Thursday, May 21, 2020

How Dealing with COVID-19 Can Help Us to Understand the Ascension of Jesus

(Ascension Thursday 2020: This homily was given on May 21, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 1:1-14; Psalm 47:2-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ascension Thursday 2020]

There have been many changes in our lives in the last 8 weeks or so.  I know I don’t need to remind you of that.  Some of the changes, thankfully, have been good.  Some people, for example, have reached out to their elderly neighbors and friends for the first time—in order to give them the special help they’ve needed in this crisis.  Some of you volunteered to help the sick and elderly in our parish.  Many of our so-called “first responders” have risked their own health and sometimes their own lives to take care of those with the coronavirus.  Changes like these are positive.

But an awful lot of the changes we’ve experienced have not been good—or pleasant.  For example, we’ve all had to find different ways to communicate with family and friends.  We’re not able to be physically with some of them—and when we do get together we’re not able to touch them by giving them a hug or even a handshake.  Many of us have had to change the way we eat and the way we socialize.  I don’t know about you, but Fr. Najim and I haven’t been very happy about that.  Both of us enjoy going out to eat.

The young people among us have had to deal with changes in their education experience: everything online; no sports; “virtual” graduation ceremonies. 

There have even been changes in our experience of Mass.  Watching it on YouTube or Facebook is nice when you have no alternative—but we certainly don’t want this to be a permanent change.  And obviously, the ability of people to receive the Holy Eucharist has been taken away.  That’s the biggest reason we want to get back to church as soon as possible.  Although I will say that one of the good things that has come from this last change (the stopping of Masses in church) is that many Catholics are appreciating the Holy Eucharist more than they ever have in the past!  Before the lockdown they took the Blessed Sacrament for granted—but not anymore. 

Praise God for that!

Now why do I say all this today?  Why do I mention all these unpleasant changes that we’ve experienced in the last 8 weeks or so?  What’s the point?

Well, I assure you, the point is not to make you more depressed!  I would never intentionally do that—especially if you’re one of the millions of people who’ve lost their jobs in this mess.

I mention all these unpleasant changes, because, believe it or not, they’re some of the very same changes the Apostles had to deal with after the Ascension of Jesus into heaven 2,000 years ago—which means that our experience in the last 8 weeks can actually help us to better understand the feast we’re celebrating in the Church today.

For these 11 Apostles, the Ascension had to be a bittersweet event.  Yes, Jesus had completed the mission he had been given: the mission to redeem the human race and reconcile the world to the heavenly Father.  He had completed the mission perfectly.  Now he ascended into heaven to take his seat at the Father’s right hand in his kingdom.

The Apostles would have been happy about that.

But Jesus, in addition to being the Apostles’ Savior was also their teacher, their guide, their leader—their friend.  And yes, he would still be with them (he said in today’s gospel that he would always be with them)—but in a very different way than he had been with them during the previous 3 years.

And they had to deal with that absence!

I mentioned earlier that during the coronavirus lockdown we’ve all had to find different ways to communicate with our family and friends.  Well, the Apostles faced that same challenge with respect to Jesus after his Ascension.  Because Jesus was no longer walking around on planet earth with his human body, his family and friends could no longer touch his hand or arm or give him a hug.  Those loving gestures were no longer possible.  They had to find a new way to convey their love to the Lord.

Nor could they eat with him—something they had done every day for the previous 3 years.  Like us in dealing with this virus, the Apostles had to change their eating habits. 

As for education, whenever the Apostles had a question that was troubling them during our Lord’s ministry, all they needed to do was walk up to him and ask him (“Lord, where can we get enough food to feed all these people?”  “Lord, why couldn’t we cast out that demon?” “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of everlasting life!)  But they couldn’t ask Jesus in the same way anymore.

Even Mass changed for them.  Jesus said the first Mass himself—at the Last Supper, where he took bread and wine and changed them into his Body and Blood.

Well, from now on, if the Apostles wanted to receive the Eucharist, they would have to consecrate it themselves.  Jesus, of course, had given the power to do that in his name at the Last Supper.  But they had to utilize that power if they wanted to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood in the future.  They had to be the Lord’s instruments.

So, how did they deal with all this?  What did the 11 Apostles do to deal with all the changes they experienced after the Ascension of Jesus?

Well, one of the things we know they did was make a novena—the very first novena in Christian history!  As most of us know, a novena is 9 days of prayer for a special intention.  Well the Bible tells us that for the 9 days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, the Apostles were gathered in prayer with Mary and some other disciples in the Upper Room, no doubt asking Jesus to send the special “gift” that he had promised to send them (the gift, of course, was the Holy Spirit).  And so, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they eventually dealt successfully with the radical changes that came into their lives after the Ascension. The Spirit was the difference.

That same Holy Spirit will help us to deal with the changes that have come to us in this coronavirus pandemic—and all the other changes we face in our lives.  That having been said, I invite you to make a novena to the Holy Spirit this year, beginning today.  I found a beautiful novena prayer online recently and I urge you to say it every day until Pentecost Sunday.  I’ll ask Fr. Najim to send it to you via Flocknotes.  I’ll conclude by saying it in my own name, and in the name of everyone watching this Mass who wants to participate in the novena (so we’ll all have the first day covered!).

Let us pray.
Holy Spirit, third Person of the Blessed Trinity, Spirit of truth, love and holiness, proceeding from the Father and the Son, and equal to Them in all things, I adore You and love You with all my heart. Dearest Holy Spirit, confiding in your deep, personal love for me, I am making this novena for the following request, if it should be Your holy Will to grant it: (mention your request). Teach me, Divine Spirit, to know and seek my last end; grant me the holy fear of God; grant me true contrition and patience. Do not let me fall into sin. Give me an increase of faith, hope, and charity, and bring forth in my soul all the virtues proper to my state of life. Make me a faithful disciple of Jesus and an obedient child of the Church. Give me efficacious grace sufficient to keep the commandments and to receive the sacraments worthily. Give me the four Cardinal Virtues, Your Seven Gifts, Your Twelve Fruits. Raise me to perfection in the state of life to which You have called me and lead me through a happy death to everlasting life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.