Today marks a monumental day. No, not the day before Friday and your big weekend plans. Today is the fortieth day of the Easter season, a day known as The Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, or Ascension Day. St. Luke writes about this event in first chapter of The Acts of the Apostles. Reading this account, I was especially struck by verses 6-8.
“ 6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7 He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ ”
Coincidentally (if you believe in such things), May 10th is also the Feast of one of my favorite saints: St. Damien of Molokai, a true example of a witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Damien was born in Belgium in the mid-nineteenth century. Eventually he entered into the seminary and became a missionary priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Eventually he requested to be sent to the Kingdom of Hawaii, which at that time was having an issue with an outbreak of leprosy. In these days it was believed that leprosy was highly contagious, and those who contracted the disease were exiled to the leper colony on the Island of Molokai.
It was to Molokai that Damien traveled. There he engaged the lepers and lived among them. By the Holy Spirit, working through Damien, the lepers were empowered. They began to develop a sense of community. Schools, churches, hospitals, and homes were built. Damien personally dressed, ate food bare-handed with, built coffins for, and dug graves for many of the lepers. The once “untouchable” lepers were given back their dignity. Damien was their advocate, frequently fighting with both the Church and the Hawaiian government to try to obtain sorely needed resources. They were his people, and he was one of them, and ceaselessly worked to show them that they had an inherent dignity and worth in the eyes of God, regardless of what the outside world told them.
In 1884, Damien truly became like the lepers when he discovered he had contracted the disfiguring disease. This only strengthened his resolve, as he knew his time to do the Father’s will was drawing to a close. In 1889, at the age of 49, Damien succumbed to the disease after having devoted 16 years of his priestly ministry to those at Molokai. Damien understood the command that Christ gave to the Apostles. The same command that Christ gives to you and me. “… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the Ends of the Earth.” There isn’t a lot of room for argument there, and Damien understood that. On this day that we celebrate both the Ascension of Christ and the life and example of St. Damien of Molokai, ask yourself if you are a witness of Christ, and what you can do to follow Him in all that you do.