THE ASCENSION (C)
(Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Luke 24:46-53)
In today's first reading, and in the excerpt we heard from St. Luke's Gospel, we were told how Jesus ascended to heaven as His faithful eleven apostles watched in wonder:
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 into heaven.
Just cast your minds back to the Garden of Gethsemane and Calvary and recall how Jesus had besought His Father to strengthen and guide Him in His hour of need:
“Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me; still, not My will but Yours be done." And to strengthen Him an angel from heaven appeared to Him. (Luke 22:42-43)
Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit"; and when He had said this He breathed His last. (Luke 23:46-7)
With such words in mind, surely we can be in no doubt about what Jesus would be doing when, after rising from the dead, He ascended, as we are told, to His Father in heaven:
After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was taken up into heaven and took His seat at the right hand of God. (Mark 16:19)
There at the right hand of His Father in heaven He is, first and foremost, giving glory and thanks to His Father for raising and exalting Him in answer to the prayers He had made during His agony on earth; and then He is also doing that for which He had been sent as man and for which He embraced the Cross, namely, seeking, working, our salvation:
Christ Who died, and furthermore is also risen, Who is even at the right hand of God, Who also makes intercession for us. (Romans 8:34)
There, St. Paul tells us:
He must reign till (1 Corinthians 15:25) God has put all things under His feet, and (given) Him as head over all things to the Church.
Jesus, in heavenly glory at the right hand of the Father, gives glory to His Father and intercedes for His Church and His People, for you and me, and for all who will love and obey Him. Jesus’ prayers are effective, and so, on earth, His most Holy Spirit is strengthening, inspiring, and guiding, Mother Church to proclaim the Good News to all creation and lead the fight against sin. When that work has been completed, and that war is finally won, then God's Kingdom will be established here on earth by the Son of Man appearing with His angels in glory on the clouds of heaven:
Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to His God and Father; then the Son Himself will also be subjected to the One Who subjected everything to Him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:24, 28)
Then, indeed, God will be all in all, when Jesus, the Lord of Glory, at the head of His glorious Body, the Church, and on behalf of all creation, solemnly intones the great eternal hymn of heavenly praise of the Father (Revelation 15:4):
(May all) glorify Your name. For You alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed.
This supreme task, duty, joy and glory, of redeemed mankind and glorified creation, to give thanks to God for ever and ever, was inaugurated at Our Lord's Ascension when the Son joyfully brought His own glorious Body and Blood before His heavenly Father, with mankind having been triumphantly freed from Satan’s chains of sin and death, and to be subsequently endowed with the life-giving Spirit of Truth and Love; and that is the goal towards which the history of salvation now irresistibly goes forward as to its ultimate fulfilment.
This was beautifully understood and explained by St. Irenaeus, in the second century, in his fight against heresies, as a modern author tells us:
"St. Irenaeus understands the Church as an ontologically unique community, not as a collection of spiritual individuals. The special calling of that community is not to escape the world but to participate in its transformation. Together with the Ascended One, in the Spirit, its members are granted … to offer a genuine oblation of thanksgiving on behalf of creation. Through a living anthem of praise the Church overcomes the world's dissipating mode of existence and its bondage to the powers of darkness." (Ascension and Ecclesia, 70)
That hymn of thanksgiving which has now been intoned in heaven, as I said, by the Ascended Lord, is taken up by Mother Church on earth in a paean of praise which is her liturgical worship, above all at Holy Mass, in the Eucharist, which very word means "thanksgiving".
All thus far concerns the eternal purpose and ‘factual reality’ – for believers – of the Ascension of Our Blessed Lord.
But what about the Personal aspect of that glorious event … how did Jesus Himself approach, experience, appreciate, His Ascension? If we can find out just a little of that we would have a most precious guide for our own preparation for and approach to death.
For Jesus, His Death, Resurrection, and Ascension were stages of one whole and integrated process of divine Fulfilment. We, on the other hand, tend to think of our eventual death ‘on its own’, so to speak: for very many Christians and Catholics death is the ‘end of life’, something that will hopefully happen to them ‘in the twinkling of an eye’, when they are too occupied or distracted to think about it; there are others, however, who treat death more seriously, acknowledging its approach towards them by looking back more carefully, repenting more whole-heartedly for past sins. Future aspirations or expectations expressing present hope for a largely unknown future are, on the other hand, rare indeed and somewhat airy-fairy at the best when compared with regret for the past which is usually very real and heavy with well-known responsibility and fault.
We are disciples of Jesus, however, and He is not only Our Lord and Master, but our Guide and Saviour, and He approached His Death with His Ascension in view, with the result that His Ascension had a most important effect on and imparted a most Personally intimate complexion to His approaching death. Death was, for Jesus, not DEATH as for most modern men and women, but a ‘transitus’, a going home to His Father, and that outlook can and should be of great assistance to each of us individually:
I am going away … If you loved Me you would rejoice that I am going to the Father for the Father is greater than I. …. The ruler of the world is coming. He has no power over Me, but the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded Me. (John 14: 28-31)
I came from the Father and have come into the world. Now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father. (John 16: 28)
Father, the hour has come. Give glory to Your Son, so that Your Son may glorify You. I glorified You on earth by accomplishing the work that You gave Me to do. Now, glorify Me, Father, with You, with the glory that I had with You before the world began. (John 17:1-5)
This hope to share in Jesus’ comprehensive attitude to death is no mere pipe-dream, because Jesus prayed most particularly for us to His Father:
Father, they are Your gift to Me. I wish that where I am they also may be with Me, that they may see My glory that You gave Me, because You loved Me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world does not know You, but I know You, and they know that You sent Me. I made known to them Your Name and I will make it known, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them and I in them.” (John 17:24–26)
The Father’s love, lavished with total exuberance on Jesus, is available to us, Jesus’ prayer assures us; let us therefore give thanks for it, return it, and allow it to draw us with Jesus towards the Father more and more: with ever deeper and more sincere repentance for our sins, indeed, but also with a lovingly humble share in His, Our Blessed Lord and Saviour’s confidence and gratitude. Jesus most markedly urged such trust and confidence in the Father in the following message given to Mary for His disciples
Jesus said to (Mary), “Stop holding on to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to My brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’” (John 20:17)
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, the mystery of the Ascension of our Blessed Lord, is a test for faith as Our Lord Himself declared (John 6:62-64):
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
By that very token however our Lord’s Ascension is a supremely rich source of food for Catholic life (with Jesus by the Spirit) and contemplation (of Jesus and His Father). Here I have merely tapped open just a little trickle of such doctrinal devotion, may your prayer and faith win you more.