The Solemnity of the Ascension: Disciples Sent to Build the Church in a COVID 19 World

Decorative ImageIn the days following Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples of Jesus locked themselves away in self-isolation for fear that the Romans and Jews might arrest them for being followers of Jesus. This self-isolation was very similar to that which many people today have had to experience on account of the COVID 19 restrictions that are in place. Throughout the entire time of the disciples’ isolation, Jesus appeared to His disciples and strengthened them with assurances of His resurrection, peace, and the gift of the Holy Spirit by which He would always be present in their lives.

Today, as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension, we see that a huge change takes place in the life of the Apostles and disciples. We are given a hint as to what the nature of this change might be in the first line of this Sunday’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, as we read: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day He was taken up to Heaven” (Acts 1:1). Up until this time, the story of the Church was basically the story of the disciples as they lived and physically walked with Jesus. While He was with them, Jesus lead the way and was in charge. The disciples lived with Jesus and did not need to take responsibility for the community of the believers or the direction that community might go. Jesus’ ascension into heaven marks a new beginning for the life of believers. They will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and the disciples of the Lord will be called upon to take responsibility for the Church as they are directed in the world by the Holy Spirit as to how to serve the Lord in different situations. This new responsibility of discipleship is also sometimes called “stewardship.”

The Ascension of Jesus must have been a time of great fear and transition for his disciples. They had been used to having Christ with them to comfort them and show them the way. Now, as He had promised to send them the Holy Spirit, they must learn to listen to hear Christ speak to them in a different way through the power of the Holy Spirit speaking to them in their hearts, and through the community of the Church. What is so fascinating about the Acts of the Apostles, is that it is a powerful testimony to the way in which the first believers were transformed in the Church. By receiving the Holy Spirit, these individuals are formed into the living Body of Christ in the world, and each disciple takes on the identity of a living member within this Body. All are immediately made, as a result of this gift of the Holy Spirit, co-workers with Christ, sent to do Christ’s work wherever each one goes in the course of her/his journey. As a result of the gift of the Holy Spirit that Christ’s disciples received after His ascension into heaven, the disciples have the courage to claim their identity as living members of Christ’s Church and embrace the changes in their lives that will allow them to carry the Gospel message around the world.

We see in this Sunday’s Gospel from Mark how it is that Jesus intends His disciples to continue His work around the world and in different situations and times. In the Gospel of Mark, before He ascends into Heaven, Jesus gives the great commission to His disciples to go into the whole world “and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages.” The great commission to baptize is a call to make new disciples so that Christ’s work might be done in every age and land. The hope that we, the baptized, are called to have as we face the different challenges of our time is found in Christ’s promise: “They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Of course, the recovery that Jesus refers to as He is about to ascend into Heaven, is the eternal life that He has won for each of us by His life, death and resurrection. As He ascends into heaven, He goes to His Father’s house to prepare a place for each of His faithful disciples.

The challenge that faced the early Church was huge. As a new community of believers in Jesus, the disciples had to go out into the world, for the first time without Him at their side, and take His message to strangers who had never heard the name of Jesus. These disciples were bold enough to travel around the world telling strangers of the love of a God who had conquered sin and death and wished to share eternal life with them. Often, because of their effort, they suffered and were violently rejected by the people to whom they had brought this Good News. Yet they never lost hope, because they knew the Lord had indeed risen and destroyed death and was with them through the power of the Holy Spirit. In the days which followed Christ’s ascension, the disciples re-invented themselves and by the power of the Holy Spirit became the Church that the times required them to be as the Spirit worked within each one of them.

Our own parish communities are about to face for a second time a period of transition and change. For the second Easter Season, our parish churches have been closed for Mass, and we have been self-isolating, on account of the COVID 19 virus. In the coming weeks and months, as the public health officials give us permission to re-open gradually, things are going to be different in our parishes for some time. In all likelihood, we will re-open in gradual phases again, with churches open for small gatherings for weekday Mass, and eventually controlled numbers, safely distanced for Sunday Mass. So too, our parish offices will not just re-open as they were, but will again allow gradual access, with proper distancing, on one or two days, before returning in the last phase to regular hours. This transition, until it is safe to return to the way things “used to be,” will require patience and understanding on the part of all. For a while, things are going to continue to be quite different.

The changes that this second re-opening will require will also demand acts of real discipleship on behalf of all. In order to re-open again, parishes need to give attention to how they will maintain social distancing, sanitize between Masses, observe number limits and allot spaces when not all may initially be allowed to attend due to number restrictions. This transition is going to call for real discipleship and stewardship in all our parish communities. Disciples will be needed to help direct traffic in our buildings, notify parishioners of the many changes and help form our communities according to the new realities of our common life together. And while there will soon be much for each disciple to do, we are still in a time of waiting. Our parishes have already formed re-opening committees. However, until we hear from the provincial health authorities more information about how, and when we can begin to re-open, we must patiently wait in the confidence that the Lord is with us through the power of the Holy Spirit and will guide us through this; as He has guided previous generations of the Church through the challenges of the times that they faced.

The Ascension of the Lord marked a new beginning for the early Church. Those disciples who had been locked in the upper room in fear of the authorities were confronted with a new reality. They were not expected to face the future alone. The Holy Spirit would give them the confidence and wisdom to discern the way forward. Through our baptisms, you and I are disciples of the same Lord and received the same gift of the Holy Spirit. As we prepare for this time of social isolation to end when the provincial authorities tell us it is safe, and the slow re-opening of our churches eventually begins, let us ask the Holy Spirit to show each of us the path to discipleship that He invites us to embrace, so that we might continue the work of the Risen Christ in these new and challenging times.

In the days to come, may every baptized disciple of the Lord be prepared to embrace her/his role of discipleship as we work together to continue the mission given by Christ to be stewards in our parish community.

Rev. Michael McGourty
Pastor—St. Peter’s Toronto—Toronto.

This reflection based on the readings for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; and Mark 16:15-20.