The Solemnity of the Ascension is one of the joyful highpoints of the liturgical year, and especially of the season of Easter. Jesus’ bodily ascension to heaven, his return to the Father, marks the glorious completion of his earthly mission. As he passes from our sight, he leaves us in a state of eager anticipation for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Today also marks the beginning of the special ten-day period sometimes referred to as “Ascensiontide,” the time between Jesus’ Ascension and the Descent of the Spirit. (In places where the Solemnity of the Ascension is transferred from Thursday, the “fortieth day,” to the 7th Sunday of Easter, this period is shortened to just one week.)
The great feasts of the year give us very much to ponder – more than we can absorb in one day, or in one lifetime. It is important that we not limit our thinking about Jesus’ ascension to mere physical movement, as if he simply rose to a higher altitude or to some location in outer space. Heaven is not outer space, just as hell is not deep under the ground somewhere. We use images and figurative language to describe mysteries that transcend the capacity of words alone. Heaven is certainly “above” the earth! It is the condition to which Jesus rose bodily on Easter and entered permanently forty days later. It is the glorious communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the eternal destiny to which the Father is drawing all of us. We see it revealed already in Jesus Christ, who ascends in victory over sin and death in our human nature.
We can take some initial reflections for this feast from one of the important prayers of today’s Mass, the Preface, the prayer said by the priest as an introduction to the Eucharistic Prayer:
The Lord Jesus, the King of glory, conqueror of sin and death, ascended today to the highest heavens, as the Angels gazed in wonder. Mediator between God and man, judge of the world and Lord of hosts, he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state but that we, his members, might be confident of following where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.
Therefore, overcome with paschal joy, every land, every people exults in your praise, and even the heavenly Powers, with the angelic hosts, sing together the unending hymn of your glory, as they acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy…
Today everyone in heaven and on earth is “overcome with paschal joy.” This joy overflows in today’s psalm as well: “All you peoples, clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness! … God mounts his throne to shouts of joy; a blare of trumpets for the Lord.” Certainly the apostles were filled with this joy. The gospel tells us that after Jesus ascended, they “returned to Jerusalem filled with joy. There they were to be found in the temple constantly, speaking the praises of God.”
We may well wonder why this is such an occasion of joy. Many people will not be “overcome with paschal joy” today, simply because they do not understand the meaning of Jesus’ ascension. It seems that Jesus’ departure would be a time for sadness not joy. When Jesus told the apostles that he was returning to the Father, their initial reaction was grief (cf. Jn 16:6). Now that it has actually happened, they rejoice instead. Why? Because by this time, the apostles have come to realize that Jesus, now that he is risen, is present with them in an entirely new way. His ascension marks, not the beginning of his absence, but of his presence in mystery. This new kind of presence was part of the experience of the apostles from the very day of Easter. When the two disciples at Emmaus “recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread,” he immediately vanished from their sight, but not from their hearts. They returned to Jerusalem full of joy – paschal joy!
Jesus’ ascension lifts our hearts and minds to a higher level, beyond this visible world. Jesus has gone ahead of us, to “prepare a place for us” (Jn 14:2), and he calls us, “Follow me.” Today’s feast helps us realize that this call refers to more than where we go and what we accomplish in this life; it extends all the way to the Father. Jesus is saying to us today, “Follow me into glory! Come up higher, to the communion of life I share with the Father.”
In order to follow him, we need to rely on the Gift of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This time of intense preparation for Pentecost makes us better attuned to the working of the Spirit. Because the Spirit is invisible to us, we tend to neglect him. Jesus’ ascension beyond our sight broadens our spiritual vision. We learn how to respond to God, whose presence we cannot see and touch. St. Paul prays for a rich outpouring of this “spirit of wisdom and perception.” “May he enlighten your innermost vision that you may know the great hope to which he has called you” – that is, so that we can see the glory and power of God at work in us who believe in Christ.
While we journey in faith, looking forward to joining Christ in the glory of the Father, we are called to serve in this world as his witnesses. Now that Jesus can no longer be bodily seen, how will anyone know about him? He reveals himself to the world through his witnesses in every time and every place, “even to the ends of the earth.” Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down on you; then you are to be my witnesses…” We witness to Jesus when we live in joyful hope, filled with his Spirit, awaiting the time when he will come again in glory.
Is my heart filled with the “paschal joy” celebrated in the Ascension of the Lord? Do I long for union with the Father? Am I a witness to the joyful hope found only in Christ?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 12, no. 4. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.