Ascension Thursday, May 13, 2021.
One of the many joys of being back home in New York is celebrating The Ascension of the Lord on its proper day. The experience is embellished when one gets greeted in the morning by the local news’ announcement that, in the entire city, what we New Yorkers call “alternate side of the street parking” is suspended because of the holy day. (Of course, I don't have a car and so don't park on the street. So "alternate side of the street parking" is not quite the existential issue it may be for some.)
St. Bernard of Clairvaux [1090-1153] is said 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.” Growing up, of course, what I remember most about the Ascension was that we got off from school! But, of course, we had to go to Mass in the morning, and at least some of us may have noticed and may still remember the wonderful ritual of ceremonially extinguishing the Easter Candle – the symbol of the Risen Christ’s presence among us – after the reading of today’s Gospel. (One of many powerful symbols and ceremonies since pointlessly deleted in the systematic ritual impoverishment of the Church's worship in the late 20th century.)
The point of that ancient ritual, of course, was not that Jesus is gone, but that he is now present to us in an alternative and very new way. But what exactly is that new way?
Historically speaking, Ascension commemorates the last of the Risen Lord’s appearances to his disciples in the weeks after his resurrection. After Easter, the Risen Jesus no longer walked around and spent time with his disciples the way he did before he died and rose. Rather, as Luke says in today’s 1st reading [Acts 1:1-11], what he did instead was to appear a number of times to his disciples during that post-Easter period of 40 days, speaking about the kingdom of God. Then, he was taken up, and those appearances ceased. (Hence, the traditional practice of extinguishing the Paschal Candle, the visible symbol that recalls those appearances.)
But, if Jesus doesn’t walk around and live among us on earth as he did before, then where exactly is he? And in what way are we still connected with him? Theologically speaking, the Ascension celebrates what we publicly 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, which purports to be the spot from which Jesus ascended into heaven (photo). The footprint and the idea that the pushed off with such force that he left a footprint in the rock may seem 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 in glory 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. And, in the Preface, the Church prays: 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.
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 seemingly apocalyptic crises and intractable conflicts in the world and politically inspired divisions even within the Church in our country, not to mention all our own personal problems and worries - in this interval between Ascension and the end, the Risen Lord remains with us though his gift of the Holy Spirit. The Church continues Christ's life and work in our world, by the mission and action of the Holy Spirit, whose "great work," wrote Servant of God Isaac Hecker in 1873, is the salvation, the sanctification of mankind upon earth and their glorification hereafter by means of the Church."
So, far from being absent, Jesus, who lived and died and now lives again forever with his Father, is 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 reminded us: “In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness” [Gaudete et Exsaltate (2018), 15]
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