The Ascension of the Lord (Year C)
Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
Heb 9:24-28; 10:19-23
Today’s Feast Day of the Ascension celebrates that part of the infinite mystery of Christ by which he victoriously returns, in his resurrected and transfigured flesh, to the right hand of God the Father, to rule all Creation as king, and to sanctify all Creation as high priest. The overwhelming, brilliant glory of Christ that was briefly seen in the mystery of the Transfiguration, is now forever fulfilled in the mystery of the Ascension. The Son of God took on our human flesh, which is now and forever held within the eternal glory of God himself, the Holy Trinity. Divinity shared in our humanity, so that humanity might share in His divinity.
Our gospel reading gives us the last verses of the gospel of Luke, which tell of Jesus meeting with his disciples after resurrection, giving them the confidence that all that Jesus had said of himself being the Messiah and the Son of God, and being killed on the cross and rising on the third day, was true. Jesus was victorious in his defeat over death, and now the good news was to be spread throughout all the nations by his joyful disciples, the Church—the good news of the invitation to repentance and the forgiveness of sins through Christ. But their mission wasn’t to start just yet—not until they are empowered by the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them at Pentecost. After giving them the joy of his resurrection, the mission of his Church, and the promise of his Holy Spirit, Jesus led them out of the city, raised his hands in blessing upon them, and parted from them in his Ascension. Back at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, we saw the priest Zechariah ministering in the temple, when the angel told him of the coming of his son, John the Baptist. But Zechariah didn’t believe the angel, and he was struck mute. When he came out of the temple, the people expected to receive the priestly blessing from him, but they could not. The time of the old priestly blessings has ended. Now, at the end of the Gospel of Luke, the world once again receives the priestly blessing —not from the old covenant priesthood, but from the new covenant’s high priest Jesus Christ, as he goes up to the heavenly temple.
In the opening verses of the Gospel of Luke, he says that he has collected and re-examined all the available eye-witness accounts regarding Jesus, and is writing his gospel for a person he calls Theophilus, which may be a person’s name, or could just be a generic name to apply to any Christian reader, since it means “friend of God.” And the writing is with the intention to help Theophilus to be strengthened in his faith in Jesus Christ, and the miraculous accounts that are circulating about him.
Now, as our first reading today, we have the very first verses of the Acts of the Apostles, which begins, “In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen…” and then continues on with the rest of our reading of the Ascension, and then on with the rest of the story. So the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles go together. The beginning of Acts is like the first scene of a TV episode, that begins, “Previously…”, and recaps the end of the previous episode, before continuing on with the new material.
As we celebrate the Ascension, some people may get confused by that language, “ascended up into Heaven.” Does that mean that Jesus goes up into the outer space? Does he keep going past Pluto somewhere? What does that mean? St. Paul describes a mystical vision in which he was taken up into “the third heaven.” In the ancient Jewish understanding of the world, the first heaven was the air, the domain of clouds and birds. The second heaven was the furthest that we could see, the firmament of the blue sky and stars, like a dome over the world. And then, there was the third heaven, kind of a spiritual realm in which God and the angels dwell. So the visible heaven is a kind of sacramental symbol for the invisible spiritual realm in which the Lord dwells: “The heaven of heavens.” So Jesus being lifted up, and then hidden by a cloud, is revealing that he is now passing into the invisible realm where the Father dwells. That’s what this day is celebrating.
For our second reading, we had the option to read from either the Letter to the Ephesians or the Hebrews. This section from Hebrews is a detailed reflection on the mystery of Jesus’ Ascension in the New Testament. It says that “Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf.” Christ isn’t offering himself over and over like an eternally repeating cycle. He offered himself once, for all time. His crucified and resurrected life is itself the perpetual offering of himself to the Father on our behalf. He is in the true Temple, of which the Jerusalem temple was an icon, a sacramental image of the hidden reality, based on the Tent of Meeting, which Moses built from instructions God had given him. Our modern churches, with a sanctuary, tabernacle, bread of presence, lampstand, and altar, are a copy of a copy of a copy. But what is the true, heavenly temple? We know from John’s book of Revelation that the heavenly city doesn’t have a temple. John says, “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” The heavenly Temple is an image of divine love: the love between the Father and the Son; and now, after the Ascension, with the Son in human flesh, it is the eternal love between Divinity and Humanity. Between the eternal Bridegroom and Bride.
Fr. Jean Corbon, in his beautiful book on the liturgy, “Wellspring of Worship,” describes the Ascension as ongoing until the end of time, because the Ascension is the arrival of the Body of Christ into the presence of the Father, and the Body of Christ is all the members of the Church. The members of the Body continue the Ascension, as each one follows Christ, the head of the body, through death, and up into the heavenly banquet of the Father joyfully welcoming home His Son, returning from his mission of rescuing humanity, His Bride, his People, from death, and bringing them into communion with God. It is the supper of the Lamb, the wedding feast of the Lamb and the Bride, united in the Holy Spirit.
We have a taste of that here and now. That’s what the sacrament of Communion is! If our own bodies are holy because of their union with our human souls, how much more so the body of Christ, that is united to divinity, the source of life, itself!? Now this flesh is transfigured in the Paschal mystery of Christ, and, in the Ascension, shares in the Holy Trinity itself, and we unite ourselves with this divine flesh that is the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament of communion. What did Jesus say in the Bread of Life Discourse? Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him…” Then he says, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”
Jesus connects the Ascension with the Eucharist. We are what we eat; we become like what we eat. When we worthily receive the Sacrament of Communion, we are united to heaven, to the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. We are transformed by our sacramental share in the joyful banquet feast of heaven. How? By the Holy Spirit, the grace that unites the bread and wine the priest offers on the altar into Christ’s sacrament of his body and blood at the Last Supper, which is then offered as the perfect sacrifice of himself by his cross and resurrection, that we might have life with the Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit. That’s what we celebrate in the Ascension: our own participation in the shalom of the Holy Trinity. And then our mission is to spread the good news of the invitation into this mystery, and the necessity of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. But before we begin that mission, first we need to join the Apostles as they prayerfully prepare for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.