When You had fulfilled the dispensation for our sake, / and united earth to heaven: / You ascended in glory, O Christ our God, / not being parted from those who love You, / but remaining with them and crying: / “I am with you and no one will be against you!” — Byzantine Kontakion for the Ascension of the Lord
In my archdiocese, as in most dioceses of the United States, the solemnity of the Ascension was transferred from Thursday to Sunday. There were considered pastoral reasons for doing so, certainly, but… Sadly, this move breaks the temporal sequence St. Luke offers us that places Christ’s ascension from the Mount of Olives 40 days after his resurrection, and the coming of the Spirit on the 50th and final day of the Jewish Passover season. It also breaks the 9 day novena of intercessory prayer to “be clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) that intervenes between Ascension and Pentecost. But most of all I find it sad because it fails to inconvenience us by disrupting our work-school-entertainment structured temporal rhythms that have become strangers to the Author of time, the Alpha and Omega.
Such is life.
No mere exit
The Ascension, as the late Fr. Jean Corbon contends in his masterpiece on the liturgy, Wellspring of Worship, is not Jesus’ “exit strategy” from history so he can leave behind for greener pastures the fallen world that rejected him. No! It is rather an event that transcends the strictures of history as Jesus bears his glorified humanity — utterly transfigured by his divinity — back to the Father whose love sent him into the world to reconcile the world to himself by the blood of his Cross. For us and for our salvation, as the Creed says, Jesus “came down from heaven” to take flesh, suffer death and be raised in order to raise up the whole human race, which is why Pentecost comes immediately after the ascension. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit, sent by the ascending Christ, gives birth to a new humanity by uniting human persons to the body of the glorified Christ. He does this above all through the sacramental liturgy, which is the extension into time and space of the ascending body of Jesus that now abides in eternity. In this way, the Spirit grants us a share in all that Jesus does and is as the God-Man. In Corbon’s words,
The movement of the ascension will be complete only when all the members of his body have been drawn to the Father and brought to life by his Spirit.
Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.” If we apply these words to the ascension, and not just as a one-time event but rather as an ongoing dynamic reality, we can see this feast as the Feast of Christ’s tireless heavenly labors expended, through the Spirit, on earth in order to rescue and redeem fallen humanity and raise us, and the whole of creation, up with him into the Presence of the Father. Thus conceived, the liturgy and sacraments — outflowing from the ascending Christ — become efficacious encounters with the mystery of God’s laboring love that tirelessly works for our eternal well-being. By uniting us to the ascending Christ, the Spirit shares with us his very divine life and draws us up into an unthinkably intimate collaboration with Jesus’ creative and re-creative divine-human power. Every stirring of grace you sense within, every call to prayer, every moment of conversion, mercy and enlightenment is nothing other than being drawn into the momentum of the ascending Christ who longs for us to be with him in the New Creation wrought by his death and resurrection.
This, in turn, makes each of us joined by the Spirit to the ascending Christ into living extensions of Christ’s immortal desire to draw all things to himself through us. This means evangelization is written into our very being! We who, through faith, grasp the outstretched Hand of the ascending Christ can remain safe in his firm grip only if we likewise outstretch our open hands to those around us. This image reminds me of the troubling parable told by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov,
Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it, and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: “It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.” No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake of fire. The angel wept and went away.
Christ’s love never tires of inviting every man and woman to be seized by him that he might lead them captive on High to join him in the company of his Father. Hear his voice saying to you,
And human love needs human meriting:
How has thou merited —
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms.
But just that thou might’st seek it in my arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home;
Rise, clasp My hand, and come! — Francis Thompson