Solemnity of Ascension A
Sunday 21st May 2023
The Gospel Paraphrased
There are many fine translations of the Gospels readily available. This paraphrase is not meant to replace them. Rather the intention here is to offer a more contemporary rendering so that you can imaginatively translate the Gospel in your own situation.
This Sunday's Gospel Paraphrased
Mt 28: 16-20
The disciples went to the mountain in Galilee where Jesus had told them he would meet them. Seeing him, they were astounded. Some fell down and worshipped him, others were confused and didn’t know what to do. But Jesus came up to them, welcoming them all. He then said, ‘All authority, both in heaven and on earth, has been given to me. So now, you go and make disciples of all the nations. Baptise them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to listen to and fulfil all that I have commanded you. Be reassured, be confident, for I am with you always, yes, even to the end of the world.’
The Psalms are the ancient prayers of the Jewish people, here paraphrased into contemporary language.
This Sunday's Psalm
All nations clap and shout!
Shout to God with joyful cries.
How awesome is God, the most high,
Great king over all the earth.
God ascends with joyful shouts,
God in the midst of the trumpets.
Oh sing praises to God, sing, sing praise,
praise to our King!
God – king of all the earth,
sing, a psalm of praise.
God reigns over the nations,
God on the throne of holiness.
Words cannot contain our desire for God but they help direct our minds and hearts towards God's love and express our needs.
This Sunday's Prayer
God our Father, your Son Jesus promised to be with us through all the circumstances of life. He also called us to share in his mission of bringing your peace and love to our world. Send us your Spirit that we may truly witness to the fullness of life you offer in Jesus Christ our Risen and Glorious Lord.
The Commentaries Summarised
As a Church we are in a web of wisdom that comes to us both from tradition and contemporary writers. This section offers a summary of some commentaries on the Gospel. Also below is a list of the books and articles that have been consulted in compiling this Sunday's "Pray As You Can" and which could be used for further reading.
This Sunday's Commentary
This Sunday’s Gospel reading is the conclusion to the Gospel of Matthew – and what a conclusion it is to the Gospel as a whole. It seems such a simple piece of writing and yet it draws together so many of the major themes of the Gospel.
The symbolism of the mountain in Galilee recalls both the mount of temptation and the mount of transfiguration thus pointing both to the weakness of our humanity that Jesus embraced and confirming the glory of his divinity.
The disciples who come to met Jesus are drawn to worship yet they hesitate. Is this because they recognise that they have failed their Lord at the time of his passion and death? Is it because they still do not understand who he truly is? Is it because of disbelief? We do not know. What we do know is that this group of disciples is still the fragile, weak group that they had been. It is Jesus who approaches and welcomes them even in this weakness and fragility – the same Jesus who had come to gather the weak and lost.
Jesus has now come into his authority – an authority earned by obedience to the Father in the face of the hostility and violence. Holding that authority with gentleness and power, he charges this motley group of disciples with what is the most extraordinary commissions. They are to go out into the world. They are to make disciples. They are to baptise. They are to instruct those disciples into Jesus’ teaching. Each of these commissions reflects some aspect of Jesus’ own mission. He came out from the Father into the world. He made disciples. At his own baptism the Father and the Spirit confirm who he is. Finally, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is presented as the paramount teacher of humanity.
Normally when we see pictures of the Ascension, Jesus is withdrawing up, up and away from our world but the Ascension for Matthew is not a withdrawal away but rather a presence within the disciples leading them out into the world to fulfil his mission of salvation. That presence is within us, those commissions are given to us as well. How great is the mystery to which we are called!
Christian conversion is promoted by conversation. This section is a response to and a development on the knowledge gained from the commentary section.
This Sunday's Exposition
There is a strange sentence in this week’s Gospel – even its original meaning in the Greek is unclear. The sentence can mean that when the disciples saw Jesus, some worshipped and some hesitated/doubted. Or it can mean that the disciples both worshipped and doubted/hesitated at the same time. Or it can mean that these disciples worshipped while others, another separate group, hesitated. This is one of those occurrences which remind us that not everything in Scripture is clear. None of the commentators is certain just what Matthew meant.
One thing is clear though – the group that Jesus approached is mixed, or we could say ‘mixed-up’. There is worship and doubt in the group and yet it is to these people Jesus offers the Great Commission to fulfil his mission to the world. Throughout the Gospel, Matthew shows Jesus going to the Jewish people, offering the Good News of salvation. To a large extent, he was rejected by that people. Now this little remnant, the little mixed-up remnant is told to take his message to the world, modelling themselves on him.
The disciples were not been given a guide book, detailed instructions or even a catechism to tell them what to do. Rather they had witnessed, close at hand, a life radiant with love of God and of people. They have constantly been on the receiving end of that love embodied in Jesus. This was the calling given to them – to witness to that love and the source of their strength knowing that Jesus has promised to be with them till the end.
Our lives too are mixed. Confidence in God can exist in someone who worries about her security in the future. Conversely someone who is conscious of his lack of faith might actually be a radiant witness to that faith. Our ‘mixed-upness’ does not deter Jesus from giving us also his Great Commission – to make disciples and to baptise. Jesus is not deterred because he loves us within our weakness and can use it to manifest his presence and grace.
Reflection is an essential element of our growth in Christ. As we reflect over what we have learnt and ponder it in our hearts, we come to recognise the presence of God in our lives.
