Breath of the Spirit Reflection: You Have Been Sent
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May 16th, 2021: The Solemnity of the Ascension
(Some dioceses may opt for the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter instead. You can find those readings here.)
Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
Reflection by Jon Schum
In my home diocese where I grew up and later served as a diocesan priest, with every autumn came Mission Sunday. Missionaries from all over would preach the Sunday sermon which was usually laced with anecdotes from the mission field. Still an annual observance, it is now called World Mission Sunday.
Out of the many I heard, one memorable message stands out. An Oblate priest detailed how he and his colleagues in Brazil were establishing base Christian communities (small faith-based communities) to apply gospel principles to social justice. This was a visionary movement at the time. Imagine! Inviting neighbors to gather outside of Sunday worship to break open God’s word and to imagine the power of that Word released in their midst. Everyone a hearer of the word. Everyone a bearer of the word.
“Go into the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation,” Jesus instructs us in today’s gospel. Today, the Solemnity of the Ascension of Christ, is unambiguously “Mission Sunday.”
All three synoptic gospels record the Ascension event, but the original ending of the Gospel of Mark seems to have been lost, ending at 16:8, where it was reported the women at the empty tomb fled out of fear and kept silent. This was found to be inaccurate and deficient, so the passage we read today includes a later addition (yet still inspired) that includes the commissioning of the disciples and the completion of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As the exalted Jesus is taken up into heaven, the ministry is handed over to the disciples, who would confirm the message “through the signs which accompanied them.”
The Lucan account of the Ascension in the first chapter of Acts of the Apostles embellishes a briefer account at the end of the third gospel. Over the course of forty days the disciples had been in conversation with Jesus who promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit. They’d like to know Jesus’ timetable. Is the restoration of Israel imminent? Jesus tells them to wait for what God has promised. They will be witnesses to the ends of the earth.
However, the liturgy of the Ascension is overall less focused on the historical event itself, and more centered on its theological and spiritual implications. To this end, the second reading from the letter to the Ephesians, which is a series of intercessions, offers an exalted view of the Risen Christ and the “surpassing greatness of Christ’s power for us who believe.” The author of this letter prays that God may “give (us) a spirit of wisdom and revelation and a rich knowledge of the Creator. May God enlighten the “eyes of (our) hearts” so that (we) can see the hope which this call holds for (us)…and how infinitely great is the power exercised for (us) who believe.”
There’s a lot to unpack here! But note: these wonderous gifts have already been bestowed! It is left to us to embrace them. Knowledge of God in biblical use is not about conceptual clarity but demands relationship and is embodied in a desire for communion with God, with the neighbor, and with all of God’s creation. This knowledge is grasped through the “eyes of our hearts.”
The author goes on to position the Eternal Word, incarnate in Christ, as seated high in the heavens far above every earthly and spiritual power, now, and in every age, with an all-embracing fullness that extends throughout the universe. These mysteries are timeless in their cosmic expanse. No earthly power, no political power, no churchly power can claim preeminence. The mission extends to all creation; that includes the planet we call home.
Many Dignity members remember the shared convocation with the Global Coalition of Rainbow Catholics at our Chicago conference in 2019. The stories we heard from our global partners opened the eyes of our hearts: stories of faith and courage and persistence in the face of menacing political, social, and religious oppression. Witnesses to the ends of the earth. Our gathering became an affirmation of our common bond and our shared vision.
This Sunday-in-mission calls us to go into the world and proclaim the good news to all creation. Gazing at the clouds is a fine pastime but we realize there’s work waiting to be done! As communities centered on God’s living word, we commit to love made visible through service and to justice restored through witness. We should not underestimate God’s intention that even our most humble and meager efforts to live the mission entrusted to us are imbued with the fullness and grace of the One who is exalted.
Years ago, congregations were dismissed from mass with the words "Ite, missa est" (literally "Go, — YOU — are sent"). From "Missa" came the word mass, and a connection to the Latin word "missio," the root of the English word "mission." The liturgy does not simply come to an end. Those assembled are sent forth in mission to bring the charisms of the eucharist to the world. Every eucharist ends with a dismissal, a sending forth. As you hear these words, count yourself among those sent. Everyone a hearer of the word. Everyone a bearer of the word.
Jon Schum and his husband Ron Lacro are longtime Dignity Boston members. Jon has served on its board and liturgy committee and is one of the chapter's ordained presiders. For many years he supervised and provided arts-based therapeutic programming for an elder services agency in Boston. He is currently a co-facilitator of the Aging with Dignity caucus.