Sunday, May 24, is the Ascension of the Lord (Boston; Hartford, Connecticut; New York; Newark, New Jersey; Philadelphia; and the state of Nebraska’s dioceses celebrate Ascension Thursday three days earlier). Mass readings: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47: 2-3, 6-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20.
An old college friend recently asked me, in a semi-joking fashion, if I thought that the coronavirus pandemic was a sign of the end times. In the course of our conversation, he explained that there is quite an online community of Christian alarmists, according to whom the coronavirus qualifies as the first of four final plagues to be visited on the Earth. Later, as I reflected on this exchange, I thought of the unrest caused by the Mayan calendar several years ago, when some people predicted that the end of the world would coincide with its terminal date: Dec. 21, 2012. I also thought about the 1993 standoff in Waco, Texas, where a group of Branch Davidians, believing the apocalypse was immanent, clashed with the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In short, it occurred to me that such prognostications about the end of the world are neither new nor rare.
Whatever else might be said of this impulse to predict the end of the world, it is certain that Our Lord has a ready response to it in today’s first reading. When the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” he answers by saying that “it is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established” (Acts 1:6-7). It is reminiscent of that moment in the Gospel of Matthew when he admonishes his disciples to remain vigilant since they know neither the day nor the hour that the Lord will come (Matthew 25:13). Jesus emphasizes vigilance to his disciples to prepare them to embark on their mission in the world: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Rather than prognosticate about the time of the coming of the heavenly kingdom, they are to focus on their mission: to witness to Jesus Christ by preaching the word of truth and living it in their daily lives.
It is also clear from this exchange that the disciples are to focus on their mission specifically by awaiting the Holy Spirit. In fact, they can do nothing by their own power to complete their mission successfully; rather, they must rely on the power (dunamis) the Holy Spirit will give them. Further, the nature of this power will be immediately demonstrated in their works (Acts 2): They will be able to heal the sick, cast out demons, and speak the truth elegantly and forcefully to the nations in many tongues.
Although Christ promised his apostles that he would send them the Spirit, they still must have felt some uncertainty in the time between the Lord’s departure and their reception of the Holy Spirit, especially considering that they continued to be persecuted by the Jerusalem authorities. Yet, accompanying this uncertainty was an opportunity; in these uneasy days awaiting the Holy Spirit, they were able to contemplate all that had happened, thereby allowing the Resurrection appearances to “sink in.” The time of waiting in Jerusalem thus disposed the apostles to receive the Spirit with open minds and hearts.
In our liturgical celebration of these saving mysteries, we, like the apostles, observe the Easter season as a period of time that allows the significance of the resurrection of the Lord to “sink in.” Like the apostles, we are asked to open our minds and hearts to receive the Holy Spirit more deeply at Pentecost so that we can focus more intently on our mission of spreading the saving truth of the Gospel by our words and deeds. And if we focus on that with all our minds and hearts, neither the day nor the hour will matter.
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor in sacred
Scripture at the Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.