Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Ascension

Back where I grew up, the Ascension is still celebrated on its proper day (this past Thursday). So, there, one is still greeted in the morning by the local news’ announcement that in the entire city what is called “alternate side of the street parking” is suspended because of the holy day. It’s even better in Germany, for example, where Ascension is still a legal holiday and where even the Stock Market is closed in observance of the Ascension. 

Back when I was a kid, of course, what we especially liked about the Ascension was that we got off from school. And certainly some of us here are also old enough to remember the wonderful old custom of ceremonially extinguishing the Easter Candle – the symbol of the Risen Christ’s presence among us – after the reading of today’s Gospel. Even more dramatically, in certain places, either the candle itself or a statue of the Risen Christ would be hoisted up to the church’s ceiling, to be replaced by a shower of roses as a sign of Christ’s parting promise to give the Holy Spirit to the Church. The point of such rituals, of course, was not to highlight Christ’s absence, but rather the new way he is now present to us. As the Church prays in the Preface of today’s Mass: 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.

Historically speaking, the Ascension commemorates the end of the Risen Lord’s series of periodic appearances to his disciples in the weeks after his resurrection. The Risen Jesus no longer walked earth the way he did before he died and rose, but he did, as Luke says in today’s 1st reading, appear a number of times to his disciples during that post-Easter period of 40 days [Acts 1:1-11], speaking about the kingdom of God.

So, now, if Jesus doesn’t walk the earth as he did before, where exactly is he? Theologically speaking, the Ascension celebrates what we profess every Sunday in the Creed, that he is seated at the right had of the Father, where, as the letter to the Hebrews assures us he lives forever to intercede for us [Hebrews 7:25; cf. Romans 8:34].

On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, pilgrims can see a footprint-like depression in a rock (photo), which purports to be the spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven. The footprint and the idea that he pushed off with such force that he left a footprint in the rock may be a bit fanciful, but it does make the important point that it is Jesus’ real human body (and thus the real human nature that we share with him) that is now with God. So the Church prays today in the Eucharistic Prayer, he placed at the right hand of your glory our weak human nature, which he had united to himself. As Pope Francis has recently reminded us: Even though the Lord may now appear more distant, the horizons of hope expand all the more. In Christ, who brings our human nature to heaven, every man and woman can now freely “enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” [Hebrews10:19-20].

So the Ascension anticipates what the resurrection has made it possible for us all to hope for. Meanwhile - in this interval between Ascension and the end, a time full of problems and challenges of every sort, of crises and conflicts in the world and even in the Church, not to mention all our own personal problems and worries, in this interval between Ascension and the end – we too may be tempted to doubt, just like the apostles in the Gospel. Yet, although he is absent in one way, he has nonetheless 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 Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father.

This Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, far from being absent, is actually still very much present among us by the power of his promised gift of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work in the Church, through which we remain connected with him, so that, through us, he can continue his work of transforming our world. Again, as Pope Francis, has expressed it:

Those who, in faith, entrust themselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit come to realize how God is present and at work in every moment of our lives and history, patiently bringing to pass a history of salvation. [Papal Message for the 51st Annual World Communications Day]

Homily for the Ascension of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 28, 2017.

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