by Father Mike Stubbs
Context is everything. Even though, in the Catholic Church throughout the world, we celebrate the feast of the Ascension this Sunday, our country also observes Mother’s Day at the same time.
That puts a twist on everything that we say and do on that day. It also makes things very complicated for the priests celebrating Mass. The liturgy will have to take place in context of Mother’s Day. And context is everything.
On Sunday, we hear the narrative from Mark’s Gospel describing Jesus’ ascension, Mk 16:15-20. It comes from that portion of the Gospel called “The Longer Ending.”
To understand the Gospel reading, it is useful to look at the verses immediately preceding it, which describe the first Easter Sunday. They form part of its context:
“When [the disciples] heard that he (Jesus) was alive and had been seen by [Mary Magdalene], they did not believe.
“After this he appeared in another form to two of them walking along their way to the country. They returned and told the others; but they did not believe them either.
“Later, as the eleven were at table, he appeared to them and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw him after he had been raised” (Mk 16:11-14).
The Gospel text repeatedly stresses the fact that the disciples have failed to believe. It is in light of their unbelief that Jesus issues the commission to the disciples to spread the Gospel.
As part of that commission, he tells them: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
This warning about unbelief sets a standard for those who will hear the disciples’ message. It is a matter of life and death for them.
At the same time, it poses a challenge to the disciples themselves, who have so recently let Jesus down by their unbelief in Jesus’ resurrection. Their unbelief forms part of the context for the Gospel reading.
We, also, by means of the Gospel reading, hear the same challenge to believe. Even though Jesus has ascended into heaven and is no longer visibly present among us, we also are called to believe that he is risen from the dead and is alive and well.
Once again, it is a matter of life and death, salvation or damnation. It has drastic consequences for us.