer to a complete questioning, or even rejection of an idea, concept or person. The word that is used here is the same word that was used when Jesus asked Peter why he doubted when he was not able to finish his walk on water toward Jesus. In actuality he did begin the miraculous steps on the water, but some sense of insincerity or lack of confidence crept into his soul. So our disciples gathered on a mountain, listening to Jesus commission them by giving them challenging instructions to carry on not only his mission but that of the Church’s going forward. He even senses their doubt and gives them reassurance that he will be with them until the end of time, for eternity and constantly—always.
The events that unfold then must have continued to challenge them. After he speaks words that both challenge and assure them, he ascends into heaven. The version of this event that we hear in our first reading from Acts tells us he is taken up into heaven in a cloud. The disciples had to let go of Jesus. They had to watch him ascend and be left with some pretty big questions, and they didn’t have all of their members to do the work that Jesus was asking them to do. So what happened next?
In the following ten days they surfaced two disciples who had been with them since the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Their names were Barsabbas and Matthias. The community prayed over them, seeking God’s wisdom. The two then drew lots and the lot fell to Matthias and he became the 12th or 13th apostle, depending on how you look at it. Regardless, the most important thing is that there were now 12 active disciples and they could now more effectively begin the task that Jesus asked them to do. As you know, 12 is a very significant number as well. For the Jewish people 12 is the number that you need to start something important. There were 12 tribes forming the chosen people in the Old Testament. At the conclusion of the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, after everyone is fed, the disciples collected 12 baskets of leftovers. We are both challenged and invited to see that this number represents a beginning, not a conclusion. The early Christian community provided what was needed to start the process of carrying out the great commission of Jesus. Stay tuned to what happens next week as they continue this important response.
I would like to remind all of you again that our Sunday Evening Mass will REMAIN AT 4:00pm throughout the summer months. No 6:00pm Mass this summer. All Sunday evening Masses will be at 4:00pm.
I would like to congratulate our 37 graduates of the Holy Family Catholic Academy class of 2017. This is the largest graduating class for our Academy, and they celebrated prayerfully with a Graduation Mass this past Thursday. Thanks to Kate O’Brien, our principal, and the dedicated staff and faculty of HFCA. We wish all graduating eighth graders from our parish the best of luck in high school. You all go forth with our blessings.