In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes how the risen Lord, after a period of time (forty days), is no longer experienced as physically present by the apostles. Mark reminds us that now it is the duty of the body to carry on the work of spreading the Good News and continuing to make Christ present in the world today.
The feast of the Ascension brings to a conclusion the story of the incarnation. God took on human flesh and ‘pitched up tent among us,’ so that we, created in his image and likeness, can now join in his divinity. Jesus took our human body with him to his divinity, the first fruits of the resurrection, so that, after him, we too can follow.
This truth is prayed about in the Collect for today’s celebration, ‘where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body is called to follow in hope.’ This is not a human desire, simply hoping that things will come our way, but a ‘sure and certain’ hope, deeply rooted in our faith in Christ who has died and rose for us to save us.
In book Found Among Sinners, Martin Cilia mssp wrote about the hope of the Servant of God, and of the missionary.
Hope is an important Christian virtue and is an essential virtue in a missionary spirituality. To hope is to be nurtured and sustained by a great faith, based upon a promise made by a power beyond one’s own, that of God. Hope is believing in the promise of God and that God has the power to fulfil that promise. To hope is to let the ideals of the gospel lead and shape one’s life in such a way that even when everything seems impossible one holds firm to the promise, since the one who made the promise is faithful, as Edward Walsh puts it:
‘The task of a missionary is to go to places where he is not wanted, to sell a pearl whose value, although of a great price, is not recognised, to people who are determined not to accept it as a gift … to accomplish this he need not be a saint but he must come close to passing one. And in order to achieve this hoax, he must do so many things that a saint does, that it becomes for him a serious question if the easiest way is not simply to be a saint in the first place and be done with it’ (Luzbetak, Louis J., The Church and Cultures, (New York: Orbis Books Maryknoll, 1993), p. 2).
A missionary spirituality must be hopeful. Joseph De Piro believed in “the Divine words ‘If God does not build the house it is of no use any struggle made by the builders.’” These words reflected his trust in God’s help. When thinking about founding the Missionary Society of St Paul he felt it was nearly an impossible task. In his diary he wrote: “knowing that the Maltese priests love their native country very much, it must be through some miracle that my ideas would become realities.” But nevertheless he was firm in hoping in the One who made the promise. In Henry Nouwen’s words:
‘When we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative. Therefore to be a fruitful Christian leader one needs to move from the moral to the mystical’ (Nouwen, Henry, In the Name of Christ, (New York: Crossroad, 1989) p. 35).
Such hope beyond rationality becomes the characteristic of the missionary. To take steps beyond what is purely secure and reliable, out of full trust in the One who made the promise. Cardinal Martini writes.
‘I am what I am meant to be in the measure in which I follow that tendency to trust in hope. It is from man’s innate tendency to move beyond himself, to make an act of faith in another person, that society is born, as are friendships, love and brotherhood. If no one ever takes a risk, nothing happens. It is this trust in the promise of Jesus the Word, which makes salvation possible, it is a very special kind of trust that makes evangelisation possible. The evangelist is formed as he learns to surrender himself at Jesus Word’ (Martini, Carlo, Ministers of the Gospel, (USA: Paulist Press, 1993), p. 46).
Surrendering in faith and hope in the hands of the One who calls becomes the foundation stone of a spirituality of hope and trust. To hope is to believe that there is something holy and something hidden in the most ordinary situations. Faith ministry is therefore the greatest possible service that one can render to society. If it is true that humans have different needs, their deepest need is surely for faith, hope, and ultimately love.
The missionary must be ready to understand people’s most hidden needs, the most subtle needs, emerging from their innermost. But if one wishes to preach the gospel to others with compassion and conviction one must open one’s heart to experience the unlimited compassion of the Lord. ‘It is essential that our eager zeal for evangelisation should have its source in a true sanctity of life … this world is looking for preachers of the gospel to speak to it of God whom they know as being close to them, as though seeing him who is invisible’ (EN 76). As Paul VI comments: ‘The men of our day are more impressed by witness than by teachers and if they listen to teachers it is because they also bear witness’ (EN 41). Joseph De Piro gives advice that: ‘each one is to be very careful to avoid even the least idea of giving a bad example.’
A spirituality of hope and trust, when lived to the full, is a witness that the gospel is above all Good News, and that Jesus is not a moral reformer of humanity but a manifestation of the unlimited and boundless love of God. A spirituality of hope is a conviction that in any human situation there is a profound thirst for truth, justice and brotherhood, and that at the bottom of all, there is a sincere thirst for God.