During the time of Jesus, wealthy people had many servants at their beck and call. Maids busied themselves cleaning their homes, cooking their meals and waiting on them and their guests at table. Butlers announced visitors and made sure that no uninvited guests got onto the premises. Other servants tended the grounds of the estate, maintained the buildings and provided personal grooming services such as haircuts and shaving.
The richest people in ancient times would also have had a servant called “the forerunner.” This was a prestigious role set aside for only the most faithful and diligent of servants. It was his job to go ahead of his master through the streets of the city, making sure the way was clear for him. In the ancient middle east, roadways were often clogged with people milling about or cattle just sitting in the middle of the street. It would not take much to hold up an important person who needed to pass through. The forerunner would go through the street pushing aside whatever may be blocking the roadway to make the way clear for his master to pass through.
When they had arrived at their destination, the forerunner would go in ahead of his master to make sure that everything was prepared to his liking. Checking every corner of the house, he would make sure their were no dangers lurking there that would put his master’s safety at risk.
Because they served in such a prominent role in middle eastern society, forerunners are mentioned frequently in the Bible. The one we would be most familiar with is John the Baptist. As the gospels tell us, he told the crowds that he was a forerunner for the Messiah, a “voice in the wilderness preparing a way for the Lord.” As a good forerunner, John the Baptist went ahead of Jesus making sure the people would be able to give Him a proper welcome when at last He appeared.
On this feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we remember another forerunner, namely Jesus. Today we celebrate how, forty days after His resurrection, He ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father “far above every principality, authority, power and dominion”, as Saint Paul tells us in the second reading. He has gone ahead of us, overcoming the power of sin and death, to make the way safe for us. He has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us in heaven. There he is preparing an inheritance of glory for us who believe. If we have been faithful to Him in this life, we can then be assured that, when we die, He will announce us to God the Father and the whole heavenly court and show us to the place He has prepared for us.
In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, after Jesus ascends into heaven, two angels appear to the apostles to tell them, “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.” Now that our Lord has taken His place in heaven, He will return again in glory “to restore the Kingdom” to God the Father. As believers, we look forward to His coming in glory because it will mean the definitive end of all sin, suffering and death. It will be the creation of a new heaven and a new earth where justice and peace will be established forever.
Because of this great hope, it is up to us now to be forerunners for Jesus’ second coming. Just as John the Baptist prepared the way for His first coming, we must clear every obstacle that would impede His second coming in glory. It is up to us now to proclaim “to the ends of the earth” that Jesus will return so that the world that will be ready to greet Him enthusiastically when His glory is revealed.
How were the forerunners in ancient times able to clear roads, search houses and make bold pronouncements? Because the people knew that they were announcing the coming of an important person. To ignore the forerunner was to risk being punishment by the dignitary he served. The forerunner had no authority of his own, only that which was given him by his master.
In just such a way, as forerunners of Jesus Christ, we have no power or authority of our own. Rather we speak and act with the power and authority given to us by God. Before Jesus ascends to heaven, He reassures the apostles, “...you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth.” The apostles received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost empowering them to work mighty signs. We received the Holy Spirit at our baptism and confirmation strengthening us to serve as forerunners of Jesus Christ. Because of that gift, we can announce His coming without fear knowing that the authority to do so comes from Him.
Jesus, our forerunner, has gone ahead of us to heaven. We hope one day to be welcomed there by Him and led to the place He has prepared for us. In the meanwhile, we must go ahead of Him announcing that He will come again. Our confidence does not come from our own strength, the power of our own intellect or our own cleverness. Rather it is God at work in us through the Holy Spirit who makes great things possible. Therefore we live with great hope, a hope that is founded not only on the promise of future glory but the assurance that Jesus is with us now until the end of time.