A New Act Begins – The Ascension
Forty days after Jesus rose from the dead, another milestone event occurred – he ascended to his Father, to heaven. We celebrate this event today – the Solemnity of the Ascension.
Historically, the Ascension occurred on the 40th day after the Resurrection. That would have been a Thursday. Until recently, it was celebrated on a Thursday, Ascension Thursday! It was a holy day of obligation (when everybody was supposed to attend Mass) and we had a school holiday to celebrate it. However, our modern way of life and secular society model in the United States didn’t recognize this religious feast as a reason to cancel ordinary activities, so relatively few people were easily able to gather for Mass. The decision was made to move the feast to the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the one just before Pentecost. This is where we have arrived this weekend.
Two of our readings this day tell the story of the Ascension. We begin with the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, written in around 75 A.D. “In the first book, Theophilus …” St. Luke addressed both of his account of the life of Jesus and that of the early church to Theophilus. The name Theophilus means “God’s friend.” It is equally important to remember that as we are God’s friends, it is also addressed to us.
A time period of 40 days, weeks, months, or years is also important in the Bible. Many things happened in 40 days or years, including the great flood during Noah’s time, the 40 years of traveling in the desert between Egypt and Palestine after the Exodus, the 40 days of Jesus’ fasting in the desert between his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry. This is a time of preparation for something that will be different, something better and long promised or awaited. Something new.
Jesus appeared many times to his friends during the 40 days following the Resurrection. He simply appeared in their midst. He didn’t come and go, knocking on doors and waiting for someone to let him in. The door was locked, but he was suddenly there among them. Then, just as suddenly, he was gone. They met him in the garden. They met him on the road to Emmaus. He joined them in the locked upper room where he had eaten that last supper with them. They met him at the seashore in Galilee.
The last time they met, he told them to remain together in Jerusalem and wait for the “promise of the Father” when they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (The word baptize means to be plunged into something.) Clueless as ever, the disciples asked Jesus when he planned to restore the kingdom to Israel. When would Israel again become an independent and mighty world power?
Jesus sidestepped the question of restoration of an earthly kingdom and spoke of the more important kingdom, that of the Father. “It is not for you to know the times or seasons…” The promise for which they are to wait is the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will empower them to become Jesus’ witnesses in all the land, even to “the ends of the earth.”
Once again, Jesus is taken from their sight after these words. This time, he is lifted up and a cloud “took him from their sight.” Many images show him standing on a cloud as if on an elevator arising into the sky. The text doesn’t tell us how it happened. Just that it happened. Two men dressed in white clothing appeared among them and promised that Jesus would one day return in the same way they had seen him leave. These words have been the basis for other images of the Second Coming which depict a victorious Jesus returning to Earth for a final judgement. They also led the early Christian communities to expect a relatively rapid return of Jesus and the end of days. After all, he had been coming and going a lot during the preceding 40 days!
St. Luke’s Gospel (24:46-53) tells of the same event, in a more compact manner. Luke tells us that after Jesus had blessed his friends and been taken up to heaven, they “did him homage” and then returned rejoicing to Jerusalem. There they spent their days in the temple praising God.
Two options are offered for the second reading on the Feast of the Ascension. Each is lovely in and of itself. Parishes have a choice which to include in the day’s liturgy. Here a few thoughts about each.
The reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (1:17-23) is a lovely prayer of blessing that comes at the beginning of a letter which very well might have been written for sharing with several of the early Christian communities founded by Paul. According to tradition, it was written while he was a prisoner in Rome.
Paul asks that God give the many gifts of the Spirit to Christians who receive these greetings he is sending. “A Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him.” He asks that our eyes be enlightened to see and hope in the great riches of glory offered and promised to those who believe.
This is a beautiful statement of the wonders of God’s identity and promise of blessing in and through our lives of faith. All is possible because of the great might he worked in Christ, raising him from death and placing him as head over all of creation. Christ is the head and his body is the church – all of us in the community of Christians.
What an amazing vision and blessing for all of us!
The second possible reading is from the letter to the Hebrews (9:24-28, 10:19-23). In this reading the focus is on Jesus’ role as the high priest who offered the sacrifice that could bring final reconciliation and healing of the rift between God and all humanity. This sacrifice does not ever have to be re-done. It was a one-and-done event, unlike the annual sacrifice offered by the high priest once each year at the temple in Jerusalem.
No matter how badly we mess up, no one has to be sacrificed again to reconcile us with God. All we need to do is turn back to God in confidence that his love and forgiveness are unchanging. God’s promise is trustworthy.
Also an amazing blessing.
We know that the Second Coming didn’t happen right away. But the coming of the Holy Spirit did. Ten days later, on the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples with a sound like a mighty wind and tongues as of fire. Their hearts and minds were fired with the experience of the Spirit of God, the Holy Breath of God. And a new act in salvation history began. The public witness and sharing of the Good News of Salvation burst onto the world scene, beginning in Jerusalem
Today, however, we celebrate the promise. We anticipate the mystery to come. We recognize the puzzlement of the disciples, who really had no clue what was happening or why. We rejoice in the promise and blessing of the Holy Spirit living among us and of the great honor and gift of being part of Christ’s body.
So, how to celebrate? This is an important feast. Important enough for it to be moved from its usual spot to a Sunday, so we can take time to enjoy it.
Food traditions can be fun. Some ideas I’ve come across are in our Theologika website here: https://theologika.net/ofs-other-fun-stuff/feast-of-the-ascension/
I like to make orange meringue pie. Just use a regular lemon meringue pie recipe, but substitute orange juice. It doesn’t need quite as much sugar as a lemon one does and has a lovely flavor. I might just do that this year!
What will you do?
Whatever you decide to do, be sure to celebrate this day. Pray today and during the coming week for the Holy Spirit to come into your life in a special way as well. This is a time to open our hearts ever more deeply to receive Love. And next week, set aside time for Pentecost… Amazing things can happen!