Occasionally someone raises the topic: what is the greatest American movie ever made? Some people do “Gone with the Wind” or “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Some go for religious classics like “Ben Hur” or “The Ten Commandments.” I think the greatest American movie ever made about America is “The Godfather”; you could put down parts one and two without a quibble, but I’d throw in part three as well.
All the three parts tell a story of power, what it means to have it, to use it, and what it does to people when it is used as a blunt weapon. You need the final scenes in part Three, when Michael Corleone, who started off trying to take the high road, ends up isolated and dying, ruined by the way power and anger overtook his life.
The Scriptures bring up the theme of power in all the readings today because this is one way to reflect on the feast of the Ascension. What does it mean for Jesus to ascend to the right hand of the Father? What does it mean for Jesus to send power upon his disciples? How are people of faith supposed to use power? “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Now the scriptures can employ various words which kind of mean power: authority, for example, is a common one. But the word we hear in the readings from Luke is akin to our word “dynamite.” While we should not use explosive words to describe faith, we need to see that Jesus is giving his disciples the capacity to make something happen, to be roused from their fear and passivity, to go forth in the name of Jesus. When we look at how weak and flabby we modern Catholics often feel in our faith, we can understand why we could use a boost.
The Church has used power in a variety of ways, from the days of Constantine when she came out of the underground and started taking on a public role, to the days of popes going to war in alliance with one or another European King, to the ways people have been excommunicated or even executed during its history. I am sure that Jesus had none of these ideas in mind when he spoke of power.
Rather, I think Jesus means the power to bring about change, within people and between people, the kind of changes he brought to the lives of people when he healed then, forgave them, brought peace to their lives, accepted them when no one else would. Because the power with which Jesus worked is God’s power of love. When you think of all the influences that have changed your life, I bet none ranks with the force of love.
Love invites, it does not force. Love gives, it does not take. Love moves from within our hearts. Love ultimately forgets itself for sake of the other. Love spreads itself from person to person, from community to community, with the ability to transform everything. When we speak of love this way, we are actually speaking of the Holy Spirit, God’s own love, given to us as a gift.
Jesus ascends to heaven not to claim and horde power but to bestow it upon anyone with a heart open to God in faith and love. When he comes to judge us from the throne of heaven, there will be only one test: how much did the power of God’s life come to overtake our hearts.