In our passage from Acts for Ascension Sunday we hear a recounting of the last moments of Jesus among his disciples. Finally written down several decades after Jesus’ Ascension, this narrative, heard by the faithful then and across the centuries to us now nearly two millennia on, promises that the power of the Holy Spirit will come among us. Luke addresses this first reading to Theophilus, “lover of God.” Is he writing directly to us?
A still questioning group gathered to hear a teaching from their resurrected leader. For 40 days he had again appeared among them. Patiently he gave them a final mandate, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then taken up, a cloud enveloped Jesus.
Those gathered “returned to Jerusalem with great joy,” as Luke reports in the Gospel. The Holy Spirit would soon touch the disciples. Emboldened, the nascent Christian community grew. Years passed. The evolving Gospels recited by many voices shared the word far and wide out from the homeland of Christianity in Jerusalem and Palestine. The hope spoken of by Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians reached peoples of different cultures in distant lands.
Committed Christian messengers took the Gospels afar. They found expressions and culturally relevant interpretations which made the texts more accessible to the peoples they evangelized. By word and deed, our faith spread. Those newly converted peoples also influenced the emerging church. The impact of Greek philosophical traditions and Roman institutions and laws are clearly interwoven into the fabric of our church. But can we see the role the peoples on the fringes of the Roman Empire and even further away played?
Teutonic tribes of central Europe, for example, gave us the term Easter. Eastre, the name of a Germanic goddess associated with spring, remains today with us and with linguistically linked cultures. Eggs and rabbits, ancient fertility symbols also associated with spring, wrapped themselves into the celebration.
On our continent similar examples of the interplay of cultures abound. Do you know where the largest pyramid in the world is? (Not the tallest — this is a trick question!) About 125 kilometers east of Mexico City you come to the small town of Cholula. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived there under Hernan Cortés in 1519 they found a huge pyramid. This large structure ranks among most enormous ever constructed anywhere in the world, with a total volume estimated at over 4.45 million cubic metres. The land it arose from was considered sacred and the Great Pyramid of Cholula was initially dedicated to a rain goddess called Chiconauhquiauhitl (Goddess of the Nine Rains). The Spanish honouring a pledge by Cortés built a church at the top of the pyramid. The Church of Our Lady of Remedies, which my son and I climbed up to along with a steady stream of other pilgrims some years ago, replaced the old altars. However, Sept. 8, the traditional date for the veneration of the ancient rain goddess, transferred over to the gilded image of the Virgin Mary.
Closer to home remember the well-known musical piece composed by Jean de Brébeuf, the famed martyred Jesuit missionary, the Huron/Wendat carol “Jesous Ahatonhia” or the “Huron Carol”? Composed around 1643 for the Hurons at Ste. Marie among the Hurons near present day Midland, Ont., it used evocative imagery designed to bridge the wide cultural gap between a First People here and the Christian message brought from Europe. It has always been one of my favourite carols.
Along the South Saskatchewan River not far from Duck Lake a natural gathering spot drew people to it. Possibly for millennia a nearby gully used as a buffalo jump served as the reason for Plains Cree hunters and their families to choose it. Early Oblate missionaries travelling along the Carleton Trail, which linked the Red River Colony with Fort Ellice where Edmonton is now located, camped there. They recognized the spiritual significance local people attributed to the area. The pilgrimage site of St. Laurent evolved. The Oblates recognized and incorporated the deep spirituality of the First Peoples annually meeting there. Years ago on a visit to the site I recall seeing spirit bundles tied into the branches of trees looking over the river.
Those very last words of Jesus to his disciples, “you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth,” continue to inspire us to reach out. This process brings us necessarily into contact with people with differing beliefs. In this era of globalization inter and intra-faith dialogue is more crucial than ever.
“Only through dialogue,” Pope Francis stated as he announced his monthly prayer intention this past January, “will we be able to eliminate intolerance and discrimination.” Inter-religious dialogue is “a necessary condition for world peace.” “We must not cease praying for it or collaborating with those who think differently.” Given this wide range of beliefs, Pope Francis concluded, “there is one certainty: we are all children of God.”
“Clap your hands all you peoples . . . God has gone up with a shout,” the psalmist sings. Why are you just sitting there reading this? Time to get up and get about the task of bringing Jesus’ message alive to the ends of the earth today.
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.