Reflections on the Feast of the Ascension

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Reflections on the Feast of the Ascension

After Christ rose from the dead and before he ascended to heaven, he made various appearances to certain of his followers and “spoke of the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Many of us would love to have the manuscripts from those discourses.

 

During this interim between the Resurrection and the Ascension, his followers ask him if he is going to restore the kingdom of Israel at this time and he replies that they are not privileged to know the Father’s plans on such matters. He then tells them that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit is given them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The Feast of the Ascension falls this year today, Thursday 30th May.

His all-Jewish audience could not miss the strong implication here of a mission to the Gentile world. His disciples today, in like manner, should always be willing to venture out beyond their comfort zones in promoting the gospel.

The Greek word here for “witness” is marturion, the same word used for “martyr.” Few of us are called to be literally martyred, but we are all called to the slow martyrdom of a daily death to self that the apostle Paul describes: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (II Cor. 4:10)

Christ was then lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight and into heaven. As his followers gazed into the heavens, two men in robes asked them why they were doing this and predicted that Christ would come again in glory the same way that he left. As the Creed says, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

In Acts 1:1, Luke, the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, describes his Gospel as setting forth all that Jesus began to do and teach. The implication here is that the ministry of Christ continues through his Church, the pillar and ground of the truth (I Tim. 3:15).

Put another way, between the Ascension and the Second Coming, we have a lot of work to do. We are his Body here on earth and muscles atrophy for lack of use.

What does this look like? In one of his post-Resurrection appearances, Christ say, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you (Jn. 20:21).

We are to imitate him in his life, Passion, and Resurrection. Not many of us are called to do spectacular things, but we are all called, as Mother Teresa exhorted (echoing St. Thérèse of Lisieux), to do small things with great love.

Sometimes the work God has for us will reflect the time and place we live in. For example, if you’re an orthodox Catholic living in Buffalo, New York, this will mean, because of the never-ending sex scandals and cover-up there, calling for the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone.

Some dioceses, like Buffalo, have become so corrupt, they’ve become part of the “Not One Red Cent Club.” Not one red cent should go to fund their continuing ecclesial malfeasance and money should be judiciously given to fund only worthy ministries within the diocese.

Yes, we have work to do, but the prediction of the Second Coming by the two angels reminds us that our work will be judged, whether at the Second Coming, the Particular Judgment, or the Last Judgment. This should cause us to not “bury our talent in the ground” (Mt. 25:18) but do our work with sobriety, vigor, and vigilance.

Ephesians 4:11-13 reminds us that, when Christ ascended, he gave gifts to men (i.e., apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers) “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” As lamentable as the present crisis and scandal is in the Church, the Feast of the Ascension is a good day to be thankful for the good priests and prelates.

Out here in the Pacific Northwest, I have an excellent parish priest in Fr. Kenneth St. Hilaire and am proud of my bishop, Thomas Daly, for certain courageous public statements he has made, most recently on denying Communion to pro-abortion politicians. In commenting on Ephesians 4:11-14, Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitchemphasize how these “Ascension gifts” from Christ promote unity in the Church by (1) preserving doctrinal purity, (2) warding off false teaching, and (3) sanctifying people in the truth (Jn. 17:17-19).

The Feast of the Ascension can even be a time to be grateful for bad priests and prelates, because, as the truth of anti-Donatism reveals, Christ’s sacramental grace comes through them, too. The Eucharist is still the Real Presence and Confession is stillefficacious despite their infidelity. Many of us have felt a 500-pound gorilla taken off our backs after confessing to a bad or mediocre priest when a good priest was not available.

When Christ ascended, he “entered, not into a sanctuary made by human hands … but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb. 9:24; CCC 662). There, as a merciful High Priest, he ever lives to make intercession for us, and is at the center of the liturgy that honors the Father in heaven.

The Ascension reminds us that we have a compassionate High Priest who knows what we are going through in this Vale of Tears and is praying for us as we cast all our cares on him (I Pet. 5:7). This is captured in the famous “Footprints” poster that adorns the walls of millions of homes.

Sophisticates can dismiss the poster as “pop religion,” but its message has theological heft. We complain sometimes that, during our hardest times, we only see one set of footprints on the beach of our lives and assume that God abandoned us.

However, we come to find out that there was only one set of footprints because he was, as a merciful High Priest, carrying us with his (and his Mother’s) prayers and presence: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Such a compassionate intercessor bids us to confidently “draw near to the throne of grace to find grace to help in a time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

In the Ascension, Christ sits down at the right hand of his Father, inaugurates the Messiah’s kingdom, and fulfills Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7:14: “And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (cf. CCC 664).

How does this vision square with the apostle Paul telling us in II Corinthians 4:4 that the devil is the god of this world? It ties in with the secularization of the West, scandal and crisis in the Church, and the persecution of Christians across the world.

Since there is no time in heaven, Daniel’s vision and the Ascension show us a future reality that the cosmos is heading towards as God’s plan unfolds. It reminds me of a story from my youth.

Being born and raised 18 miles east of Los Angeles, I grew up a devoted fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. When I was in college, some games were still tape-delayed.

Just before the Lakers were about to play a critical game 6 against the 76ers, my parents, a few hours before the tape-delayed game was to be broadcast, let the cat out of the bag in telling me that the Lakers had won game 6 and were the new world champions.

I watched the game later that night with perfect calm because I knew the Lakers had already won. If you’ve read the New Testament and especially the Book of the Revelation, you know how this story ends. We win.

We should celebrate the Ascension of our Lord in such a spirit. In doing this we embrace the theological virtue of Hope.

The Feast of the Ascension is also a good time to reflect on our dual citizenship. I live in the Pacific Northwest in northeast Washington state but I’m also in Christ, and, because of this, I’m seated in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6) and my citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

In one sense, those who are in Christ are free of temporal-spatial limitations. That’s why when we celebrate Mass, past, present, and future converge and we are said to be participating in the worshipful liturgy in heaven.

Such realities should cause us to live our lives in the light of eternity. It truly is a binary choice: our thoughts, words, and deeds are either “treasure in heaven” or they’re not.

Let’s say a father and husband has a big decision to make by Monday morning. He has been offered a promotion at work that would mean a substantial raise with more authority and prestige in the company.

It would also mean more traveling, longer hours, and much less time with his wife and three small children. His spiritual life would also be somewhat diminished.

Because he is seated in heavenly places, he can look at the decision with an eternal perspective and see things through the lens of sacrificial love and what it means to truly gather up treasure in heaven. It’s a no-brainer: he decides he doesn’t want to sacrifice important relationships on the altar of money and achievement and declines the offer.

As citizens of heaven we are called to live consistently with our identity: “…thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” A supernatural end requires a supernatural means: we are the worms, the chrysalis is this Vale of Tears, and only the sanctifying grace of God can transform us into butterflies.

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