On Thursday, a friend sent me one of those witty WhatsApp messages – Today is the Feast of the Ascension. To those who wonder what it’s about, it’s the day when Jesus started to work from home! As he leaves, all Jesus tells the apostles is that they will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. The words at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel say the same thing – go make disciples of all nations. And he promises to be with them. That is a rather daunting task! And what might our readings tell us about that mission?
Firstly, in his message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis talks about storytelling. It is important that we know the story that we tell. Putting it simply, that story has three parts. There is the Old Testament, the time preparing for Jesus. We live that waiting in Advent. Then there is the life of Jesus. And now we start the third stage of our story – about who God is and who we are – in the age of the Church, where Jesus is not here but has not left us. That age of the Holy Spirit is still being written, because – in the famous words of Pope John Paull II in Ireland 41 years ago – every new generation is like a new continent to be conquered for Christ. That is the whole purpose of the Church’s year. It is to help us both understand and celebrate the various stages of our story.
Thus, followers of Jesus are not merely those who keep to certain laws and who attend church. We have come to know his story and we want to know how to read our personal and communal history through the eyes of his-story.
And it is not a childish story. It deals with love, betrayal, idealism, concrete realities and hope. It involves handling awkward questions, making sense of our lives and aiming to be saints. It deals with the reality of death and the possibility of living for more than the pound on the ground while we are around. It is not about pie in the sky when I die.
Secondly, this is a difficult time for many people. As a Church we have to work out what story we tell about where God is in all of this.
At the present time there are many stories circulating, often calling out for our attention. We have all heard conspiracy theories by the bucket load.
One thing is important when it comes to judging many of these stories and working out our story. The Bible does not come with a heart that keeps asking, “Whom do we blame out there for what is happening?” Jesus calls us to live the truth in our own daily faith journey. Anything other wranglings come from politics and power games rather than from prayer. Jesus and the early Church did not blame others for the problems and opposition they faced. They simply sowed the good seed and left the rest to the Lord of the Harvest.
Thus, our message should never waste too much time on theories that blame the Chinese, or Bill Gates or repressive governments or a vindictive angry God. Those debates generate heat but no light, they nourish fears and not faith. Our job is to know what story we tell about Jesus and his grace – and to find way of communicating that story and pouring Christ’s mercy into our hurting world. And we do that because, as St Paul told us in our second reading, our story has a happy ending, based on our belief that Jesus is far above every power on earth and in heaven.
Now it is our task, in his name, to proclaim hope rather than helplessness, love rather than lust, grace rather than greed. On this Ascension Day we are invited to be bearers of good news rather than fearmongers. There is little grace in those who think there is something virtuous in being preoccupied with what makes people frightened and angry.
Thirdly, this World Communications Day is a chance to reflect on how many things we have learned about how to communicate during this pandemic. I am amazed how so many of our parishes and of our clergy have found ways of keeping their parish community alive and their channels of communication open. They have been visible and audible on-line. They have found ways to get missalettes and parish bulletins out through local shops. They have given support and encouragement to people near and far.
My task as bishop is to encourage all that work so that, when it comes to the story that will be told about this diocese during the pandemic lockdown, people will remember the Body of Christ as showing lots of generosity, creativity, courage, gentleness and hope. As a local church, we will have failed Jesus and his people if they remember absence rather than presence. Can we allow Jesus to write an inspiring story through our actions today, as actions of his Body, the Church? The early Church had no excuse for hiding in the upper room, despite all the challenges. Nor do we.
St Paul is clear that our witness is based on the concrete life of Jesus in this world, especially in his death and resurrection. And, as the concrete Body of Christ, we have to continue filling the whole of creation with Christ’s message. That comes through those who offer healing and hope, those who create beauty and businesses that employ, those who promote community rather than exploit confrontation. Holiness is working to live saintly lives here with the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. We are called to make God’s grace real in the history of this time, this place. It is not about pious escapism. After the Ascension, Jesus may have started ‘working from home’ – but he has promised that he will be with us, His body, until the end of time. He has won the victory over sin and death. This pandemic is our time and place for ministry in Jesus’ name. We cannot put off witnessing until circumstances suit us better. The Apostles would laugh at that idea! They remember that the angel told them not to stand looking up to the sky.
So, today, we share the fear which the Apostles felt when Jesus left them. But he has promised to be with them and to send the Holy Spirit. Today invites us to announce clear the amazing story that we tell about the God who so loved the world. And to look at the story which people will tell in the future about how we allowed grace to flow out in these weeks of stress. Good news comes from heaven – but is has to be made very concrete on earth. This time and this place are where the mission continues, not a time for pausing the mission received at the Ascension.