Working in the church, I’ve met some amazing men and women. There are even some I would call living saints.
I want to tell you about one of them. His name is Jacob Mar Barnabas.
He is known as Mar Barnabas, and he is a bishop in New Delhi, India. I had lunch with him a few years ago when was in New York. He’s unlike any bishop I’ve ever met. He has no formal residence, no large staff. When Mar Barnabas travels to visit missions in his diocese, he often sleeps on the floor.
But his enthusiasm is infectious — and so is his love for the poor.
He bears witness to it every day.
When COVID first struck India over a year ago, families naturally came to him, looking for help. Many had lost jobs, livelihoods, homes. “We don’t have any place to go,” they said, “Please help us.”
And he did.
He set up a kitchen to prepare hot meals for 1,500 people a day. He organized volunteers, priests and religious in his diocese to distribute food, hygiene kits, protective equipment, masks.
This simple man with a long grey beard and flowing saffron robes climbed into a Jeep and traveled with workers to villages. When they arrived, he got out of the Jeep and put on rubber gloves and a mask and gave out food and supplies and blessings.
A year ago, as the pandemic was just beginning to spread, he wrote an essay describing the hundreds of people who were showing up every day outside his cathedral, waiting for help: old people, widows, families with children. Day after day, the bishop met with them, talked with them, brought food to them, prayed with them.
As he put it: “God has called me to radiate his love and care for these brothers and sisters without looking at their faith, caste, color, language. They find in our cathedral a place of consolation and comfort.”
That was a year ago. I don’t think he could have imagined what was coming.
In just the last few weeks, COVID has brought India to its knees.
Families have been wiped out. The death rate is soaring. Gravediggers can’t keep up. Funeral pyres burn day and night. Government officials can’t even keep an accurate account of the dead and dying, there are so many of them. Hundreds of thousands are fighting for their lives.
One of them is Bishop Jacob Mar Barnabas.
Three weeks ago, he was admitted to a hospital with a fever. It turned out to be COVID.
This morning, he is still in a hospital, on a ventilator, in critical condition.
But even that hasn’t stopped him.
One of his priests wrote, “Irrespective of his poor health, he was anxious about the poor on the street, that they are getting food daily or not. We have tried our best to fulfill his dreams and ensure the distribution of food to the poor.”
By now, you’re probably wondering: what does any of this have to do with today’s feast, The Ascension? A bishop in a hospital in New Delhi may seem far removed from apostles on a hilltop in Jerusalem and the Gospel account we just heard of Jesus ascending to his Father.
But they are aren’t. The two are intimately entwined.
Jesus’s last words in this Gospel are: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel.”
That is the life and mission of Jacob Mar Barnabas.
With every meal he gives, every family he comforts, every volunteer he inspires or directs or guides, Mar Barnabas is proclaiming the Gospel.
And he is proclaiming it right now, even as he fights for his life.
Last Sunday’s Gospel gave us Christ’s great command: “Love one another.”
Here is that great command fulfilled.
Here is love — beautiful, generous, courageous love.
We just heard Paul tell the Ephesians: “I urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love.”
I think Paul would recognize in Jacob Mar Barnabas a kindred spirit, a man living “in a manner worthy of the call he has received.”
But what about us? How are we living out our call?
I’ve always been struck by the first reading on this feast, when we hear of “two men in white garments” addressing the apostles as they watched Jesus disappear into the clouds. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing there looking at the sky?”
It tells us, yes, this is a moment of wonder and mystery and awe.
But it also tells us: there is more. Much more.
There is work to do.
We aren’t meant to just spend our days looking at the sky, full of nostalgia or longing.
Don’t just look up — look around! The world is waiting for the Good News to be proclaimed.
The world is waiting for us!
This passage that sounds like an ending is, really, a beginning — it makes up the first few paragraphs of the Acts of the Apostles. In this context, the great story of Christianity is only just getting started.
And there are so many more chapters to be written.
God is calling each of us to pick up a pen and write them.
It won’t happen if we stand there looking at the sky.
This is part of the power and glory of the Ascension. It reminds us not only of the eternal home that awaits us, but of the home that we live in here and now — a world awaiting our witness, our compassion, our proclamation of the Good News.
With God’s grace to guide us, let us resolve, like Mar Barnabas, to “radiate God’s love.”
How the world needs that now — and how India needs Mar Barnabas. Friends, please pray for him. Pray, too, for the men, women and children of India. They are living a nightmare we can’t begin to imagine. Pray that God brings them comfort, healing and hope.
This day, as we prepare to receive in our hands the Body of Christ, the same Christ who ascended to the Father, we pray that we may be worthy one day to join him in paradise, by living out our call as Christians here on earth.
It is a call as old as the Ascension. It is a call to have open eyes and open hearts.
Don’t just look up — look around!
The world is waiting.
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