Just after Easter Sunday 1994, a group of spectators gathered on the roof of the Launch Control Center at Cape Canaveral to witness the launch of STS-59, the official mission given the astronauts who would ride space shuttle Endeavour into the depths of space. Among those present was the wife of Thomas David Jones, a thirty-nine year old Catholic astronaut. As time peeled off NASA’s launch clock, she waited and watched while inside Endeavour, her husband began to pray. Initially, this man of great faith prayed for the success of the mission and the safety of the crew. And then, he prayed that God would protect and support his family during the stress of the launch and his 11-day absence. But on that Saturday morning, Astronaut Thomas David Jones had other questions on his mind, as well. How would this amazing experience intersect with his Catholic faith? Additionally, how might venturing into the heavens change his relationship with God?
As the launch drew nearer, Jones also conducted a spiritual flight check. He recalled how on Holy Thursday, he had met with his pastor to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And then, three days later, how he and his fellow quarantined astronauts celebrated Easter Sunday Mass around a conference room table covered by a white altar cloth. With the priest in white vestments and powerful fluorescent lights bearing down upon them, he was reminded of the Resurrection and extraordinary scenes awaiting him in space. With Endeavour’s engines now roaring, he could still hear the words of the priest who had trained him as an altar boy thirty-years ago and had just spent time praying with him: “As you gain a new perspective on God’s handiwork, may you also remember that far from just observing God’s Earth, you are also an active participant in the ongoing process of creation.” (Adapted from “Reaching the Heavens: An Astronaut’s Spiritual Journey,” St. Anthony Messenger, June 2004)
On Ascension Sunday, I begin with this story for an obvious reason. Jesus ascends! And as He does so, the disciples can’t help but keep their eyes on Him. We wonder how they felt as Jesus ascended before their own eyes to take His place at the right hand of God? With their eyes fixed upon Him, Jesus slowly faded into the heavens. How did they comprehend this? In the Acts of the Apostles (1:1-11), much is said prior to Jesus’ Ascension.
- That Jesus presented himself alive to them by many proofs after He had suffered.
- That Jesus appeared to them during forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
- That they should wait for the promise of the Father and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that would soon come upon them.
- And that they would be witnesses to the entire world.
But still, I wonder. What kept the disciples from permanently affixing their heads heavenward? Perhaps it was the angels who appeared to them in these final verses. There, we are told that:
“Suddenly, two men dressed in white garments stood beside them and said: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
And so, maybe it was these two angels that caused the disciples to lower their heads and focus upon the mission that had been given them in the Gospel of Mark (16:15-20):
“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
At the Ascension, Jesus entrusts the disciples with a mission. Again, what is it? “To go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” Sounds easy, doesn’t it? If you guessed yes, you would be—wrong! For in our day, being a Catholic Christian has become increasingly more difficult. Why? Because in these days, we are living in the age of “anything goes.” We are so-called post-Christian, secular, and progressive. Our mantra becomes: “If you don’t judge me, I won’t judge you.” Now for those who live by this approach, which is not Godly or Christian, we look at God and say: “Am I not wonderful?” And we shut our eyes and ears to Truth. In doing so, we don’t hear God’s words: “Yes, you are, for you are my creation. But haven’t you forgotten my commandments, my teachings, my Word?”
Again, we ask the question: Is it easy to fulfill the mission Jesus has given us with the help of the Holy Spirit? And the answer is again—no. But, if we trust in Jesus and remain in communion with Him, we are like Rosie the Riveter: We can do it! How?
As Catholic Christians, we enter into communion with Jesus in the most perfect way by receiving Him in the Holy Eucharist. Each time we receive His body, blood, soul, and divinity, Jesus fills us with His love. In feeding us with His very self, He forgives us. But He also expects something else. And that something else is that we don’t leave Him at the altar. But rather, that we take Him with us into the public square and minister to others in His name. That is the mission that was given to the disciples and that is the same mission that has been given to us.
A few years ago, I was reminded of this courage to proclaim Jesus publicly by a deacon friend who told me of his nephew’s First Communion. Unlike the First Communions I have witnessed, the pastor of this church waited until the entire congregation had received communion until calling up this lone first communicant. As the entire congregation watched, the priest called up the boy, held up the host before all to see, and asked him: Who is this? And with a loud voice, the boy answered: That’s Jesus!
On Ascension Sunday, this little boy and Astronaut Dr. Thomas David Jones remind us that we need not be afraid to express our faith in the public square and thereby shape our world, especially if we are in communion with Jesus. For this is the mission we have been charged with. The question for each one of us is: Will we?