Ascension Day is this Thursday, and its corresponding text relays Jesus’ final words to his disciples:
And he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24: 46-48).
If you’re like me, the word “witnessing” reminds me of pamphlets that question my salvation. But here, “witness” is translated from the Greek word μάρτυς, which means both “eyewitness” and “martyr.” In other words, there’s a link between watching someone lose (and gain!) their life for love and participating with them in it. Sometimes, such as in the case of St. Peter, Oscar Romero, or Martin Luther King, Jr., μάρτυς requires our actual lives. In other cases, it demands our solidarity, or voices, our money, our action. (Perhaps the participatory nature of biblical “witnessing” is innate, given the existence of empathy and bystander trauma).
“….the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day….”
For the disciples, witnessing the resurrection wasn’t simple. In fact, it was only through the lens of Jesus’s unconditional love and forgiveness that they were able to see it at all. On the road to Emmaus, it took hospitality toward a stranger. For Thomas, it took overcoming doubt. For Peter, it took laying down his guilt. In the midst of shrinking bank accounts and fearful grocery store runs, will the resurrection escape our notice?
“….The Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day….”
The disciples are not only called to witness Christ’s resurrection, but his suffering as well. Others didn’t notice the beggar Lazarus suffering by the gate, or an impoverished woman who gave her two small coins, but Jesus did. He not only pointed to them as spiritual teachers, but he lived and suffered in solidarity with them. Still today, when God’s children suffer, God suffers too.
Like the disciples, we too are called to witness the resurrection — and the suffering — of Jesus. When a young black man is shot dead while out for a jog, Christ suffers. When COVID-infected Guatemalans are deported to villages short on food and healthcare, Christ suffers. Will we witness the suffering of Jesus? Or will we walk by without noticing, our attention somewhere else?
“You are witnesses of these things.”
In the Gospels, the problem isn’t that people don’t want to witness the Living God. It’s that they look for him in the wrong places. Are we making the same mistake? In the midst of frenetic anxiety, are we paying attention to what is happening on the margins, which is where Jesus tends to spend his time? Will we wake up and pay attention to the injustice and violence happening right under our noses, in our very own communities? Will we be sleepy, passive bystanders — or will we be bold witnesses, in the biblical sense of the word?
In honor of Ascension Day on Thursday, let’s take extra care to be bold witnesses. Here are some ideas for how to get started:
- Read your local news: Are there incidents of injustice that require public attention and accountability?
- Don’t assume you’re crazy just because no one else is paying attention: Don’t be surprised if others don’t seem to notice injustice or care about it. Evil is most dangerous when it becomes “normal.”
- Ask questions (skepticism doesn’t have to mean cynicism!): Are people of color safe to jog around your town? Are people of color being disproportionately affected by COVID? Are immigrant communities receiving the resources they need?
- Get ready for action: Now is the perfect time to educate yourself about racial privilege, the history of racism, hunger, or immigration — or you can learn how to more effectively work for change. All of our programs are available in a virtual format. Also, check out our (currently free!) weekly resources for personal or group prayer and learning.
- Witness the Resurrection: Death and resurrection are simultaneously true and real. (Evidence: are you in a pandemic? Are there lovely flowers blooming in your yard?) Practice witnessing the resurrection through our newly-updated Engaging Spirituality, available in a virtual format.
Stay well, friends. Know that we’re here to support you as we together learn to love God and neighbor more and more each day.