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The Church serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God's family. [ Gaudium et Soes #40]

Ascension: Why Sunday Not Thursday? And Just What Are We Celebrating?

[This post is a bit late in coming but I hope it still opens up some thoughtful ideas for people.]


Still seems odd not to say “Ascension Thursday,” doesn’t it? Most bishops, when given the option, chose to move the feast of the Ascension from Thursday to Sunday, to give an opportunity for the greatest number of people to both interact with the Scripture readings for the day and to reflect more deeply on this doctrine/dogma of our faith. It also helps us appreciate that the Ascension is not simply some past event but is an always present reality, in terms of how we experience the risen Lord in our lives.

 

The ascension of Jesus is, perhaps, the least talked about of our creedal doctrines. His Death (“Jesus suffered and died for us)”? We get that and emphasize it and emotionally connect to it.  That is why Good Friday is so often such a powerful experience for us, as are times of retreats and confessions, when we contemplate the wondrous mystery of mercy and forgiveness opened up by Jesus’ death on the cross.  His Resurrection (“On the third day he rose again from the dead”)? Yes, we get that as well—at least we firmly hope in its reality so that death loses its power—and spend the long Easter season appreciating how essential the resurrection of Jesus is to our faith. The Sending of the Holy Spirit on the disciples and on us so that the risen Jesus can work in and through the Christian community/ Church so created?  Understood.  We know we need the Spirit of God to do anything in line with God’s desires and so Pentecost is a great celebration of that need for and outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit. But the Ascension (“He ascended into heaven”)?  Why even mention it, much less as one of the essential parts of our creed? Isn’t that just a given, a mere detail contained within the more important dogmas of the resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit?

 

In the Acts of the Apostles (1:11) we hear two angelic-like figures say to the disciples, after they experience Jesus “ascending into heaven”: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”  The ascension of Jesus is part and parcel of the whole paschal mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus has not simply died for our sins; he has been raised to new life in a way that conquers death, and that resurrection is a bodily resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is not some event of the past but a promise for today and for all time: “I will be with you, and you will be my witnesses until I come again.”  But why the focus on the Ascension?  The feast of the Ascension keeps before us three faith realities: 1) Even though Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is definitive and final, there is a fullness of the Lord’s presence which has not yet happened (the Parousia, “coming again,” has yet to fully happen).  2) The resurrected body of Christ is “in heaven” for eternity (what that means theologically, where we no longer have a naive view of the cosmology of the universe, as though heaven is “up there” somewhere, will be looked at in a subsequent blog post). 3) Thirdly, and finally, it affirms for us that we have no say in when the risen Lord will be present. He is “ascended into heaven,” in a sense absent (as long as we understand that metaphorically).  Only the Lord himself has a say in when and how he will be experienced as risen and present among us.  It is this third reality that I want to explore in the remainder of this blog, which gives an insight into the importance of the Ascension even in a world view where we no longer think literally that Jesus’ resurrected body is seated on some throne up there in the heavens.

 

Take a look at the end of Luke’s gospel (24:50-53).  Jesus has appeared in bodily form to the disciples, takes them out “as far as Bethany,” and blesses them. And, at the same time he is blessing them, “he withdrew from there and was carried up into heaven.” In the Hebrew understanding, to be blessed is “to become a blessing for” others.  In essence, in this gospel passage, Jesus is showing the disciples/us that there can be a separation of our lives from his life as the risen Lord (“withdrew/carried to heaven”) but that when we become his blessing to others, he will always be present.  At the end of Matthew’s gospel (28:19-20), Jesus commands the disciples to make disciples of all the nations by baptizing and teaching them to” obey everything” that he has commanded them to do. Then the gospel ends: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the ages.”  Again, it is the living Church as the body of Christ that the risen Christ will use to make himself present. And he promises to be present to us, not automatically, but when we do what he asks us to do.   Finally, in the longer ending to Mark’s gospel (16:19-20) Jesus is both “taken up to heaven and seated at the right hand of God” and yet “the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by signs.”  The Lord goes away but becomes present when the disciples are sharing/living the gospel.  The feast of the Ascension captures this tension of risen and present/but only if we act as the risen Lord desires.

 

That is why the Eucharist is so key to our practice of faith.  In our Eucharist we are taking that command of Jesus to his apostles to “Take and eat” and “Take and drink” and to “Do this in memory of me.”  By being faithful to that apostolic practice, we know for certain that the risen Lord has promised to be present to us in the assembly of the people, in his living Word, in the sacramental presence of the presider, and most especially in the communion we receive. In turn, fed by that presence, we become capable of being the Body of Christ broken and the Blood of Christ outpoured for the unity and salvation of the world around us.  And, when we so act in that way—become the Lord’s blessing for others—the risen Lord promises to be with us always, till the end of the ages.  But the caveat of the Ascension is this: a body can be a living body but also a corpse. To the extent we fail to act as the Lord commands—fail to be that blessing to others—the risen Lord is not going to be with us or in us or work through us.

 

It is important, then to see that the death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit (Pentecost), and parousia of Jesus form one continual Paschal Mystery.  God allowed death to truly claim Jesus, his Son, but then raised him from the dead. Therefore, all the ways humanity experiences death, especially the death of the innocent ones, is shown to be the horror that it is.  We are, quite frankly, saying that God needs to be dead every time we contribute to sin and death.  Yet, sharing in the resurrection means that such sin and death has no ultimate power, does not get the final say.  What needs to happen?  It will not be automatic. It is entrusted to us as the human family, with the Church as the leaven, to make that overcoming of sin and needless death real and part of our personal and collective history.  We are to be a sacrament—a sign and instrument—that such a world can exist.  Because it is not automatic that the risen Lord becomes present (the Ascension or absence of Jesus will be experienced always if we so choose to freely say yes to sin and death), we know that it is not possible to so act without the help of the Holy Spirit in every situation. And so, the feast of the Ascension ushers in a time of fervent prayer for the outpouring of God’s Spirit.  Without that Spirit the living Body of Christ will become a corpse.  The Spirit is to be sought every day, at all times, so that what we are doing is what the Lord desires of us, not just our own wishes.  We then keep embracing this rhythm of life until the Parousia (“until he comes again”).

 

Luke’s timeline in the Acts of the Apostles (forty days after Passover for the ascension and on the fiftieth day, the day of Pentecost, the sending of the Holy Spirit) is the one that the Church uses in its liturgical calendar. But we have to remember that there is no one timeline given in the gospels. They all agree that the tomb was empty and Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb; that he was raised, body and spirit; that he appeared to certain disciples; that the disciples/us are to carry on the mission and ministry of Jesus and for that they/we need the power of the Holy Spirit.  And that there came a time when Jesus no longer appeared to them in his risen, bodily form. But they do not agree on a common timeline.

 

Clearly the Church understood that something beyond the normal experience had occurred. Jesus died fully and completely. Jesus was raised and was experienced in some type of bodily way as the risen Lord to many of the disciples. At a certain point, Jesus was no longer experienced in that direct risen form. To summarize these Scriptural stories the Church composed the creedal formula of suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit, parousia. They form one complete whole. The risen Jesus is none other than the crucified Jesus, now raised by the power of God. The crucified and risen Jesus “goes before” the disciples, “blesses” the disciples, is present and available to the disciples until “the end of time,” when he will return and be experienced by the disciples again, directly, in his risen, bodily form. But between now and then, Jesus is both risen (and present) and ascended (and so, in a sense, potentially absent from us). When we choose other than the way the risen Lord would, we highlight his absence and the burning need we have for the Spirit of God to bring us to new life. And so we pray: Come, Holy Spirit! Fill the hearts of your faithful. Enkindle in us the fire of your divine love.

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