Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto.
In the days following Jesus’ resurrection, His disciples locked themselves away in self-isolation for fear that the Romans and Jews might arrest them for being followers of Jesus. Throughout the disciples’ isolation, Jesus appeared to them and strengthened them with assurances of His resurrection, peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit. He let them know that He would always be present in their lives.
Today, as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension, we see that a huge change took place in the lives of the Apostles and disciples. The first line of this Sunday’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives a hint to the nature of this change: “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).
The Ascension of Jesus must have been a time of great fear and transition for his disciples. 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 led the way. The disciples 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 in the lives of believers. When they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples of the Lord were called upon to take responsibility for the Church and how to serve the Lord in different situations.
This new responsibility of discipleship continues onto us today and is sometimes called stewardship.
The Acts of the Apostles is a powerful testimony to the way in which the first believers were transformed in the Church. By receiving the Holy Spirit, these individuals were formed into the living Body of Christ in the world, and each disciple took on the identity of a living member within this Body. As a result of the gift of the Holy Spirit, all were immediately made co-workers with Christ, sent to do Christ’s work wherever they went in the course of their journey. As a result of the gift of the Holy Spirit that Christ’s disciples received after His ascension into heaven, the disciples had the courage to claim their identity as living members of Christ’s Church and embrace the changes in their lives that allowed them to carry the Gospel message around the world.
We see in this Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew how Jesus intends His disciples to continue His work around the world and in different situations and times. In the Gospel of Matthew, before He ascends into Heaven, Jesus gives the great commission to His disciples to go into the whole world “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit … And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the ages.”
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: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the ages.”
The challenge that faced the early Church was huge. Without Jesus at their side for the first time, the disciples had to 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 they were violently rejected by the people to whom they had brought this Good News. Yet they never lost hope, because they knew the Lord, who had risen and destroyed death, 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.
Our own parish communities are about to face a period of transition. For the entire Easter Season, our churches have been locked-up and we have been self-isolating, because of COVID-19. As the public health officials advise us that it is safe to re-open, things are going to be different in our parishes for some time. In all likelihood, we will re-open in gradual phases. So too, our parish offices will not just re-open as they were, but will allow gradual access, with proper distancing, before returning to regular operations. 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 re-opening will require will also demand acts of real discipleship on behalf of all. In order to re-open, parishes need to give attention to how they will maintain social distancing, sanitize between Masses and observe proscribed attendance restrictions. This transition is going to call for real discipleship and stewardship in all our parish communities. Disciples will be needed to 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. Most parishes are starting to form re-opening committees. However, until we receive more information from the provincial health authorities about how and when we can begin to re-open, we must now simply 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 they faced.
The Ascension of the Lord marked a new beginning for the early Church. Those disciples who had locked themselves in the upper room out of fear of the authorities were confronted with a new reality. They were not expected to face the future alone. The Holy Spirit gave 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 and the slow re-opening of our churches to eventually begin, 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.
This reflection is based on the readings for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; and Matthew 28:19-20.