One of the greatest Italian opera composers was Giacomo Puccini, whose works included La Bohème, La Tosca, and Madame Butterfly. In 1924, while working on what many experts consider his greatest opera, Turandot, Puccini was suddenly stricken with a particularly virulent form of cancer. Knowing his time was short, he told his students, “If I don’t finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me.” Soon after this he died. Fulfilling their promise, Puccini’s students carefully studied what the master had composed, and then finished the opera. At the world premiere of Turnadot in Milan in 1926, Puccini’s favorite student, Arturo Toscanini, directed. The music was beautiful and moving, but when the opera reached the point where Puccini was forced to stop because of his illness, Toscanini halted the performance, put down his baton, turned to the audience, and with tears running down his face, announced, “Thus far the Master wrote, but he died.” The opera house was filled with a vast and somber silence. After a moment, Toscanini picked up his baton, smiled through his tears, and proclaimed, “But the disciples finished his work!” He then conducted the remainder of the opera, and when it was finished, the audience honored the late Puccini, and his living disciples, by giving it a standing ovation (Brian Cavanagh, More Sower’s Seeds, #88). This theme of continuing the work of someone who’s gone before us is a central one in today’s Feast of the Ascension. Jesus has returned to Heaven—not to abandon us, but to give us the opportunity to grow in faith by witnessing to His truth and by serving others in His Name.
Three years before His death and resurrection, Jesus prepared for His public ministry by spending forty days praying and fasting in the desert. Beginning on Easter Sunday, Jesus then prepared His disciples for their public ministry by spending forty days in their midst as the Risen Lord, teaching and encouraging them, and commissioning them as His witnesses. The Letter to the Ephesians [1:17-23] states that God the Father raised Jesus from the dead and seated Him at His right hand, and “gave Him as head over all things to the Church, which is His Body.” The Gospel tells us that Jesus, using this authority, commanded His disciples to go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel, promising that they would be able to do wondrous things in His Name—a promise which would begin to be fulfilled ten days later on the Feast of Pentecost when they were baptized with the Holy Spirit. This message, of course, was quite a bit for the apostles to take in at first, and it’s no surprise that after Our Lord ascended and disappeared into the heavens, His disciples stood there staring up at the sky, unsure of what to do next. Two angels had to appear and prompt them to return to Jerusalem and await the promised Holy Spirit, as Jesus had commanded. Sometimes even committed followers of Christ need a “nudge from Heaven,” or a reminder, of what the Lord expects from them, and sometimes we have to wait until we’re empowered by the Holy Spirit—but as long as we’re open to doing God’s will, we’ll be given the grace and strength needed to fulfill our mission.
In both the world of nature and in human society, growing in age is also supposed to mean growing in responsibility. A robin cares for her young and provides them with food, but eventually they’ll have to leave the nest, learn to fly, and begin fending for themselves. A lioness cares for her cubs and teaches them to hunt—but when the time is right, she disappears and lets them lead their own lives. As children and young people grow older, we expect more and more from them, knowing the day will come—perhaps sooner than we want—when they’ll leave home to make their own way in the world. This same idea applies to discipleship; we have the duty of using God’s grace, sharing His truth, and becoming the persons He wants us to be.
The day of the Ascension not only marks Jesus’ “rising up” to Heaven; it should also symbolize our “stepping up” to our Christian responsibilities. Jesus tells us, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” For some disciples, the “whole world” means Africa or Asia or some other mission field; for most of us, it means our workplace or office, our school or neighborhood or even our own home. Not only should the world be a better place because of our presence; one day it should also be true that Heaven is a fuller place because of our influence. Jesus is relying on us to finish His work—by means of our prayers, our example, our financial support of the Church, our involvement in the parish and the community, and our willingness to speak in His Name when the Holy Spirit prompts us to do so. In all these ways, we must show that Christianity is just as vibrant and important today as it was 2000 years ago, for no one can truly follow Jesus without wanting others to know Him, too.
We are not involved in writing an opera, but we are supposed to be God’s instruments as He conducts a “symphony of grace.” By our attitudes and actions, we are either saying to Him, “Lord, guide me and help me share Your love,” or “Lord, please choose someone else—I’m not interested or available.” One of these responses identifies us as true disciples of Jesus, destined for eternal glory; the other marks us as name-only Christians, in danger of ending up outside the Kingdom of Heaven. If we honestly desire to share our faith, Jesus will give us the opportunities, the means, and the words to say. He entrusts His message to us, and expects us to share it with others. Following the Ascension, Jesus is no longer seen on the earth; because of the Ascension, it’s more important than ever that He be seen in our lives and in our hearts.