Reopening for Business

by Fr. Denis Lemieux

Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation… Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them. (Mark 16: 15, 20).

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Each May the Church celebrates the feast of the Ascension, this year either on Thursday, May 13, or moved to the following Sunday, depending on where you live.

We celebrate Christ’s going home to the Father, the final stage in his victory over sin and death. In Christ’s ascension to heaven, the doors of heaven are irrevocably flung open to all humanity who will to enter them, and the Spirit is poured out on renewed humanity in the gift of Pentecost.

Mark’s account of this event, chosen as the Gospel for this year’s feast, mentions the Ascension, but almost as an aside. After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God (Mark 16: 19).

The focus of the rest of this Gospel is emphatically on the commission to the apostles to go forth from there and preach the Good News to all creation, to the whole world. It is as if Christ “goes up” precisely so that his Church can “go out.”

I think that is pretty much right. The Lord enters heaven and is seated at God’s right hand, and from this the Spirit is sent out. The Spirit being sent out, the Church then is sent out. Christ’s ascension, signifying the end of one mode of his incarnate life and ministry, is not the end of his presence among us, but his passing over in that presence into the life of the Church.

His mission ends, in a certain sense, so that the Church’s mission begins, and the Church’s mission is nothing more or less than the continuation of Christ’s mission to the end of the ages.

This is such a crucial point of meditation for all of us in the year 2021, don’t you think?

As I have often had occasion to say over the past year, I’m a bit hampered writing this column due to the long delay between writing and publication. It’s early March as I write and will be somewhere in May when you read it.

As I write, signs are looking hopeful that society will begin sometime soon to open up on various levels and degrees after this very taxing year of shut downs and quarantines.

Well, I hope so. And if it isn’t happening as much as we all might like by May, happen it certainly will somewhere in the months ahead. And so… time for the Church to focus on going out, right?

We’ve been made to stay in for so long! It’s a good time for us to refocus on this central mandate of Christ to evangelize, to proclaim Good News to all the world.

Because the world has had its full share of bad news, as we all know. The pandemic—and this is something we can all agree on no matter what our varying opinions might be otherwise—has been terribly hard on people.

Mental health issues have been exacerbated. I just read a study that found 20% of the US population report being depressed. Hotlines and emergency rooms have seen huge spikes of people with suicidal ideation.

And that is not to mention all the people who do not show up in ERs, but who simply have carried a load of stress and anguish across a spectrum of areas and issues: social isolation, economic hardship, loss of education, and the whole dismal litany of personal and communal tragedies we are all too well aware of.

So the world needs the Gospel. The world needs Good News. The world needs men and women who actually believe in Jesus Christ to be courageous enough to share our belief, and explain why it is that this belief gives us hope and light in difficult times.

It may not be a matter of standing on a street corner loudly declaiming, or cornering people to ask them “Have you found, Jesus, brother?” (My grandfather, a skeptical Scot, was asked this question once by a fervent relative, and his response was “I didn’t know he was lost.” Sardonic humor runs in my family, I guess…).

A directee of mine prays each morning for the Holy Spirit to show her this day who she is to speak to and what she is to say. Usually, it ends up being a simple word of encouragement or a friendly greeting, a small moment of personal connection—something simple like that.

But oh—what a long way that can go in a world where people draw away from each other in fear, where people leave their homes heads down, fixed on getting their errands done and getting back home without having to engage anyone. A world where fear of the other—any other!—is endemic in the pandemic.

Mark’s Gospel account extends to describing the disciples going out as being able to handle poison snakes and drink deadly potions (Mark 16: 18). I do not advise a strict literal reading of this verse. But surely, it means something. The Lord does not say things without meaning.

I think it means we are not meant to have an over-riding and all-encompassing concern for our constant physical safety in this world. On the other hand, we are not meant to be reckless, heedless risk-takers, especially if it is not only our lives but the lives of others we are risking.

But I do think we are to have a certain physical courage as we go out to the world. I realize the question of going out as opposed to staying in is a “can of worms question” requiring much careful discernment of spirits, and each person may come to a different answer for him or her self in it.

But our attitude as Christians cannot be, it seems to me, that we have to wait until there is no risk whatsoever of harm before we can reach out in love, kindness, mercy, and zeal to make Christ known to our poor battered world, our poor battered neighbors, friends, co-workers, and random strangers we meet along the way.

No—there is not and never has been a world without physical danger, and to be a Christian exercising the mission of the Church, the mission of Christ, will always push us at least a bit beyond our sense of absolute physical safety.

Christ’s ascension into heaven, besides ushering in the era of Christian mission and evangelical zeal, is also a constant reminder to us that the end of our lives is not to live to a ripe old age in physical health and comfort. It is heaven that awaits us, and it is Jesus, who has gone before us, who makes it so.

In the meantime, from my writing perch in March it does look like some sort of global “reopening for business” is looming on the imminent horizon.

Whether that be the case or not, let the feast of the Ascension remind us all of what our true business is—the proclamation of the Good News to a world that has never, perhaps, needed to hear it more, and perhaps may have a new openness to hear it again after this year of suffering and loss.

And let us all be courageous in the Spirit in answering the call of Christ to that mission.