Centuries ago, there were many more holydays of obligation. Today, they are few – all the more reason, therefore, to treasure them, these few and far between days when religion intrudes itself into the secular routines of weekday life. Here in New York City, Ascension Thursday even warrants the suspension of “alternate-side-of-the-street” parking regulations!
Some of us, I suspect, may be old enough to remember when, right after the Gospel on Ascension Thursday, the Easter Candle – the visible symbol of the Risen Christ – would be ceremonially extinguished. In earlier ages, the Candle – or sometimes an image of the Risen Lord himself – was sometimes hoisted up into the Church’s ceiling until it disappeared. The people would look up and stretch out their arms, while a shower of roses would recall Christ’s parting promise to send the Holy Spirit to his Church.
Such customs recall those familiar pictures of the Ascension, that show the disciples staring up at an empty space – sometimes with 2 feet sticking out from a cloud (with holes in them, just to make sure we understand who is missing). The point of all such images, of course, is that Jesus is now gone. Historically speaking, the Ascension commemorates the end of the Risen Christ’s series of appearances to his disciples in the period right after his resurrection. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the Risen Lord presented himself alive to the apostles whom he had chosen, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God (cf. Acts 1:2-3). Then, those appearances ended; and the disciples were left on their own.
Well, not quite on their own, obviously, since Christ continues in his Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit. “And behold,” the departing Jesus said to his disciples, “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you, so stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
The point of the Ascension is not so much that Jesus has gone but where he is now - seated at the right hand of the Father, as we say Sunday after Sunday in the Creed. As we say today in the Eucharistic Prayer: We celebrate that day when your Son, our Lord, took his place with you and raised our frail human nature to glory. That means that God now has with him in heaven the human world his Son embraced in himself and experienced to the full – the world of our lives, our loves, our work, our play, our successes, our failures. And now, having experienced our world with us (in the process, investing it with more meaning than it would ever otherwise have had), God in turn now shares his world with us. For where Christ has gone, there we hope to follow (Ascension Preface). Where he is now, there we hope to be.
Thus the Ascension is ultimately also about us, about what’s in store for us thanks to Jesus’ resurrection. The Ascension sets the stage for that hoped-for future, made possible in the present through the gift of the Holy Spirit, who makes possible our unique life in this world as Christ’s Church, in which, although he no longer walks the earth the way he once did, Jesus is still alive and remains very much with us.