The Ascension of the Lord is not some final act in the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, in the theatrical sense, though it does complete, in one way, His earthly ministry and the “Paschal Mystery”. Nor is it some kind of “intermission” to be concluded upon Christ’s Bodily return – which will most certainly occur.
Rather, the Ascension of the Lord is about a new way of being, living in Christ in the here and now. The Apostle Paul wrote to the early Christians in Galatia: “No longer do I live but Christ lives in me and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God.” (Galatians 2:19, 20) That is how we are invited to live, now.
Jesus said “Abide in me as I in you” (John 15:4). This is meant to become reality, now for all of us who bear His name. Christians can live differently – now – because we live “in” Jesus Christ. We can love differently now – because we love “in” Jesus Christ. We can “be” differently – now – because, as St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”. (Coll. 3:3) Our lives are “hidden in Christ”- right now.
On this Feast of the Ascension we should ask ourselves this question, “How are we doing?” The Feast presents us with an invitation to assess the relationship between our profession of faith and its manifestation in our daily lives. St. Paul encouraged the Christians in Corinth in his second letter to take such an examination: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? Unless, of course, you fail the test. I hope you will discover that we have not failed”
Philosophers and Theologians use a big word “ontology” to refer to the essence of being, what makes something what it is. There is an “ontological” meaning to this Feast of the Ascension. We have ascended with Him and are called to live on earth the very realities of heaven, beginning now.
This Feast also gives us insight into the Feast of Pentecost which we will soon celebrate. The “breath” of God, His Spirit, has been breathed into His Church – and thus into each one of us – in order to capacitate us to live this way – beginning now – and engage in His ongoing work of redemption.
That work will not be complete until the One who ascended returns and hands the re-created cosmos back to the Father. That is “the plan”, the “mystery” now revealed in Jesus Christ. (See, e.g., Coll. 1) The Feast of the Ascension is a key that helps unlock the very meaning of our lives and the plan of God for the entire created order. No mere intermission, this reveals the inner meaning of the ongoing mission and our participation in it!
Throughout most of the Catholic Church we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord this Thursday. In some places, the Feast is transferred to Sunday. However, the Feast seems to have lost its depth and meaning in the experience of too many Catholics and other Christians. Does the Ascension affect our lives in the here and now? Is it a commemoration of an event which occurred 2000 years ago? Or, could it be the key that helps unlock the very meaning of our lives and the plan of God for the entire created order?
The great western Bishop Augustine proclaimed these words on the Feast: “Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.”
When we went down into the Font of Baptism we were incorporated into Jesus Christ, made members of His Body, the Church. Therefore, as Augustine also wrote, “Where the Head is, there is the Body, where I am, there is my Church, we too are one; the Church is in me and I in her and we two are your Beloved and your Lover.” In other words, we have ascended with the Lord! He is the Head and we are members of His Body. We cannot be separated. Augustine, reflecting the clear teaching of the early Church Fathers reminds us that the Head and the Body are the “One Christ.” So, this is our Feast as well!
Pope St Leo the Great reflected on the joy the disciples experienced on that glorious day in these words: “(T)hat blessed company had a great and inexpressible cause for joy when it saw man’s nature rising above the dignity of the whole heavenly creation, above the ranks of angels, above the exalted status of archangels. Now would there be any limit to its upward course until humanity was admitted to a seat at the right hand of the eternal father, to be enthroned at last in the glory of him to whose nature it was wedded in the Person of the Son.”
Both of these Saints remind us why we should rejoice on this Feast of the Ascension. The Ascension does not mark the end of Jesus’ relationship with the Church but the beginning of a new way of His relating to the world, in and through the Church. This way includes every one of us who bear His name. You see, we have also ascended with the Lord. When viewed with the eyes of Resurrection faith the Ascension is capable of transforming the way we view ourselves and live our daily lives. We are joined to Him and He is joined to to us!
Jesus Christ bridged heaven and earth. Through His Incarnation, His Saving Life, Death and Resurrection, we have been set free from the consequences of sin, including the sting of death. (See, 1 Cor. 15:55) We are being created anew in Him daily as we freely cooperate with His grace. One of the Catechism’s definitions of grace is “a participation in Divine Life”. (See, CCC #1997) It calls to mind the wonderful words of the Apostle Peter in his second letter. He reminded the early Christians that they were “participants in the Divine Nature”. (2 Peter 1:4) So are we!
This Divine Life is mediated to us through the Word and the Sacraments – in and through the Church which is His Body. We are incorporated into the Trinitarian communion of love, beginning now. The Church is not some “thing”, the Church is Some-One, the Risen Christ truly present in the world which was created through Him and is being re-created in Him. The Church is the new Israel sent into the world to continue His redemptive mission until He comes again. Then He will complete the work of Redemption. The Church, as the fathers were fond of saying, is the new world, and the world in the course of transfiguration. The Christian vocation is about learning to live this new relationship in Christ together, with the Father, through the Holy Spirit and for the sake of a world that still awaits its full redemption.
Let me conclude with these words of the great Apostle and mystic Paul who reflects on this plan:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved. In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.
“In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth…. In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s possession, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:3-14)
The Feast of the Ascension is Not an Intermission, it is a Key to understanding Life