Understanding the Feast of the Ascension as the Portal to Eternity
Throughout most of the Catholic Church around the world we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord on Thursday. In some places, the Feast is transferred to Sunday.
However, whether celebrated on Thursday or Sunday, it is meant to be a cause for celebration. It can be – IF we allow the Holy Spirit to show us what it really means.
The Feast has lost its meaning in the experience of too many Catholics and other Christians.
Does the Ascension of Jesus affect our lives in the here and now?
Is this Feast a commemoration of an event which occurred 2000 years ago? Sort of an intermission in the ministry of Jesus until He returns or the last act of the play?
Or, could it help unlock the meaning of our lives right now? Does it point to the plan of God for the entire created order? Is it a portal to eternity?
The Ascension is meant to be a Feast of profound meaning, hope and promise. However, it requires us to reflect on who Jesus is – and who we are empowered to become in Him, beginning now and opening up into the life to come. He is indeed the Way, the Truth and the Life. (John 14:6)
The Feast of the Ascension of the Lord Jesus helps to explain the Christian vocation and unveils the horizon which opens before us as we continue to live our lives now in this Way called Christianity. (cf Acts 9:2, 11:26) It points to the ongoing plan of redemption for each of us. It gives us a glimpse of the loving plan of God for the whole of creation.
This Feast also points us toward a deeper understanding of the Feast of Pentecost which we will soon celebrate. The very Breath of God, His Holy Spirit, has been breathed into the Body of Christ, the Church – and into each one of us as members of that Body.
That Spirit makes it possible for us to live differently – beginning right now. It is at work within us, transforming us more and more into His Image and Likeness, as we cooperate with the gift of grace.
That Spirit empowers and equips us to participate in the ongoing redemptive mission of Jesus Christ, as it continues through His Body, the Church.
We have ascended with Jesus Christ – and are called to begin to live – and manifest – on this earth the very realities of heaven and the kingdom to come. This new Way is meant to begin in the here and now, to be completed in the fullness of time.
The redemptive plan of God in Jesus Christ will not be complete until the same Jesus who ascended returns and hands the re-created cosmos back to the Father.
That is what the Apostle Paul calls “the plan“, or the “mystery” now revealed in Jesus Christ. (See, e.g., Col. 1)
So, what am I saying?
The Feast of the Ascension reveals the meaning of our lives and points to the plan of God for the entire created order.
Is that how we understand the Feast? I think we more commonly think of the Ascension as some kind of intermission or last act. Now, we must strive to do the best we can until Jesus returns.
However, the Ascension is not an intermission at all. Nor is it a last act. The event we remember in this Feast reveals the mission of the Church – and our call to participate in it – right now. It also offers the portal to eternity.
Jesus Christ has not left us. He is continuing His loving, redemptive plan through His Body, the Church, of which we are members.
The Head and the Body cannot be separated. He lives His life through us!
The great western Bishop Augustine proclaimed these words in a homily he preached on the Feast of the Ascension:
“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 passed through the waters of the Font of Baptism we were incorporated into Jesus Christ and became 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.”
Augustine, reflecting the clear teaching of the early Church Fathers, reminds us that the Head and the Body united are the “One Christ.” In other words, we ascended with the Lord! He is the Head and we are members of His Body. We cannot be separated.
So, this is our Feast as well!
We live in Christ by living in His Body, the Church, of which we are members. We are invited to live in the heart of the Church for the sake of the world.
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 Augustine and Leo point us to the deeper meaning of this Feast.
The Ascension does not mark the end of Jesus’ relationship with His Church but the beginning of a new way of His relating to the world – in and through His Church.
This way includes every one of us who now bear His name. When viewed with the eyes of living faith the Ascension can begin to change the way we view ourselves and live our daily lives.
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 choose to 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! We really can participate in the Divine Nature – beginning now – and continuing for all eternity. We are in communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and with one another, including those who have gone on before us marked with the sign of faith.
The Divine Life of the Risen Savior is mediated to us through the Word and the Sacraments – in and through the Church, which is the Body of Christ. Grace is the very life of God.
We have been incorporated into the Trinitarian communion of the Love who is God, beginning now, because we live our lives, now, in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. We are members of His Body, the Church. The church is a communion in which we are joined, in Him, and with one another, for the sake of the world.
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 now being re-created in Him.
The Church is the seed of the coming Kingdom, planted and sent into the world to continue His redemptive mission until He comes again.
When He does return, He will complete the work of Redemption, and we will be raised to live in the new heaven and earth promised.
The Church, as the early fathers were fond of saying, is the new world, the world in the course of transfiguration.
The Christian vocation invites us to live this new relationship in Jesus Christ together, with the Father, through the Holy Spirit. We are invited to live in the Heart of the Church, for the sake of the World.
So, the Feast of the Ascension is not an Intermission or last act.
The Feast reveals the continuation of the Redemptive mission of Jesus Christ and the great and wonderful plan of the God of Love.
Let me conclude with some words from the great Apostle and mystic Paul who reflects on this loving plan of God:
“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)
Happy Feast Church!