This Sunday's Reflection
Personally, I find this Gospel frightening. Jesus is clear, we are to make disciples of the nations and he has promised to be with us as we do this. How are we to do it? ‘Preaching to the masses’ as I’ve seen it done in the streets, or on the railway station, or even at our front door, does not appeal to me. In fact, I find it repulsive. Instead of doing that, we have been told that we witness, ‘preach’, by our example and that is our greatest influence. Yes, such quiet witness is important. I know many people whose witness impresses me greatly…but it doesn’t seem to produce many disciples. For me, personally, the argument for witnessing by example is a cop-out. I don’t know whether it is that I lack the courage or the knowledge about how to share my faith with people who are not already Christian. Making disciples for Christ is an important challenge facing Christians, but especially Catholics, in Western society. We have become so accustomed to worshipping within the huge Church that we are unsure about how to translate what is important about our faith into the language of the people of our society.
One step we may need to take is to push back on ourselves and ask: ‘What difference does my faith, my call to discipleship actually make to me?’ Each can only answer that for themselves. One important thing for me as a nun has been a call to celibacy. This call, while remaining a mystery even to me, does give me happiness and fulfilment. Similarly, but in a different way, I know married couples, who recognise that the success of their marriage is deeply rooted in their relationship with Christ. These callings are situations where we can see the difference faith makes. Seriously pondering just what the ‘treasure our faith’ is to us may be the beginning of being able to offer to those whom we met the richness of our faith.
Jesus, our ascendant Lord, has promised to be ‘with us’ in this venture of making disciples. We need to take that promise seriously and ask him to send us the Spirit that we may have the wisdom and courage to welcome others into the richness and joy of his love.
Looking at art works or movies is a great way to open ourselves to the meaning of the Gospels. Seeing can bypass our preconceived notions, giving us new vistas of enlightenment. With painting or sculpture one needs to sit quietly and absorb the dynamics of the piece. The drama of movies more easily engages us and offers a way to conversation about the Gospel with other members of your family.
This Sunday's Visual Meditation
The following pictures all show representations of Matthew’s final scene in the Gospel.
– The Jesus Mafa painting is particularly apt as it shows not Jesus departing but rather his disciples going out into the world to fulfil his commission.
– This woodcut by Johann Christoph Weigel is an illustration in an early printed bible.
– This is a wall sculpture is at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris
The purpose of mulling meditations is to offer a few ideas that one can mull about while doing other occupations. There are many things we do in our day that do not require our full attention - some things which are largely done on automatic pilot - like driving a car or peeling the potatoes. While we give these our attention, part of our mind is still at work mulling on other things and unless it is given something positive to feed on, we easily feed on negative thoughts. Personally I find mulling time the most likely time for God to get through to me. Because I am not so conscious of myself, God gets through the cracks and opens my heart to look at life differently.
Two practical times for mulling can be when exercising and when driving. Some small preparations for integrating such prayer into these exercises can be helpful.
As you do your preparatory stretches, pray the line of the Psalm "I praise you God for I am wonderfully made!"
Similarly when doing your concluding stretches use the prayer of St Clare "Praised be you, my God, for creating me!"
Have some music that you find helps you turn you mind and heart to God and play that for the first 10 minutes or so of your trip.
This Sunday's Mulling Meditation
Jesus has promised to be with us in all the circumstances of life.
As we go through this week mull on his presence.
Talk with him about the events of your life:
– your concerns,
– your joys,
– your challenges,
– the beauty around you.
As you go through the week, mull about what is rich and fulfilling about your faith and how it sustains your life. If you are going through a difficult or dark time, ask Jesus to enrich your understanding of the situation that may be causing this.
In the Letter of James, we are told that the Scriptures are like a mirror in which we can see ourselves. In this type of meditation we take a piece of Scripture, hold it before us and consider what echoes within our heart. These echoes help us to see who we are before God and how we are loved. What usually echoes in us are situations that we are dealing with in our lives. When something strikes us, we do not actively try to solve the situation or work it through. Rather we sit holding it in God's love. The point of such a meditation is to make space within the situation for God's love to be. In 'sitting with' such a situation, painful or sad, we come to recognise the love of God that is at work on our lives. The suggestions for Mirror reflections can also be used for Exercise reflections but wouldn't be advised for Driving Prayer as often some degree of emotion or distraction might rise in such prayer.
This Sunday's Mirror Meditation
The disciples were certainly a mixed-up lot. I can understand their confusion. Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth, told them to carry on his ministry, even after they had proved to be such failures at the time of this passion and death. That call is given to me and to each person reading this – no matter how weak or insecure we may be. In this week’s Mirror Meditation, we will imagine what could change in our lives if we took this call seriously.
Rest in the Love of your God.
When you are at rest, at ease in that love, consider the great love God has towards all people. God loves each of us as though we were the only one, the only precious one.
In the strange mystery of God’s call, we have been told to be witnesses to that love. What, in the way you have known God’s love, would you like to share with others about that love – if you had the courage or the wisdom. How has God’s love made you who you are? Consider the different ways that God has loved you and rest in each of them.
Now quietly, gently, imagine what you could say to another person about that love, if the opportunity arose. Imagine different words, different situations.
Then resting, in the love of God, ask the Holy Spirit to lead you and guide you in the coming week.