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In March of 1942, facing the advance of a daunting Japanese Army, General Douglas MacArthur was ordered to leave his headquarters in the Philippines and decamp for Australia. When he’d arrived safely on Australian shores he gave a speech in which he made the famous promise to the people of the Philippines that “I shall return.”
MacArthur had actually spent a lot of time in the Philippines in various postings throughout his life, and as a military advisor to the government there. He had more than a casual attachment to the islands. And beating a retreat from anywhere (as he had from the Philippines) was not exactly his idea of a good time. When he promised to return, he meant it. The story goes that MacArthur’s superiors in Washington asked him to revise his statement, to declare, “We shall return.” But nothing about MacArthur’s ego inclined him to pay any attention whatsoever to that request.
It’s a curious thing that the legacy of such a complicated, accomplished, remarkable, and quite amazing man can be so quickly and easily linked to this one phrase about a place that many Americans forget was once a US Territory, and about which we may not often stop to think at all these days: “I shall return.”
But as I say, MacArthur cared about the Philippines (if you ask me) and it grated strongly against his grain to abandon a place and a people to whom he had devoted much time and effort, and who were clearly facing a terrible threat – a place and a people whom he imagined needed him. When MacArthur promised to return to the Philippines, I suspect it was a personal promise, a statement of personal commitment, a matter of personal urgency regardless of what the vicissitudes of war should require. This was his promise: I shall return.
Had he had just a little bit more of a messianic complex, MacArthur might have added, “I will not leave you comfortless,” referencing Jesus’ promise, after his resurrection, to send the Holy Spirit to his disciples.
When we get this far past Easter it’s easy for us to miss the promise of Jesus’ return that is made in the Book of Acts by the two men in white robes, presumably angels: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” Those words, that promise, are painted or etched, or otherwise applied to the bottom-most band of stained glass of the great east window of this church, where we see the scene of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven depicted.
Accordingly, you could say that that single line from the Acts of the Apostles is a sort of charter for our parish – so centered on the celebration of the Mass – a charter that calls us to consider that we are not here to recall constantly Jesus’ departure, to perpetually commemorate some long-past alighting of the Lord, but to await, prepare for, and live like people who are looking forward to Jesus’ coming again in the same way. In fact, you could wonder if the scene displayed before us each and every time we come to church in daylight hours is not a depiction of his Ascension at all, but actually a rendering of his return in the same way: the pillowy cloud about to set down on terra firma again, bringing Jesus back amongst disciples eagerly looking up to greet him as he arrives.
Fanciful though such a suggestion may be, it might be useful to think about what it would mean to be a church shaped by the promise, the urgent expectation, that Jesus will return to walk with, and talk with, and teach, and preach, and heal, and forgive his followers. Because you live your life differently if all you are doing is dutifully remembering the past than if you are faithfully looking toward the future. Christians often get confused about this: getting stuck in the past on the one hand, and making things up about the future (like the so-called “Rapture”) on the other hand.
I’d suggest that the differences between looking constantly to the past, and looking eagerly to the future are differences primarily of posture and attitude. When you are looking to the past it is easy to slouch, you often feel sleepy, and you don’t mind drifting off to naps while you reminisce about the good old days, your eyes are heavy, and you wish people would keep quiet and leave you alone. When you are looking to the future you sit up straight, you keep your eyes open, you enlist others to make sure you stay awake, you try to stay fit, you adopt practices that you suspect will serve you well when the day for which you wait finally dawns.
In military terms, you adopt a posture of “situational awareness” so that you can be ready for whatever is coming. And this posture, this attitude, this awareness translates into decisions about what you do in your life. Because if you look at that east window and see in the figure of Jesus someone who left the building, so to speak, a long time ago, then it hardly matters what choices you make today. But if you see that those puffy clouds on which Jesus’ feet rest could be setting him down in our midst again here on earth, then you begin to consider what you might look like to him, what you are doing, and how you will answer when he asks what you have been up to since he last stepped onto those clouds on the way up to heaven.
I think our predecessors at Saint Mark’s wanted us to think that way. They knew that it can be difficult for Christians to adopt a posture of situational awareness that looks hopefully toward the future, so they furnished themselves and us with a powerful image that looks both ways, reminding us that “this Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” Because they were clear that when the angels promised that Jesus would return, they meant it. They were speaking for God, and making a promise that could be counted on.
And our forbears, who built this place so that the Real Presence of Jesus would be known day in and day out, wanted to remind themselves and those who would come after them that the matter of Jesus’ return was a personal promise, a statement of personal commitment, a matter of personal urgency regardless of what the vicissitudes of divine life in heaven should require. This was his promise: I shall return – just delivered on the lips of angels, who are often tasked with announcing divine arrivals and departures.
When MacArthur returned to the Philippines in 1944 the fighting there had not yet stopped. The small boat he’d taken to come ashore was grounded in knee-deep water, so he got out of the boat and waded through the water to the beach. It would have suited MacArthur, I am sure, if he could have walked across that water. But Douglas MacArthur, great and complicated man that he was, was no messiah. All the same, he fulfilled his promise, and at some point that day in a speech he made the obvious observation, “I have returned.”
For so many Christians these days it is hard to believe that Jesus is really coming back. The wait has been so long that we have fashioned ways to live as Christians that are untroubled by the possibility of Christ’s return. Afraid of the embarrassment of being stood up by Jesus, we conveniently forget the message of the angels – enshrined right here in our church – that he will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven. And maybe we have become comfortable looking backward, keeping holy memory alive, occasionally dozing off, but always awaking when the bell rings and calls us to Mass.
But a window was put here to be ignited by the sun, and to, in turn, ignite our hearts and turn our heads to look ahead to the glorious day when Jesus will come again in the same way we heard that he went into heaven.
And if a mere General of the Army can keep his promise to a place and a people whom he imagined needed him, how much more so will the king of kings, the lord of lords, the Captain of Salvation, and the Prince of Heaven keep his promise to come again to a place and to a people who he knows need him desperately?
We live in a world in which the fighting has not stopped, and in which it may feel to us as if Christ’s boat may have become grounded somewhere off-shore, and he has been prevented from coming to us. But the water will be no obstacle to our Lord when he comes. He will step lightly across it, wash our tears with it as he embraces us, and assures us, “I have returned.”
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
1 June 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia