The Ascension of the Lord, Year A
Sunday Church at Home
during lockdown in the Coronavirus Pandemic
The lay leader makes the sign of the cross, saying:
Leader: ln the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
All reply: Amen
Leader: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
All reply: Blessed be God for ever
Leader: Only one verse in the entire New Testament makes chronological reference to the ascension. In Acts 1:3, Luke states that Jesus continued to appear to the disciples for forty days after his resurrection. He goes on to present his account of Jesus being taken up into heaven.
In spite of this ancient witness, the first testimony to the celebration of “Ascension Thursday” in Rome does not appear until around the year 500. Originally the fifty days of the Easter season were celebrated as a single unit culminating in the feast of Pentecost. Gradually, however, this unity broke down until the season was divided between the forty days leading to Ascension, and the ten days from there to Pentecost. Pentecost itself became a separate feast with an octave.
Since Vatican II we have largely recovered the initial unity of the Easter season. But not quite, because the document governing the liturgical year still refers to the weekdays between Ascension and Pentecost as a preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit. In South Africa Luke’s chronology is not taken literally; the Ascension of the Lord is transferred to the following Sunday.
LITURGY OF THE WORD
First Reading: Acts 1:1-11
Introduction to the reading: Today’s passage takes us back to the beginning verses of the Acts of the Apostles and sets forth the themes that Luke is going to develop throughout this, the longest book of the new Testament. His major theme is the role of the Holy Spirit, who enables the apostles to be effective witnesses to Jesus. The Holy Spirit is mentioned 57 times in the Acts of the Apostles.
The beginning of the Acts of the Apostles.
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
The Word of the Lord.
Let us now pray the Responsorial Psalm beginning and ending with the response:
R/: God has gone up with shouts of joy. The Lord goes up with trumpet blast.
All peoples, clap your hands. Cry to God with shouts of joy!
For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, The great king over all the earth.
God goes up with shouts of joy. The Lord goes up with trumpet blast.
Sing praise for God; sing praise! Sing praise to our king; sing praise!
God is king of all the earth. Sing praise with all your skill.
God reigns over the nations. God sits upon his holy throne.
R./ God has gone up with shouts of joy. The Lord goes up with trumpet blast.
Second Reading: Ephesians 1:17-23
Introduction to the reading: Ephesus was an ancient city located on the western coast of what is today Turkey. Paul visited there several times. Today’s passage, which is near the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians, is a prayer asking God’s blessing upon that community. Many thoughts in this prayer are connected to today’s feast of the Ascension.
A reading from the Letter of St Paul to the Ephesians
Brothers and Sisters: May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
The Word of the Lord.
Alleluia, alleluia. Go and make disciples of nations, says the Lord; I am with you always, to the close of the age. Alleluia!
Gospel: Mt 28:16-20
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew
At that time: The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
Reflection on the Readings
The leader reads the text prepared by the priest and leads the sharing.
In March this year, the coronavirus was in China, Asia and Europe. It was something happening in foreign countries – far away from us. We seemed safe on southern tip of Africa. Then came news of the first infections in RSA. And then came the first set of restrictions. And then came lockdown on the 26th March. I had a sense of shock – this can’t be real – and the panic of trying to get ready and not knowing what to expect. The lockdown was for 21 days and we looked forward to the 16th April when things would begin again. And so we settled in for 3 weeks of lockdown. It was do-able, with a massive adjustment – it seemed almost like an adventure. But then reality sunk in when the lockdown was extended.
Now it is waiting – seeing the enormous damage to the economy with jobs lost & people suffering. It is also about rejoicing in the reduction of the spread of the virus and the many lives being saved.
By the end of last week in South Africa, over 500 000 tests have been done with 19 000 people testing positive and just under 400 deaths. We give thanks for so many people recovering from the virus, and we pray for the souls of those who have died.
And so we wait.
The Acts of the Apostles starts with an instruction by the risen Christ to wait.
I wonder if the activists in that early community were as frustrated by his instruction as we are today in lockdown. You can see that they were ready to get on with things – and they would have gotten it all wrong. It’s their question that reveals their misdirection, “Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” Of course, they mean a purely external, politically and militarily dominant kingdom of Israel. Jesus wanted them to wait for the baptism with the Holy Spirit, then they will know how and where to be Jesus’ witnesses.
He wants them to break free of their limited view, their biases and tendency to misinterpret the meaning of his life. What he also wants is that they witness to him far beyond the boundaries of Israel. They will have to be, “my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” For all this they will need help, so they must acknowledge their dependence on God and wait for God’s pleasure to pour that help out on them.
We are not good at waiting.
We often want instant results. Waiting is not what we do well particularly these pandemic days when we don’t have a vaccine, we are worried about our loved ones and the future of South Africa. Why is waiting so frustrating? Part of the reason is that it means someone else or some other power is in charge, not us. And being out of control and subject to other forces reminds us of our finiteness, and vulnerability.
Jesus tells the disciples to, “Wait for the promise of the Father.”
They cannot go off spreading the news of his resurrection on their own. They are a small, fearful community that has no power on its own and, as the Gospels showed, they have a tendency to get Jesus’ message all wrong. What’ s more, they flee when things get tough. On their own they will be misguided, perhaps engage in ways that are not of Jesus.
Haven’t we church people made some pretty big mistakes in our history about his message and ways? There are the accounts of our promoting our religion by force and by trampling over the dignity and cultures of whole civilizations. We, like the original disciples, have been cowardly when courage was required, even merciless when love and compassion was what Jesus would have wanted.
So the disciples and WE must “hold our horses,” restrain ourselves and wait for God’ promise to be fulfilled. What’s more, the fulfilment will come at God’s timing, not our own. We are action oriented aren’t we? We have our projects and plans, we want to get on with things. Even when our plans and intentions are noble and serve a good purpose, how does God figure into them? Do we know? Have we asked? Do we wait for an answer, some direction? Maybe we have to “hurry up and wait.” Waiting on the Spirit is a reversal of our usual mode of operating.
Christ talks to the disciples about their mission to the “ends of the earth.”
When he his Gospel, Luke wanted to make sure that we do not forget what had happened in Jerusalem. We recall the Emmaus story and the failed and frustrated hopes of the disciples on the road. “We had hoped ….,” they tell the Stranger. What they had hoped for was their version of triumph and success for Jesus – and themselves. But Jesus had to remind them, by interpreting the scriptures, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” that suffering was to be part of his life and mission. Here in today’s section of Acts, Luke reminds us again of that link between Jesus’ mission and suffering, when he says that Christ “presented himself alive to them by many proofs AFTER he had suffered.”
Jesus, and now the disciples, cannot escape the suffering that comes with fidelity to the message. Even in the presence of the risen Lord they are not far from the reality of suffering. So, for the disciples, who will have to live out and proclaim the Good News, suffering will be the price they and we pay for our belief and for the mission.
We need to wait for the gift of the Spirit who sustains us when the going gets rough. We will be witnesses to Jesus by the integrity of our lives and the commitment to his ways. If we are faithful to what his Spirit teaches us at work, and with our families, in school and in the political arena, etc., there will be suffering. Or maybe, in some ways, worse, we will just be ignored, discounted as unrealistic and dismissed as impossible idealists. We will need the gift of the Spirit and the wait is worth it.
The disciples and the early communities must have been so frustrated in their waiting and longing for the fulfillment of the reign of God.
We too know that frustration as we wait for lockdown to end. Sadly, we see some bad side effects of the lockdown – the human suffering and the damage to the economy, not being able to gather for church, the illegal black markets that have developed.
After having committed ourselves to Jesus Christ, we experience not triumph, but a mixture of triumph and defeat. So we need to ask: What difference does our faith make? “When will things come together?
The poet W.B. Yeats described it like this:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
the blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
(from, “The Second Coming”)
(Yeats wrote this poem in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War, the beginning of the Irish War of Independence and during the 1918–1919 flu pandemic when about 50 million people around the world died.)
We are wearied by our waiting. We need help that we cannot provide for ourselves. Let us hear again what the early church heard in its anguish and yearning, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by [God’s] own authority.” How difficult it is for us to hear these words surrounded, as we are, by the kind of events we see and hear on the evening news, or read on the internet. What we have is the belief that Christ reigns and will send the Holy Spirit to help us live as we must. We cannot force the hand of this Spirit, it is a gift constantly coming upon us.
And one that still requires waiting.
- We have our projects and plans, we want to get on with things. How does God figure into them? Do we know? Have we asked? Do we wait for an answer, some direction?
- After their baptism with the Holy Spirit in Pentecost, the disciples then knew how and where to be Jesus’ witnesses. How can we be witnesses to Jesus today.
Prayer of the Faithful
Leader: Let us pray for the blessing of the Spirit in our lives and upon the world.
Reader: We pray for the Church: (pause)
that, empowered by the Spirit, we may faithfully give witness to the Gospel and continue Christ’s mission of bringing hope and healing to those in need.
LORD HEAR US
We pray for all who feel alone and isolated: (pause)
that God will console them, let them experience God’s presence in their homes, and help others to connected with them to maintain the community spirit.
LORD HEAR US
We pray for South Africa during this time of lockdown: (pause)
that our leaders may understand the suffering of ordinary people and that God will give them insight and courage as they develop plans to both preserve the health and safety of society and to reopen the economy.
LORD HEAR US
We pray for all who are ill, particularly those with Covid-19: (pause)
that God’s healing spirit will fill them, ease their pain, and restore them to wholeness.
LORD HEAR US
We pray for all who are fearful or anxious: (pause) that they may recognize God’s message, “Fear not”, is for them and allow God to calm their spirits and give them hope.
LORD HEAR US
For all who are struggling financially, particularly single parents: (pause) that God will give them hope, guide them to the resources that they need, and help them find safe employment.
LORD HEAR US
We pray for members of our families and friends who have died and those whose anniversaries occur about this time:
LORD HEAR US
We pray for all who have died this week, especially those with the Covid-19 virus. Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord.
All: And let perpetual light shine on them. May they rest in peace. Amen.
Leader: Let us pray our prayer for healing:
All: Loving God,
we come to you full of anxiety about what may happen in the coming days and weeks.
Shower us with the peace Jesus promised to his disciples, and make us into steady pillars for those around us.
In this time of uncertainty and epidemic, wake us up to the reminder that we are not alone.
Even as we are asked to keep our distance from others,
help us to find ways to reach out to those who need our support.
We pray especially for those whose incomes and livelihoods are threatened.
For the children who will miss education due to school closures.
For those already isolated, lonely and scared.
Loving God, give them your peace,
and through our hands ensure they have what they need.
Sustain, strengthen and protect all caregivers.
Bless them as they offer compassionate care and show selfless courage in the face of risk.
Remind us, each time we wash our hands, that in our baptism you call us to let go of our fears and live in joy, peace, and hope.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
We can unite ourselves to the Eucharist through making a spiritual Communion.
By making an Act of Spiritual Communion, we express our faith in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist and ask him to unite himself with us.
I believe you are really here in the Blessed Sacrament.
I love you more than anything in the world, and I hunger to receive you.
But since I cannot receive Communion at this moment,
feed my soul at least spiritually.
I unite myself to you now as I do when I actually receive you.
Leader: Let us pray to the Father in the words Jesus our Saviour gave us:
All say: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
Leader: Almighty and eternal God,
you have entrusted to us here on earth the mysteries that foreshadow heaven.
Draw our gaze upward where Christ, who shares our human nature,
sits in glory at your right hand and lives and reigns with you for ever and ever.
A leader who is a layperson, using no gesture, says:
Leader: May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil and bring us to everlasting life.
Instrumental music may be played or a hymn may be sung.