May 22, 2020

Christ the Cornerstone

Jesus ascends to the Father, but stays close to us

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, which we celebrate this Sunday, is an especially powerful feast given our experiences of the past few months.

Catholics who have been denied access to the sacraments, especially the holy Eucharist because of the coronavirus, can identify with the disciples of Jesus who felt a keen sense of their Lord’s absence once he was no longer with them in the ways they had come to expect.

It’s true that Jesus’ manner of being with them changed after his resurrection. Rather than being with them in the ordinary way, he “appeared to them” in locked rooms, on the road to Emmaus, on the shore by the Sea of Galilee. But at least he was with them. They could see him and touch him. He ate with them, and he talked with them and calmed their fears.

Then one day he went away. He ascended into heaven, the Scriptures tell us, where he is seated at the right hand of the Father. No wonder the disciples were frozen in place gazing in wonder at the heavens (Acts 1:1-11). They were once again orphans—or so they thought—cut off from the Lord, lost, lonely and afraid.

We know exactly how they felt. The extremely painful, but absolutely necessary, decision to close our churches and suspend public celebrations of Mass and the sacraments sometimes feels like the Lord has gone away, that he is no longer available to us in the same way

But such thinking, while understandable, misinterprets what happened when Jesus ascended into heaven. It also completely underestimates the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Great Commission given by Jesus to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).

Jesus never abandons us. He remains close to us in our prayer, and in the extraordinary acts of kindness, courage and generosity that are being shown to people who are sick, lonely and afraid. In fact, in the very act of sending his Spirit and establishing his Church, he promised the disciples (and us), “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

Jesus ascended into heaven so that his followers (all of us) could assume our rightful roles as missionary disciples. That’s why he sent the Holy Spirit to us—to empower us to act in Jesus’ name as members of his body, to proclaim the Good News, to heal the sick and dying, to comfort those who are lonely and afraid, and to set prisoners free.

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he didn’t abandon us. He made it possible for us to come even closer to him by becoming members of his Mystical Body and by making his presence known and felt to all our brothers and sisters throughout the whole world.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many have been denied access to the grace of the sacraments and the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. If we’re not careful, we can give in to the temptation of thinking that the Church has abandoned us in our time of greatest need, cutting us off from the Eucharist and from the sacrament of penance. But no decisions made by Church leaders or government officials “can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:39).

Even when, with deep regret, we’re denied access to the sacraments, Jesus is with us through the word of God in the Scriptures, in the prayer of the Church and in devotional prayer. And our Lord has told us that he is with us whenever we care for the needs of “the least of these,” his sisters and brothers.

In grateful appreciation for the Lord’s presence, let’s pray with St. Paul in the second reading for the Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension:

“May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might, which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens” (Eph 1:17-20).

Jesus remains close to us. Alleluia! †

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