Have you ever missed someone? I mean really missed them, to the point that your stomach hurt, you couldn’t eat and missing them was all you could think about.
I have. Several times with several people. I always think about that when I read from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. I relate directly with those apostles.
Although I am far from an expert, I have been exposed to the “Spiritual Exercises” that were developed by St. Ignatius to be used by members of the Jesuit Order and, indeed, anyone seeking to make a deeper commitment to Jesus. They involve intense prayer – perhaps as much as five hours a day for 30 days.
Part of those prayers involves what have been called “imaginative mental exercises,” calling for the person to meditate on a Scripture passage and insert himself or herself into the scene.
It could be Christ’s birth or listening to him preach the Sermon on the Mount. It could be the Last Supper or his Crucifixion.
Or it could be Christ’s Ascension into heaven, which we celebrate today. That is the scene in the Mass reading from the first chapter of Acts. Jesus gave his apostles some parting words and then:
As they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”
I know why they were staring at the sky. Although I don’t engage smoothly in some imaginative mental exercises involving some Gospel scenes, I have no trouble with this one. I have imagined myself in that exact spot and feel like I have experienced exactly what those men and women experienced.
They had endured great grief when Jesus died on Good Friday. Their leader, their friend, their inspiration – their God – had left their midst. Their hearts were broken. They didn’t know what to do. But he rose from the dead and returned among them. Their joy at such a miracle was incredible, made even moreso because the feeling of being abandoned left.
And now, he leaves again. Yes, he promised that he wouldn’t leave them alone, that a Comforter, a Companion, the Holy Spirit soon would join them.
But they missed Jesus.
Now, this isn’t exactly the same, but you’ll get the point. There is one memorable spot on Interstate 70 between my hometown of St. Charles, Mo., and Columbia, Mo., where I attended college at the University of Missouri. That spot means nothing to anyone else; it is a flat, straight stretch of highway with only farm fields, telephone poles and billboards filling the view. Every time I drive along that spot, though (which has been more than a hundred times in my life, I’m sure), I remember riding in the car back to Mizzou on Labor Day 1979. It was my freshman year of college. I had gone home for the weekend, and it was a great weekend. I had started dating my girlfriend – my best friend — only a couple of weeks earlier and felt like I had found my true love. Every moment together felt like heaven on earth.
When we parted that day, the pain was unbearable. I was riding in the back seat of the car, left side (funny how you remember these things!) and staring out the window. I remember gazing at that one spot and thinking how empty it looked – exactly how I felt inside. Empty. I wanted to cry. I wanted to turn around and go home, give up all the plans I had. My stomach hurt. This was before cellphones with unlimited minutes and Facebook and text-messaging. I didn’t know when I would next talk to her. We had plans for her to visit me soon, but it wouldn’t be soon enough.
I felt pain and confusion all over.
Surely, that’s what the disciples felt when they watched Jesus ascend into Heaven. Why is he leaving us again? We had our hopes built up. We felt sooooo good these last 40 days since he rose from that tomb. What are we supposed to do with our lives now?
In Christ’s final words to those disciples, he said:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.
In my situation back in ’79, I dated that girl for about a half-year and still thought I was in love when she broke up with me. That was one tough breakup, let me tell you.
But two years later, I met Donna. Eventually, I took a job in Sedalia, Mo., and started dating her – while she lived three hours away back in St. Peters. Every time we were together, the joy of was indescribable. Every time I left her after a visit home or she left me after a visit to Sedalia, I felt that same pain in my stomach.
The Holy Spirit was in that relationship, though. God kept us together and gave us a love – eventually, a marriage — that was meant to last. I still miss her during those times when we have to be apart for some reason. But our marriage is an example to me that Jesus is with me, with us, at all times even when we can’t necessarily see him.
And so we will witness to the ends of the earth.