Twenty-ninth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension
Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Hebrews 9:24-28, 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53
Today is the feastday of our hope.
The Solemnity of the Ascension, celebrated on the 40th day after Easter (or, if necessary, the Sunday following it), marks the day we believe Jesus translated Himself from the earthly realm into the heavenly realm in the entirety of His being – that is, possessing both His soul and His body. This is the destiny prepared for all of us, to enjoy the direct and intimate presence of God in the fullness of our being. As the Creed we recite every week proclaims, we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” It is why care for the body of the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy; we trust that, by virtue of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, we will be reunited with our bodies in a glorified state for ever, a creation made new. And it is why we can always take joy and peace in the struggles and passions of our daily lives, because we look towards this hope.
The Evangelist Luke gives us our traditional story of the Ascension, both at the conclusion of his Gospel and at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. The account in Acts, which is our First Reading, gives us a bit more detail of the conversation between Jesus and the Apostles at Bethany, but both accounts relate the fundamental elements: Jesus commissions the Apostles as witnesses of His truth, promises to send the Holy Spirit to aid them in their witness, and is lifted up until He passes from their sight. What is probably most striking, therefore, about these two tellings of the same story by the same author are the endings. In their way express the same idea in two different forms. For Luke, who gave us the stories of the John the Baptist’s father Zechariah and of the Presentation of Jesus, everything begins and ends with focus on the Temple – which, for the Jews, was the physical dwelling place of God on earth. So his Gospel tells us that after the Ascension the Apostles “were continually in the Temple praising God.” Acts, however, tells that immediately after Jesus is taken up, as the Apostles were still looking on, two men in white appear and ask the famous line: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” One account ends in reverence and joy, the other in wonder and reprimand.
Both these endings are tied together by a Second Reading taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, discussing Jesus’ role as the ultimate high priest who makes the perfect atonement offering for sin. Jesus enters heaven as the high priest used to entered the Temple sanctuary every year, to stand in the very presence of God as the One Who intercedes on our behalf. Through His Passion, He atoned for all sin; through His Resurrection, He overcame the power of death; now through His Ascension, He stands before the Just Judge as the Merciful Redeemer. Because this is so, the author of the Letter tells us, “we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary” – that is, heaven – “by the new and living way he opened for us” – that is, the Incarnation, the mystery begun 2000 years ago in a small Judean town and continuing today in every Mass celebrated throughout the world: God’s becoming Man so Man can become God. This is the reason why the Apostles were chided by the angels for keeping their eyes fixed on the sky, and why afterwards they were always in the Temple giving praise. “God’s dwelling is with the human race,” as the Book of Revelation told us a couple of weeks ago. Where we are, He is; where He goes, we go.
We don’t need to look above to find Jesus, or to await His return. We just need to look around, and within. “Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy.”