May 9, 2024 at 9:47 a.m.


Why is this feast so important and what do we celebrate?
Christ's ascent to heaven is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Aloysius Church in Great Neck, N.Y. The feast of the Ascension of the Lord celebrates the completion of Christ's mission on earth and his entry into heaven. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
Christ's ascent to heaven is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Aloysius Church in Great Neck, N.Y. The feast of the Ascension of the Lord celebrates the completion of Christ's mission on earth and his entry into heaven. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) (Courtesy photo of Gregory A. Shemitz)

By Father Anthony Barratt | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Today, we celebrate the great feast of the Ascension of the Lord into heaven (and it is a holy day of obligation). Having written that, the Ascension is celebrated on Thursday only in a few provinces in the U.S.A: New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Hartford, Boston and Omaha … as well as in the Vatican! Elsewhere, the Solemnity has been transferred to this coming Sunday. Whatever the case, we read in the Scriptures that 40 days after Jesus had risen from the dead, he returned to His Father in heaven. Yet, it is one of those feasts in our church’s calendar that can easily pass us by, especially as we focus on other significant feasts such as Christmas, Easter or Pentecost. We could easily name hymns and carols for those feasts, but could we name a specific Ascension Day hymn? Yet, the Ascension is a key part of our faith and a key part of what is often called the “Paschal Mystery” (the whole of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection).

So, why is the Ascension so important and what do we celebrate in this wonderful feast? Well, the Ascension is really about endings and beginnings. (So it is also very fitting to have the feast at this time of the year when we think of the school year coming to a close, and of graduations and moving on for many of our children and young people.) There are really three key themes or elements that shine out in our prayers and readings at the Mass for the Ascension. These three things can be a bit complicated, but let us try and explore them together …

First of all, Jesus returns to His Father in heaven, but he does not abandon us or leave us orphans. St. Augustine reminds us that: “just as Jesus Christ did not leave the Father when he came down to earth, so he will not leave us as he returns to his Father.” As the Preface of the Mass for the Ascension puts it, “the Lord Jesus ascended to the highest heavens … not to distance Himself from our lowly state, but that we, his members, might be confident of following where He, our head and Founder, has gone before.” So, Jesus continues His presence among us, especially through His Word and through the sacraments. St. Leo the Great reminds us that the saving and life-giving mission, ministry and presence of Jesus Christ continues and now passes into the sacraments: “The visible presence of our Redeemer passed over into the sacraments.” Our Perpetual Adoration Chapel is a powerful reminder of this and an invitation to give thanks for this continuous and visible presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

Secondly, we need to remember that when Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, His human nature rose to new life too. It was not just some sort of resurrection of the spirit, nor was the risen Jesus some sort of spiritual apparition or ghost! Because of this resurrection of Jesus’ human nature and his sharing in our human nature, we and our loved ones can also share in the resurrection too. With the Ascension then, Jesus’ risen and human nature is glorified and ascends to heaven. The second reading at Mass speaks of what God has done in Jesus Christ, “… raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, above every principality, authority, power and dominion” (Ephesians 1: 17-23). This becomes the possibility and hope for us to be in heaven too. This is what the Opening Prayer at Mass says: “… for the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation and, where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body (by the way, this means us, the church, for we are the body of Christ!) is called to follow in hope.”

Finally, the Ascension also reminds us that we are called to be the presence and ministry of Jesus to others. That is why we all carry the name Christian. We are indeed followers and disciples of Jesus Christ and we are part of his body. This must not just be something inward looking or static. Rather, Jesus asks us to be his presence in the world and to spread the good news. We hear this in the Gospel for the Ascension: “… they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs” (Mark 16: 20). We are to be like a mirror that reflects the face of Jesus Christ to the world and we are to be Jesus’ hands, his feet, his voice … his love. Perhaps we can reflect then on how we can be that presence of Jesus to others by what we say and what we do.

Father Barratt, STL, PhD, EV, ChM, is the director of the Office of Prayer and Worship, episcopal vicar for the Hudson Valley Vicariate, a member of the Presbyteral Council & College of Consultors and pastor at Holy Trinity Parish in Hudson-Germantown — all in the Diocese of Albany — and adjunct professor at Siena College and St. Bernard’s Postgraduate School of Theology and Ministry in Albany.


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