A reflection for the Ascension

Florence Merkl-Deutsch reflects on the readings for May 16, 2021.
Catholic Voices


Acts of the Apostles 1:1–11
Psalm 47:2–3, 6–7, 8–9 
Ephesians 1:17–23
Mark 16:15–20

Reflection: Gifts of the Spirit

A great joy in my work as a campus minister is preparing a student for confirmation. During a recent session with a senior, we discussed how we were feeling about current events, from the pandemic consuming almost half of his high school years to what it is like for him to be the son of a police officer in light of stories in the news. I asked him which gift of the Holy Spirit he could use the most right now. Without hesitation, he replied, Definitely wonder and awe. It’s all so overwhelming that it is hard to feel grounded, but I know I need God in my life.”

On this Solemnity of the Ascension, today’s reading from Acts of the Apostles quickly inserts us into the company of the apostles who, no doubt, share these same overwhelmed feelings and unsteady ground. They are trying to get a grasp on what the mission will look like after Jesus, who has appeared to them during the forty days following the resurrection, is subsumed by the clouds and ascends into heaven. 

The writer’s touch that I particularly appreciate in this narrative is the angelic disruption to their staring into the clouds. I don’t attempt to construct a vivid picture of Jesus ascending because I long ago resigned to my lack of imagination. But Jesus’s followers, frozen in place and “looking intently” trying to process what they have just witnessed? These folks I get. Especially in today’s time and place.

The apostles have witnessed startling acts in the presence of Jesus. His message which turns social norms and systems upside down is as shocking as giving sight to the blind and healing the lame. Add to that the crucifixion, resurrection, and now the Ascension, well, it demands a lot from the human imagination. So, of all these, which is more difficult to imagine? The miracle, the mystical, or the upending of culture?


Here is where “wonder and awe” come into play. At the age of 53, it is the past two years that have shocked and expanded my imagination and dismantled my own social conditioning. An increasing number of people are challenging systems and engaging in deeper, difficult conversations about racism, oppression, sexism, sexual assault, gender identity and the fundamental question of what democracy looks like in a way that I have not witnessed before now. This process demands extraordinary humility and prophetic imagination in a country that too often views its norms as exceptional. If we fully accept “wonder and awe” as a gift of the Spirit, we honor that transformation cannot occur without God’s help. This gift “infuse[s] honesty into our relationship with God” (USCCB).

Just as the apostles could not downplay or relegate to the margins the magnitude of what they had witnessed, neither can we. Just as the angels turned the apostles’ focus from the clouds to the world around them, so must the three million dead from the pandemic, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and January 6th disturb our ownership of our role in continuing Jesus’ mission. As we near Pentecost, which gift of the Holy Spirit do you need the most this year?

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About the author

Florence Merkl-Deutsch

Florence Merkl-Deutsch is director of mission and ministry at DePaul College Prep in Chicago.

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