Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Worship and Mission

Ascension of the Lord

If you were part of an organisation from the very beginning and present at the death or retirement of the person who began it all, undoubtedly you would pay very close attention to his final remarks since they would give you a clue as to his deepest hopes and aspirations for that group.  This was very much the situation with the Apostles as they witnessed the ascension of Our Lord.  Having walked with the Lord for three years and having shared in His joys and in His sorrows at the most profound level, they now heard Him take His leave of them and this earth – commissioning them to be His witnesses unto the very ends of the earth.

The most familiar parting words of our Lord in the gospels seem to have come at the end of the Gospel of St Matthew, which many Christians call, the Great Commission. The interesting thing about that passage, read during the Year A Cycle of Lectionary Readings, is that it makes no mention of the Ascension at all. The Ascension is merely implied due to its choice as the gospel reading for the feast day but also because of the immediate association of the Ascension with the end of our Lord’s earthly presence and ministry. But the most lucid description and presentation of this event comes from St Luke, in both the Acts of the Apostles, which we had just heard in the first reading, as well as in a more summary way, in his gospel.

For St Luke, the Ascension was a significant moment in the disciples’ personal transformation and in the advance of the gospel through the Church. The Ascension also marks a critical turning point, the passing of the Lord’s message and mission to His disciples. Luke emphasised the importance of this event by ending his Gospel with this event and beginning his second volume, Acts, with it. It is significant that St Luke tells the story of the ascension twice. Each narration brings out a different aspect of the truth but the theme of witnessing seems to bind both Lucan accounts. In the Acts account, just before He ascends, the Lord promises His Apostles, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.” Similarly in the gospel, having reiterated the kerygma, the kernel of the Christian faith, that “Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,” the Lord gives them this commission: “In His name repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this.” In other words, when Christ ascended, He left with the intention that the Church takes up where He left off.

The Acts version of the event also paints a rather comical scene. The disciples are standing there, first looking at the Lord ascending and then continue staring at the clouds. They are then shaken out of their stupor by the question posed by two men in white, presumably angels: “Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky?” The question could actually be paraphrased, “Do you not have something better to do than to stand here and gawk?”

And here lies one of the greatest challenges to Catholics – our inertia to engage in mission. We seem to be transfixed firmly in our churches but feel no need or urgency to reach out. We Catholics have been “indoctrinated” to attend mass every Sunday and on holy days of obligation. The Liturgy is supposed to be the “source and summit of the Christian life.” Yes, worship is our primary activity, as witnessed by the Apostles at the end of today’s gospel. But what about mission? Most Catholics think that mission is confined to religious and priests being sent off to foreign lands? Some Christians also think it boils down to a choice: worship or service, contemplation or engagement? Let’s be clear. This is a false dichotomy. It’s never a choice. Both worship and mission are part of the life of a Christian. They feed each other.

The Ascension reminds us that the Church is an institution defined by mission. Today all institutions have a statement of mission; but to say the Church is defined by mission is to say something more. The church is not an institution with a mission, but a mission with an institution. The church exists for mission. To be sent, is the church's raison d'ĂȘtre, so when it ceases to be sent, it ceases to be the Church. When the Church is removed from its mission, she ends up becoming a fortress or a museum. She keeps things safe and predictable and there is a need for this – we need to be protected from the dangers of the world and from sin. But if her role is merely “protective” she leaves many within her fold feeling stranded in a no man's land between an institution that seems out of touch and a complex world they feel called to understand and influence.

On the other hand, the Church cannot only be defined by her mission alone, but also by her call to worship the One who has sent her on this mission. If this was not the case, she would be no better than a NGO. But the Church of the Ascension is simultaneously drawn upward in worship, and pushed outward in mission. These are not opposing movements and the Ascension forbids such a dichotomy. The Church does not have to choose whether it will be defined by the depth of its liturgy or prayer life, or its faithfulness and fervor in mission. Both acts flow from the single reality of Ascension. Both have integrity only in that they are connected to one another. At the end of every mass, the priest dismisses the faithful with one of these formulas, “Go forth, the Mass is ended!” “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord!” etc. Mission is at the core of each of these formulas. The Sacrifice of the Mass is directed and geared towards this purpose – the continuation of the mission of Christ. The Eucharistic Lord invites us, He commands us, to share in His mission, and to preach the gospel everywhere. The Eucharist is a reminder that the Ascension does not mean that Jesus is gone. Rather, it means He is now present to each and every person who turns to Him and surrenders his or her life to His mission.

If worship is the beginning of mission, then mission too must find its ultimate conclusion in worship – for the liturgy is the “source and summit of the Christian life” as taught by the Second Vatican Council. Worship must be at the heart and the soul of mission. This is beautifully depicted in the Novgorod school's icon of the Ascension. The apostles are excited and ready to carry out the mission entrusted to them by the two angels at the scene of the Ascension. And yet, the Blessed Virgin Mother stands serenely in the middle of this icon, with her hands raised in the traditional gesture of prayer (orans). She seems to be the sturdy anchor that holds them rooted to the Ascension event, reminding them that their mission must always be anchored in Christ through prayer. So, the more authentically missional a church becomes, the more profound will be its life of worship since mission always ends in worship. Together, the church's life of mission and worship, enact and bear witness on earth, to what is already true in heaven.

Those first Apostles took seriously our Lord’s command that they preach the Gospel to all nations, and the fact that we are Christians here today centuries later and thousands of miles away from the birth of Christianity is positive proof of how seriously they heeded His command.  From its very origins, then, the Church has had an outward, missionary thrust.  The work Christ began here on earth, He has now transferred to us to continue.  If we have truly caught on to the message of the risen and ascended Christ, we should not just stand here looking up into the skies waiting for an answer. We are called to get going and do the job our Lord has given us to do, never forgetting that we must be connected to Him through our worship and prayer.  With the help of the promised Holy Spirit, you will be His faithful witnesses “not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth.”

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