Tomorrow is the 40th day of Easter, the traditional date of the Ascension. It is a legal holiday in several traditionally Christian countries - among them Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Not so, sadly, in the United States, although New York City at least celebrates the Ascension in its own suitably urban style by suspending its "Alternate Side of the Street Parking" rules for the day. In much of the United States, in fact, the feast is transferred to next Sunday, when to get much notice at all this year it will have to struggle mightily to compete for attention with that great secular holiday, Mothers Day!
Historically, the actual Ascension event marked the end of the short post-Easter period when the Risen Lord appeared several times to his disciples. With the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and the other disciples on Pentecost, a new period of history has begun, the age of the Church, our time, in which the presence and action of the Risen Christ continue in the world through the life and mission of the Church. It thus points back to the Church's beginning, while at the same time highlighting the ongoing present life and misison of the Church in this world, and points forward to humanity's final destiny.
Before the conquest of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, the Ascension was one of those special days when the Papal Blessing Urbi et Orbi was given. Traditonally, on the Ascension, it was given at the Basilica of St. John Lateran (although the stational church for the Ascension is St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican). Traditionally too the Easter Candle was solemnly extinguished after the Gospel reading on the Ascension (as it presumably still is in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Liturgy). Somewhat diminished in our modern May of Mothers Day and graduations and other secular occasions, the Ascension still speaks an important message and deserves to be celebrated with all the splendor the Church can muster.
In the Ambrosian Liturgy's Preface for today (Ascension Eve), the Milanese Church prays: "We praise you above all on this day when Jesus Christ your Son our Lord brought to completion the mystery of our salvation and fulfilled the plan you formed long ago; that in his human body he should conquer and humble the devil, the enmy of your divine work, and lead our mortal nature to share the life of heaven."
That speaks to past and future. As for the present, as Pope Francis remarked at his April 17 General Audience: "The Ascension does not indicate the absence of Jesus, but tells us that He is alive among us in a new way; He is no longer in a definite place in the world as He was before the Ascension; He is now in the lordship of God, present in all space and time, next to each of us. We are never alone in our lives. We have this Advocate who waits for us. We are never alone, the Crucified and Risen Lord guides us, and with us there are many brothers and sisters who in silence and obscurity, in their life and work, in their problems and difficulties, their joys and hopes, live their faith every day and, together with us, bring to the world the lordship of God's love."