The overarching context for our Sunday after the Ascension of the Lord is this: What was not assumed, was not redeemed (St. Gregory of Nazianzus).
At the Annunciation, our humanity, body and soul, was taken by God the Son into an unbreakable bond with His divinity. Therefore, when Christ died and went into the tomb, we went with Him. When He rose from the tomb, our humanity rose in Him. When Christ ascended to heaven, so also did we. In Christ, our humanity now sits at the Father’s right hand. His presence there is our great promise and hope. Our great hope is already fulfilled, but not yet in its fullness. That hope informs our trials in this life.
In Christ, right now, our humanity is already glorious. Individually, we have a way to go. This is sometimes called a state of “already but not yet”.
Writing about an ancient Collect for the Ascension, originally found in the Liber Sacramentorum Gellonensis, Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion, OSB, (+1923) wrote in Christ in His Mysteries that “of all the feasts of Our Lord … the Ascension is the greatest, because it is the supreme glorification of Christ Jesus.” He comments on the Collect for the Ascension (which was, is and ever shall be on Thursday). Here’s the Collect in Latin and with my literal rendering:
Concede, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus: ut, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum Redemptorem nostrum ad caelos ascendisse credimus; ipsi quoque mente in caelestibus habitemus…. Grant, we beseech You, Almighty God, that we, who believe Your Only Begotten Son our Redeemer to have ascended on this day to heaven, may ourselves also dwell in mind amongst heavenly things.
What does Abbot Marmion observe?
“This prayer first of all testifies to our faith in the mystery in recalling the title ‘Only-begotten Son’ and ‘Redeemer’, given to Jesus, the Church shows forth the reasons for the celestial exaltation of her Bridegroom;— she finally denotes the grace therein contained for our souls. … The mystery of Jesus Christ’s Ascension is represented to us in a manner suitable to our nature: we contemplate the Sacred Humanity rising from the earth and ascending visibly towards the heavens.”
Think of it this way. When Christ instituted the sacraments, he used sensible signs to convey to us that we were receiving insensible realities of grace. How then was He going to teach us about His entrance to the heavenly temple and the elevation of our humanity? By the physical sight of Him going up. This rising and raising is a sign for the sake of our deepest hope and joy.
You may recall that at Christmas, the great Pope and Doctor of the Church St. Leo the Great exclaimed, “O Christian! Remember your dignity!” Preaching on 1 June 444 St. Leo I said,
“Truly it was a great and indescribable source of rejoicing when, in the sight of the heavenly multitudes, the nature of our human race ascended over the dignity of all heavenly creatures, to pass the angelic orders and to be raised beyond the heights of archangels. In its ascension it did not stop at any other height until this same nature was received at the seat of the eternal Father, to be associated on the throne of the glory of that One to whose nature it was joined in the Son.”
Leo says in another sermon of 17 May 445,
“This Faith, reinforced by the Ascension of the Lord and strengthened by the gift of the Holy Spirit, has not been terrified by chains, by prison, by exile, by hunger, by fire, by the mangling of wild beasts, nor by sharp suffering from the cruelty of persecutors. Throughout the world, not only men but also women, not just immature boys but also tender virgins, have struggled on behalf of this Faith even to the shedding of their blood. This Faith has cast out demons, driven away sicknesses, and raised the dead.”
The knowledge that our humanity is now enjoying heaven can work wonders for us in the hour of need. Keep this in mind in time of trial.
Fulton Sheen expressed well an important dimension of the Ascension:
“A coronation upon the earth, instead of an ascension into heaven, would have confined men’s thoughts of him to the earth. But the Ascension would cause men’s minds and hearts to ascend above the earth. In relation to himself, it was fitting that the human nature which he took as the instrument for teaching, and governing, and sanctifying, should partake of glory as it shared in shame. It was very hard to believe that he, who was the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, was the beloved son in whom the father was well pleased. It was difficult to believe that he, who did not come down from across, good ascend into heaven, or that the momentary glory that shone about him on the mount of the Transfiguration was a permanent possession. The Ascension put all such doubts away by introducing his human nature into intimate and eternal communion with God.”
Taking a cue from Ven. Fulton, consider how from the day of the Resurrection the Lord taught those who loved him and believed in Him to let go of his mere material and physical presence. He told Mary Magdalene “Do not hang on to me. I have not yet ascended to the Father”. He revealed to the disciples at Emmaus that He would after this be present in the breaking of the bread, which would be the Eucharist He instituted at the Last Supper. He passed through walls and locked doors, revealing the risen subtlety of His Body. He appeared first here and then there. Finally, he was seen to ascend skyward on a cloud. And when clouds appear in Scripture, you know that the divine is present.
Had the Risen Christ remained with us on earth, our seeing Him with our eyes would have taken the place of faith. The object of Faith is precisely what you do not see, but still believe.
We have the Lord present to us now in multiple ways, including in every word of Scripture, in the person of the poor, in the priest who is alter Christus, and supremely in the Eucharist. Every single way of His ongoing presence is a call to be clean and worthy.
The gifts of the Ascension are multiple and in progress. Let’s rapidly consider two.
After the Resurrection, Our Lord spent some forty days in ongoing formation of the Apostles. If Christ unfolded with the Scriptures who He was and what His mission was to the men on the road to Emmaus, how much more would He have worked with the Apostles before His Ascension? There is a reason why we rely on Apostolic Tradition, that which has been handed down through the centuries in our Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. In the completion of that forty day formation, Our Lord commissioned His Apostles to go into all the world and preach the good news. Then He physically ascended out of human sight as he passed into the presence of the Father.
Another aspect of the ascension that is important for us right now is that when He left this earthly realm, he left as High Priest, going to the heavenly temple where He now perpetuates His Sacrifice on High.
Because the Lord has passed out of these restrictions of space and time that we endure here and now, He can renew, through His “other Christs”, priests, who act in his person (in persona Christi), His Last Supper with the His Passion and Death, His Resurrection and Ascension. As we know from the Letter to the Hebrews 9, Christ entered into the heavenly sanctuary, a sanctuary not made with human hands, for all eternity. He started in the upper room, passed through the Cross and the tomb, rose and ascended to the heavenly holy of holies once for all time. There, as the CCC says:
662 … Christ permanently exercises his priesthood, for he “always lives to make intercession” for “those who draw near to God through him”. As “high priest of the good things to come” he is the center and the principal actor of the liturgy that honors the Father in heaven.
Think about this at Sunday Mass: How does the renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary during Mass get to me? Because of the Ascension. By ascending to the heavenly temple, Christ the High Priest’s Sacrifice can be present here and now, and on another altar over there, and on the other side of the world, and in a thousand places at the same time, and he can be present in each and every host, hundreds and thousands at the same time.
The time after Ascension Thursday and Pentecost was a time of mysterious preparation for the Apostles and the early Church, it’s glorious bursting birth at the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
Do you sense that the Church needs a real renewal and bursting birth right now? One that isn’t just the blather and rah rah about the “obvious” fruits of a now sixty year old Council?
Rather than form yet another committee or make yet another poster with a pious slogan, let’s take matters into our own raised hands and, with hearts on sigh – corda sursum – ask the Holy Spirit to bring it. Bring it, Holy Spirit.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz