By Rev. Anthony D. Andreassi, C.O. Principal
Whenever anyone asks me how things are going at Regis in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I always say that I believe our community is doing well — maybe even very well. This is the case for many reasons, most especially because of the hard work, the good will, the flexibility, and the creativity of teachers and students alike. But even with this recognition of graces received and success in the face of these challenges and suffering, certainly things have not been the same. All of us ache deeply in the physical absence we feel from one another. While learning and engagement can and do happen virtually, we as human beings are made of flesh and blood and are meant to be physically near to each other to deepen the bonds of connection and communion.
With that in mind, we may find ourselves similar to Christ’s first followers in the time between His death and resurrection. Because of all the stressors and strains of our isolation and disconnectedness from each other, we, like them, have to negotiate complicated feelings of presence and absence in our experience with one another, but also in our experience and our faith in our relationship with God.
The events of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven are only recounted in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:6-12). The Gospel of Matthew (MT 28:16-20) doesn’t actually mention the Ascension but rather tells us about the risen Jesus commissioning His disciples and promising to remain with them always — to be present with and through them always. There is a deep connection between this story and Christ’s return to His Father in heaven. Matthew tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus they worshipped, but they doubted. What is it that they doubted? They don’t seem to doubt Christ since it says that they worshipped him. Perhaps maybe they doubted their own capacity to carry out the mission Jesus was giving them?
It is after all a very daunting task. Jesus tells them to go make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. He doesn’t say go forth and make disciples of some nations, and he doesn’t say teach them to observe some of the things I commanded you to do. In both cases, Jesus says all. That’s a pretty tall order. No wonder they doubted. No wonder we too sometimes doubt we can do all that God is asking us as His Son’s followers, especially in these very challenging times when it’s even harder to be faithful to the gifts we’ve been given and to the good work we’ve been asked to do.
But the commission to make disciples of all nations and to teach them to observe all that Jesus had commanded them is also matched with two other all’s — two other absolutes of Jesus: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and “I am with you always until the end of the age.” As if in answer to the disciples’ doubts, Jesus reassures them — as He does for us too — that He had been given all power and that He would be with them and with us until the end of the age.
It is in this second pair of all’s that I think we find the true meaning of the Ascension. If we think about this feast as simply that Jesus went to live somewhere up there in heaven, then it might seem that the Ascension places Jesus at a greater distance from us. But there is another way to look at it.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called the Ascension “the beginning of a new nearness.” Now Jesus, in all His humanity, is present to us at all times and places, just as the eternal Father is. The Ascension tells us that He is now as near to us in His human reality as He was to His disciples two millennia ago. Indeed He is in some sense nearer to us. And if He is with us in this new nearness, then we need not doubt that He will give us the grace and strength to fulfill the mission that He has asked us to do. Like those first disciples, we too worship, and sometimes we doubt. But this Feast of the Ascension calls us to put aside those doubts and believe that the One who fills all things in every way is present to us now in a new nearness — even until the end of the ages.
This article was adapted from a homily Fr. Andreassi delivered while celebrating a virtual Mass for the Feast of the Ascension from the Regis chapel.