The account of the Ascension of Jesus which we hear in the Acts of the Apostles places the episode on a Thursday, forty days after the Resurrection. However, the Gospel accounts of the same episode seem to tell us that it happened shortly after the Resurrection itself. It is impossible, therefore, to celebrate this feast or solemnity as an historical observance. Rather the Church asks us to look at it as an integral piece of the entire Paschal Mystery, marking a special celebration for each of the component parts of that Paschal event.
What is it that the Church asks us to take away from this celebration? In the Letter to the Ephesians, from which we read today, we hear St. Paul offer a prayer for us. If we ourselves listen to this reading prayerfully, we cannot help but be impressed with the fact that not only did St. Paul pray for all believers, he continues to pray for us today as well. The Ascension of Jesus essentially reminds us that those of us who are faithful to him will one day follow him. St. Paul certainly has done so as have all the apostles, martyrs and saints whose names are contained in the roster of saints. The Scriptures tell us that they surround the throne of Jesus, our King, praising the Lamb who was slain. In the midst of their praise, they also intercede for us. So this day reminds us that we have a great cloud of witnesses in heaven who pray for us.
The second thing we learn from St. Paul’s prayer is that the chief desire that St. Paul has for us is the virtue of Hope. As we contemplate the fact that Jesus has returned to the Father where he has told us he is preparing a place for us, we are filled with the Hope that we too one day will know the glory and joy of heaven. As the Eucharistic Prayer that we use during the Easter Season reminds us, “One day he will come in glory and in his kingdom there will be no more suffering, no more tears, no more sadness.” Looking forward to that day cannot help but bring us help.
St. Paul’s prayer for us includes his own hope that we will grow in knowledge of God, of God’s activities, and of God’s gifts. This threefold wish helps us to focus our attention upon God’s purpose in creating us in the first place. I am sure that many of you will remember the old catechism question: “Why did God make us?” God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven. When we come to know God, to know God’s activities, and to perceive God’s gifts, we are directed to walk the path that Jesus has walked before us, the path of love which leads us to heaven.
The second half of the passage from St. Paul’s letter speaks of Jesus as the one who is enthroned next to God and is now Lord of heaven and earth. The Solemnity of the Ascension is basically the celebration of Christ’s glorification and of our future glorification. The responsorial psalm that we use today is one of the enthronement psalms which was used by our ancestors both when they enthroned a new king and when they celebrated their annual festival to re-enthrone the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. It urges us to sing God’s praises, for Jesus takes possession of God’s kingdom and rules over all of us.
The Feast of the Ascension, therefore, focuses our attention on the third part of the Paschal Mystery. We have remembered how Jesus died for us. We have celebrated the great feast of the Resurrection. Now we remember that his death and resurrection led to his return to the Father in heaven where he now reigns over us as our king. The fourth and last part of the Paschal mystery comes as we celebrate the coming of the Spirit next week. The Church is guiding us through a meditation on the events of Jesus’ life and guiding us on to the path whereon we can hope to follow him. As we receive Jesus in the Eucharist today, our hearts are filled with gratitude as we come to realize that our destiny, like his, lies in a kingdom not of this world which will bring us the great gift of eternal life.
Fr Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.