There is no other day in the liturgical calendar like the one we celebrate today (or, if you will, last Thursday). With the exception of a few American dioceses, most American Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension today. The other few will celebrate the Seventh Sunday of Easter.
This solemnity is a celebration of the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God the Father. We celebrate the “glorification” of Jesus as we recall his return to heaven after his sojourn on this earth.
While some may bemoan the fact that there is not uniformity in when this solemnity is observed, one simply needs to look at the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles and the passage from the Gospel of St. Luke which are proclaimed today to realize that our confusion is nothing compared to that which St. Luke created. St. Luke records the event known as the Ascension twice in his writings. The first is in the very last chapter of his Gospel. The second is in the opening chapter of his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles. In the Gospel, which is proclaimed during this cycle of the Lectionary for Sunday Mass, St. Luke tells us that Jesus led the disciples out of the city to Bethany after appearing to them in the upper room on that first Easter day. “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.” (Luke 24:50-51) In the Acts of the Apostles he records the event again, this time telling us that it took place forty days after his Resurrection. “He presented himself alive to them by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. . . as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” (Acts 1:3, 9) So “when” we celebrate this event is not as important as the “how” we celebrate it.
The Paschal Mystery includes the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as well as the descent of the Holy Spirit. Careful reading of the Gospels shows us that all of this took place in a relatively short period of time. Jesus ate his Last Supper with the disciples on Thursday, died on Friday, and rose on Sunday, the first day of the week. During that day, Jesus appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room and to Mary Magdalene in the garden that included the tomb of Jesus. When he appeared to them in the upper room, he breathed on them and gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then he led them out and returned to heaven before their eyes.
The Church liturgically celebrates each element included in the Paschal Mystery. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, the Ascension and Pentecost each give us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice and the reward that is his because of his obedience to the will of the Father. It matters not that we divide these celebrations up over a fifty day period. What matters is the time we take to ask the important question. How does the Paschal Mystery come alive in my life?
To answer that question, it might be helpful to pay attention to the reading from the Letter to the Ephesians which “sings” of the kingship or enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of the Father. It seems to place that mystery in the middle of two concentric circles, the first being the community of the Church which accepts Jesus as king, and the second being a wider circle encompassing all those who do not accept it. Those who accept Jesus are urged to grow in their faith and to extend the kingship to the rest of the world. This is completely in line with the commission of which we read in the Gospel of St. Matthew. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) It is in that commission that we find the answer to how we should respond to the Paschal Mystery.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator