Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Message of Ascension Thursday

Today is Ascension Thursday, which is exactly 40 days after Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.  It is on this day that our Lord left His followers and rose to heaven in his Glorified Body to sit at the right hand of God the Father.  For those of us in the Northeast United States (Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, to be exact) and in the Archdiocese of Omaha, Ascension Thursday is a Holy Day of Obligation.  The rest of the country celebrates it on Sunday.  Why?  This is really sad.  From Scott P. Richert of
The 40th day after Easter Sunday is always a Thursday, and the feast has traditionally been celebrated on that Thursday. However, because attendance at Ascension Thursday Masses had been falling for years, the bishops of the United States, in accordance with canon law, petitioned the Vatican to allow the celebration to be transferred to the following Sunday.  The Vatican agreed.
This seems a matter of the hierarchy giving in to the laity's laziness.  And I think the ones who pay the price for this are the laity, because they definitely lose something by not celebrating this day at the appropriate time.

Ascension Thursday is a time of great joy.  Our Lord has spent 40 days on earth in His Glorified Body appearing to and teaching His Disciples, leaving no doubt in their minds that He has truly risen from the dead.  The two main Biblical accounts we have of the ascension were both written by St. Luke in his gospel account and in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.  The Apostles, who had not yet received the Holy Spirit at the time of the Ascension, still had not totally given up hope that Jesus was going to make political changes and free them from their Roman captors.  Acts 1:6 - "Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?

The Apostles still did not grasp the meaning of Jesus' words when He said, My Kingdom is not of this world.  Many of us keep asking our Lord the same thing, wondering when He will "restore the Kingdom."  We don't realize that our Lord is not a restorer, but a Builder and Creator.  In Revelation 21:5 He says, "Behold, I make all thing new."  He told us that we can't just be patching up the old, but that we need new wine bottles.  The old man must die and we must become a new creation.  And just as the old man must die, so must this world die and be reborn as a new world.  Jesus said in John 12:24:
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.
First and foremost, this is talking of Jesus Himself, from whose death and resurrection we receive life. Just as our Lord had to put the "old man" to death, so must we, which means letting go of everything pertaining to this world. Everything around us has been tainted with sin, and must be destroyed. If we try to hang on, we will be destroyed with this world. In I Peter 2:11, the first Vicar of Christ tells us we are "strangers and aliens" in this world. St. Paul says in Philippians 3:20 that our citizenship is in heaven. Those who belong to Christ are not part of this world, and those who belong to the world have no part in the Lord. St. Thomas à Kempis wrote in "The Imitation of Christ":
That is the highest wisdom, to cast the world behind us, and to reach forward to the heavenly kingdom. . . It is vanity to love that which quickly passeth away, and not to hasten where eternal joy abideth.
And yet, despite detaching ourselves from this world, we must cultivate and maintain a love for those in the world.  Just before His Ascension into heaven, Christ gave the Church the Great Commission:
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
In response to the disciples' question about restoring the Kingdom to Israel, Our Lord replied (Acts 1:7)
It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
So how do we detach ourselves from the world, and yet still love and be a witness to those who remain so much a part of this world? We cannot do this of and by ourselves. At the last Supper, our Lord explained that He had to leave the disciples so that the Holy Spirit could come (John 16:7-11):
But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
In order for the Church to fulfill the Great Commission given to us by Jesus Christ, it was necessary that Our Lord leave us so that the Holy Spirit could come and empower us, guiding and leading the Church into all truth. The Holy Spirit lives within the Church and He lives within each one of us. But this could not happen without Christ ascending to heaven to the Father. At that point, sitting at the Right Hand of the Father, as He said, He sent the Holy Spirit upon the Church, which we we will see in 10 days at the Feast of Pentecost.

Yet, despite the fact that Christ was ascending to heaven, He told the Disciples:
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
How is Christ with us? He is in the Eucharist, in every tabernacle of every Catholic Church in the world. Yes, He is at the Right Hand of the Father, interceding for us, but He is also with us in the Eucharist. He will never leave His Church.

Acts 1:9-11:
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
The first message the apostles hear when Christ ascends is that He will return, just as they saw Him leave.  The first time our Lord came to this earth, He was born in a lowly manger, unknown and unloved by the world.  But when He returns, He will come as a conquering King, full of Glory and Splendor, and as St. Paul tells us, every knee will bow.

Eternal Monarch, King most high,
Whose blood hath brought redemption nigh,
By whom the death of Death was wrought,
And conquering grace to man was brought:

Ascending to the throne of might,
And seated at the Father's right,
All power, O Jesu, is thine own
That here thy Manhood had not known.

To thee the whole creation now
Doth in its three-fold order bow,
Of things on earth, and things on high,
And things that underneath do lie.

With awe the Angels contemplate
The wondrous change of man's estate;
Though flesh hath sinned, Flesh purged the stain,
And in that Flesh our God doth reign.

Be thou our joy, O mighty Lord,
As thou wilt be our great reward;
Earth's joys to thee are nothing worth,
Thou joy and crown of heaven and earth.

We therefore beg, dear Lord, of thee
To pardon our iniquity;
Yea, of thine own supernal grace
Uplift our hearts to seek thy face:

That when in clouds, O Judge of doom,
Thy glory shall this earth illume,
Thou mayst remit our debt of pain,
And grant our long-lost crowns again.

All praise from every heart and tongue
To thee, ascended Lord, be sung;
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore. Amen.

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