In 1998, twenty-one years ago, most of the dioceses and archdioceses of the United States, using a prerogative given them by the Holy See, decided to shift the celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension to the Seventh Sunday of Easter. At the same time, they shifted the Solemnity of the Epiphany to the first Sunday of the year, and the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, commonly known as Corpus Christi, to the second Sunday after Pentecost. To some this decision is a little disconcerting. After all, as we heard in the first reading for today’s liturgy, St. Luke wrote in the Acts of the Apostles that Jesus showed himself alive to the disciples for forty days after the Resurrection. To many, perhaps most of you, this signals that the Ascension took place forty days after the Resurrection. However, that is not what the text says. It simply says that Jesus appeared to them during the forty days after the Resurrection.
The last verses of St. Luke’s Gospel are also proclaimed today. Those verses indicate that on Easter Sunday Jesus appeared to the apostles in the upper room after appearing to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Then, the Gospel tells us that he led them out to Bethany and was taken up into heaven, not forty days after the Resurrection but on the very same day that he rose from the dead.
So it really doesn’t matter whether we celebrate the Ascension on Thursday or Sunday. What is far more important is that we understand the significance of this event as part of what we call the Paschal Mystery. That significance is clearly spelled out in the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews which we read today.
The sacred writer compares Jesus’ ascension to the event that all Jews celebrated annually in the Temple. A goat was led through the congregation. The men in the assembly took off their outer garments and threw them on the back of the goat, symbolically stripping themselves of their sins and casting them on the goat. The goat was then slaughtered and its blood was collected in a basin. The blood was sprinkled on the people and upon the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. In order to do this, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies all by himself. Then he comes out and proclaims to the people that they have been forgiven their sins and God has redeemed them.
Just as the high priest enters the Holy of Holies, Jesus has entered heaven, another sanctuary, not made by human hands. Rather than taking the blood of a goat with him, he has shed his own blood and taken our sins upon himself as he was led to Calvary. However, unlike the high priest, Jesus has not come out of the sanctuary into which he has entered. We are still waiting for his return as he promised. When he does return, when he comes out of the heavens again, it will be to bring with him our salvation. The entire Paschal Mystery will be complete when Jesus comes among us a second time.
So what we celebrate today is the moment when Jesus returned to his Father. Each part of the Paschal Mystery is given its own celebration - Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Thursday or Sunday, and Pentecost. The Church gives us each of these feasts to provide us with an opportunity to appreciate and sit in awe of the lengths to which God went to save us from our sins. In the Solemnity of the Ascension, we recognize Jesus as our Sovereign as we pray with Psalm 47: God mounts his throne to shouts of joy, a blare of trumpets for the Lord.
In the context of this celebration we welcome our brothers and sisters in the Franciscan Family as one of their number promises to live according to the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order. Using St. Francis of Assisi as a guide, each of them promises to follow in the footsteps of our Crucified and Risen Savior. Through this act of commitment, they reassert their Baptismal Promises just as all of us who are committed to the consecrated life have done. This is the path that we choose to take in order to find our place with Jesus in heaven. Whether we choose the Franciscan way of life or follow a different vocation, each of us looks forward to following where Jesus has gone.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator