St. Bernard of Clairvaux is supposed to have described the Ascension as “the consummation and fulfillment of all other festivals, and a happy ending to the whole journey of the Son of God.” While theoretically still certainly one of the five biggest festivals of the church calendar, Ascension nowadays may seem somewhat shrunken. Back where I come from, however, it is still celebrated on its proper day, Thursday of last week; and there everyone knows what day it is because the local news announces that in the entire city what we call “alternate side of the street parking” is suspended for the day. It’s even better in Europe – where, in some countries, it is still a legal holiday and even Stock Markets are closed in observance of the Ascension.
Belief in the ascension is, of course, one of the key components of the Creed, which we recite regularly - if maybe at times a bit absent-mindedly - all year long. After professing our faith in Jesus’ resurrection, we add: he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
As the words of the Creed suggest, the ascension actually involves several things. Historically, it has to do with the fact that the Risen Christ was no longer living among his disciples as he had been before. The Risen Lord lives already the new life of the future of which his resurrection is a foretaste for us. The New Testament authors assure us that the Risen One presented himself alive to his disciples, appearing to them and speaking about the kingdom of God. After a certain period, those appearances ended. It was time to move on to the next stage in salvation history – our time, the time of the Church. Historically, therefore, the Ascension refers to the end of the period of the Risen Christ’s appearances to his disciples.
That being the case, the question then becomes: well, where exactly is he? Again, the Creed contains the answer: he is seated at the right hand of the Father. Of course, as Son of God, the Divine Word, has always been with the Father. Theologically, what the Ascension celebrates is that the Word-made-flesh, the incarnate Christ is now with God his Father, the fact that his human body (and thus our shared human nature) that is with God.
In Jerusalem, in the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, pilgrims get to see a footprint-like depression in the rock, which purports to be the exact spot from which the Risen Lord ascended to heaven – a bit fanciful, perhaps, “as if” (as one author has written) Jesus “sprang into the heavens with such vigour that the very rock underneath his feet was compressed in the act” [Douglas Farrow, Ascension Theology, 2011, p 16]. The footprint may well be fanciful, but it does highlight the point that it was Jesus’ human body (and thus our shared human nature) that ascended – that is, is now with God.
As St. Augustine famously said in one of his sermons: “Although he descended without a body, he ascended with a body and with us, who are destined to ascend, not by reason of our own virtue but on account of our oneness with him” (Sermon 263).
Thus, the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. In the words of the liturgy: where he has gone, we hope to follow.
In the meantime now - in this interim between Easter and the end - though he is absent, he has promised to remain present: behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age [Matthew 28:20].
Hence, his instruction to his disciples to wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. The same Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, far from being absent, is still present among us by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church and its sacraments. Furthermore, not only does the Risen Christ continue present in the Church through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and the sacraments, but through the Eucharist in particular we participate already even now in the heavenly liturgy, where Christ, as our High Priest intercedes forever on our behalf with his Father (cf. Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25).
Homily for Ascension Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 5, 2011.