8 minutes reading time (1626 words)

Homily - Ascension - Bishop McKeown

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Sunday, 16 May 2021

This is the day for which Jesus had been preparing his disciples. For three years, they had walked in his footsteps, trusting that he could handle everything. He did that, even after Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But now he was leaving them, and they were going to have to grow up. That meant trusting that he was still with them in a new way. What might we learn about how we are Church today?

Firstly, the experience of the apostles reflects much of where we are as Church. We have to love our concrete life on the earth – and yet believe that the invisible Jesus is active in the midst of all that is happening.

There is a temptation to globalise superficiality believing that the only thing that is important is what we can see - and what makes me feel good here and now. But that shrivels our ability to imagine and throttles our creativity. Thus, when we look around modern culture, I find little art or music or literature that is beautiful and elevating. There is little that will stand the test of time. Much of the anger and addiction of today is connected with a culture which is dominated by cheap slogans and simplistic tweets. A banal narrative crushes hope out of people.

But the human spirit craves better than this. And Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father, calling us to break the choking limits of the banal and the temporary. Thus, St Paul in our second reading talks of Jesus' departure, not as abandonment but as inspiration to share the divine life. Our churches, our liturgy, our prayer and pilgrimages are all ways in which we can allow God's grace to burst the stranglehold in which secularism wants to hold us. We all know that thrill of love or a new life or an amazing scene. Jesus wants to offer us glimpses of the divine. He invites us to regular prayer so that our hearts can be nourished as they dare to rebel against the belief that life is only a joke, signifying nothing. Our weekly gathering for Mass is not a duty that limits our freedom. It is an act of rebellion against all that would trap us in the belief that – to quote Henry Ford – life is just one damned thing after another. The great art and literature of the world portray journeys of discovery and growth. There are few inspiring tales of healing by bling and retail therapy!

Secondly, in the story of the Ascension, the angels tell the apostles to not stand there looking up into the sky. The Ascension challenges the disciples to venture into the unknown, trusting in God – so that they can be open to an eternal unknown where Jesus is Lord. Following Jesus is an opportunity to expand our souls and our horizons. That is why we can be inspired by stories of saintly people. They knew that following Jesus ought to come with a health warning.So many people are fascinated by the Little Way of St Therese who entered a contemplative convent aged 16 and died at 24. Or Blessed Carlo Acutis who faced terminal cancer aged 15. Or Sr Clare Crockett whose amazing story has touched so many. They all showed us that being alive is much more than merely surviving, for it springs from a love that is greater than death. We are blessed by the stories of people who have faced challenges and distress rather than assuming that I should be protected from all pain or discomfort. There is the temptation for us to domesticate faith in Jesus, cutting out any unpopular thought of self-sacrificing heroism. Once we have tamed the message of Jesus, there is little space for radical gestures such as martyrdom, chastity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus did not offer cheap grace for everyone here, nor heaven as a celestial retirement home. The lives of the saints call us to graced greatness. Belief in Jesus, ascended to the Father's side, is demanding. It would be a terrible mistake to offer a safe and easier version of Christianity in order to keep up membership. History shows that the Church is renewed by heroic saintly, figures – and not by marketing a banal watered-down version of the Cross.

Thirdly, Jesus does not just console the disciples as he leaves. He sends them out on mission. That mission is not merely to make converts or force people into believing and joining our tribe so as to make us strong and numerous. Jesus frames their mission in the context of fighting the power of the devil that wants to enslave people. By his Resurrection, Jesus has shown that death can be defeated. In his name liberation is to be proclaimed. All that damages and oppresses people can be defeated. We all know people who are imprisoned by addictions, guilt and other forces. Jesus wants them to be freed. He tells his disciples to go out and proclaim liberation to them. Because Jesus is ascending to heaven, he tells us that we have to carry on his ministry of healing. The great religious heroes of the Church were not so much concerned about their own private salvation as about the salvation of the world. From within her enclosed convent, St Therese was a patroness of the missions. All believers are called to proclaim the Good News to all creation.

At this time in our Church's history, we experience much criticism and uncertainty about the future. Today's feast deals with the two temptations that probably plagued the apostles then, and still affect us now. On the one hand, we can be tempted to believe – as Jesus says – that we have discovered dates and times that God the Father has decided. That mindset wishes defeat for those who disagree with us. On the other hand, we can seek a version of the Jesus story that will not arouse too much criticism or opposition. But the Ascension challenges us to a mission of proclaiming grace in the face of all that scars human life – and doing so in way that is not afraid of the price we may have to pay. Our way of life is meant to be a witness to Jesus and his ministry of mercy. Today, we are invited to be aware of the huge challenges that face us – and to pray for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as we prepare to celebrate Pentecost. The lives of the saints have shown us just what God's grace can do in ordinary lives. Because they believed in Christ's glory in heaven, they were prepared to give their all for the mission. Because Christ is head of the church, he can do great things in our day. In prayer and the sacraments, we enter into the mystery of Christ's mission. The world is still waiting for his grace and healing.


+ Donal McKeown


World Communications Day

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The 55th World Communications Day is celebrated on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, which in 2021 falls on Sunday, 16 May.

The text of the World Communications Day message is published each year on 24 January on the Feast of Saint Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists and editors.

"We do not know the truth if we do not experience it, if we do not meet people, if we do not participate in their joys and sorrows. The old saying "God meets you where you are" can be a guide for those engaged in media or communications work in the Church. In the call of the first disciples, with Jesus who went to encounter them and to invite them to follow Him, we also see the invitation to use all media, in all their forms, to reach people as they are and where they live."

Read Pope Francis' full message here


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