21 May – The Ascension of the Lord
The Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, also called Ascension Day, Ascension Thursday, or sometimes Holy Thursday, commemorates the Christian belief of the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. It is one of the ecumenical (i.e., universally celebrated) feasts of Christian churches, ranking with the feasts of the Passion, of Easter, and Pentecost. Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter (following the accounts given in Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:2), although some Christian denominations have moved the observance to the following Sunday.
“It is not for you to know the times or the dates…”
I was sitting in front of the life-sized statue of our Lady of Grace, which stands in the courtyard at the front of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary one evening, very much alone with my thoughts and reflections. The church is currently undergoing massive renovation and restoration works. Being the second oldest parish in Singapore and all of 180 years old, the church was in dire need of repairs. Huge cracks on the walls, broken tiles on the floor, rickety wooden rafters, peeling paintwork, statues missing fingers and toes, its supporting Romanesque columns with deep holes from all those years of exposure to human abuse and the humidity. For us parishioners, there are absolutely no qualms nor doubts that our dear ‘Grand Old Lady’ badly needed some down time to recuperate and recover.
It was evening and, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, things were pretty quiet. I was pretty much alone there. Then the church bells suddenly rang. It was the usual chimes before the 6pm weekday Mass. As the bells chimed, I recall the feeling I had — it was such a moment of irony. Masses were suspended. The flock was ‘dispersed’. Confessions were held in abeyance. All was quiet; it was a ghost town. But the bells continued to chime – as if to say, I am still here!
Even the church was boarded up for construction work and huge tarpaulins were draped over the external façade of the church. For all intents and purposes, the church was ‘no more’. It seemed God had found the only spot left on planet earth that was not locked down, and had secretly gone for a long vacation. It reminded me of the story of when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, there was seen a great stream of light that emanated from the Great Basilica, rising upwards and disappearing into heaven – as if God had decided to abandon ship just before the final victorious assault by the Ottomans. This seems to be the case for Italy especially.
On the outside, the COVID-19 world seemed desolate, forlorn, desperate, frightful and broken beyond repair; but inside the Church, there was life. Inside the church, behind the Mass suspensions and the boarded-up fencing, life was still happening. Restoration, renewal, repair — everything was happening. Inside, work was continuing. Work to bring about a time of reconciliation, of new life, of new beginnings. Foundations were being re-established, pillars were being strengthened, paintwork refreshed, wooden structures — no longer salvageable, being torn down — are being rebuilt anew, fingers and toes being lovingly ‘mended and healed’. This is a time of divine fallow – a time of intended emptiness, of divine quiet, of rest, of withdrawal and of loving chastisement. Leading ultimately to new beginnings, new life and new faith. It is a time when the Ascension is not an abandonment of the Lord, but the time in-between His leaving and the coming forth of the Almighty Spirit that will bring the almighty grace of God, to renew the face of the earth. COVID-19, whether we like it or not, is renewing the face of the earth. Painfully but irrepressibly.
Then my gaze turned to the statue of Our Blessed Mother standing there, ever stoically, ever silently but ever faithfully and dependably. As she did at the foot of the cross, of her Son crucified. Her loving arms ever outstretched before her, ever inviting, welcoming and embracing her children. She continues to stand, not locked up in church, but outside the church, with the rest of us. She too, like her Son, continues to long and pine for her children. Her tired, lost, sick, sinful, dying and struggling children. She knows our desperation. She carries them to her Son. She is not above it, nor outside of it, nor immune from it, but in the very midst of it. A Mother feeling every iota of pain her children are going through.
And I realized that in the midst of everything, the bells were still chiming … and God was still very much present with us. He did not go on vacation. He chose to self-quarantine with us. Why? Because He knows how much we need Him, especially at our darkest moments. Him alone, to see us through. The bells are still chiming, and still calling us to faith. To believe.
(Today’s OXYGEN by Justus Teo)
Prayer: Father help us. All seems so dark and hopeless. We are all so lost and frightened and confused. Our world has turned upside down and we seem to be in a roller-coaster ride but with tracks that end half-way. Help us Father, we are all going to die.
Thanksgiving: Father, thank you for not leaving us to fend for ourselves. For being ever present with us and for staying close to us. For being our light, our courage, our hope.