The Ascension of the Lord
First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 1:1-11
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 47:2-3, 6-9
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 1:17-23 (or 4:1-13 or 4:1-7, 11-13)
Gospel: According to St. Mark 16:15-20
In many dioceses across the country, including our own, this Sunday celebrates the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven rather than the 7th Sunday of Easter. Those of us who are of a certain age would remember that this feast was always celebrated on a Thursday – Ascension Thursday, forty days after Easter. The change to Sunday was explained as enabling more people to celebrate and take part in the mystery of the feast, but the cynical have taken to calling this day Ascension Thursday Sunday.
Rather than get caught up in a divisive polemic that brings no light to our lives, let us make a virtue of necessity and delve into this feast that brings to a conclusion the Church’s liturgical celebration of the Paschal Mystery.
In the Summa Theologica St. Thomas Aquinas states that the Ascension is the cause of our salvation. The authority of St. Thomas should point to the incredible importance of this statement – the Ascension is the cause of our salvation. In the same vein, a common understanding in Eastern Rite and Orthodox Theology is that this feast completes the redemptive act of Jesus, and is commonly called “salvation from on high.”
In each of the readings for this Mass the central theme is the rising of our Lord to Heaven, but one line always strikes me as crucial to our response to Christ’s ascension from this world: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” This question asked by two angelic beings in the Acts of the Apostles in the first reading has its response in the gospel reading where Mark writes, “they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them.”
Looking to the sky to find Jesus is not our primary task. We are called to go forth and preach everywhere, working with Jesus as His hands and feet and voice here on earth until He comes again. The meaning of the Ascension is not fulfilled in watching Jesus rise into the sky. The meaning is fulfilled in bringing the Good News to those we meet, and bringing it to them in both word and deed as Jesus Himself did during His time with us on earth.
Ironically, the Gospel reading from St. John for the 7th Sunday of Easter – the Gospel reading for those who are not celebrating the Ascension – begins with the line, “Lifting up His eyes to heaven.” As a part of the lengthy Johannine Last Supper Discourse Jesus prays to the Father on behalf of the Apostles, and asks that the Father protect those who have stayed true to their calling.
As Jesus looked to Heaven at the Last Supper, His prayer recognized that the Apostles are like Him and do not belong to this world, but that prayer also centered on the continuation of His work in this world by His disciples: “As You sent Me into the world, so I sent them into the world.” Fittingly He points to our vertical relationship with the Father as well as the horizontal relationship that we all have with each other. It is only when those two lines intersect that the lives of Christ’s disciples achieve their purpose since only then can our lives form and be bound to the Cross.