May 19, 2023

Christ the Cornerstone

The Lord is with us even as he ascends into heaven

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).

Yesterday, May 18, was the traditional Ascension Thursday celebrated 40 days after Easter. Many dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, transfer this important feast to the following Sunday in order to allow a greater number of Catholics to participate.

This decision is not made lightly. We know that our secular culture makes it difficult for many Catholics to take time off from work, school or other obligations. We are also keenly aware of the sad truth that many Catholics today do not take seriously the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days. By transferring this feast from Thursday to Sunday, we hope to maximize the opportunity to communicate the meaning of this great feast and encourage better attendance at Sunday Mass.

Why is the Ascension such an important event in the life of Christ? What is the significance of Christ’s ascension into heaven for the early Church and for the Church of today and tomorrow?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“Christ’s Ascension marks the definitive entrance of Jesus’ humanity into God’s heavenly domain, whence he will come again [cf. Acts 1:11]; this humanity in the meantime hides him from the eyes of men [cf. Col 3:3]. Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, precedes us into the Father’s glorious kingdom so that we, the members of his body, may live in the hope of one day being with him forever. Jesus Christ, having entered the sanctuary of heaven once and for all, intercedes constantly for us as the mediator who assures us of the permanent outpouring of the Holy Spirit” (#665–667).

There are several important messages here. First, with the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, we have the first instance of a human body entering the heavenly realm.

We know from the post-resurrection Gospel stories that Jesus’ body was real, but transformed. He invited the disciples to touch his hands and feel the wounds in his resurrected body. He ate and drank with them. In spite of the mysterious fact that he appeared and disappeared unexpectedly behind locked doors and was often unrecognizable to people who knew him well, Jesus remained a real human being in mind, body and soul.

Secondly, Jesus said he was going back to heaven “to prepare a place for us” (Jn 14:2). This is the basis for our belief in the resurrection of the dead on the last day. When that day comes, those who have been faithful to him will join Jesus—body and soul—in the joy of heaven. This teaching is a mystery. We may not understand how this will happen, but we take Jesus at his word that if we are faithful, we will dwell with him in the everlasting joy of heaven.

Third, the Ascension of Jesus celebrates the fact that although he seems absent, hidden from our view, he is actually closer to us now than he was to his disciples before he returned to his Father. This is a paradox, one more example of the “both/and” character of Catholic faith.

Jesus is both absent and present. He is both in heaven and on Earth. We encounter him in word, sacrament and service to others. He is especially present in the Eucharist, where he gives himself to us really and truly in his body and blood, soul and divinity.

Finally, in addition to his continued presence among us, Jesus has also given us the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit, and he tells us that without this gift we would not be able to know, love and serve him intimately or to carry out his work in the world. The Ascension makes Pentecost possible. It gives us the opportunity to “let go” of dependance on the man Jesus and, paradoxically, to encounter and embrace him more profoundly in the Holy Spirit.

This is why the catechism tells us that the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven ensures us that we now have “a mediator who assures us of the permanent outpouring of the Holy Spirit.” Christ is with us. He has not abandoned us. On the contrary, he is closer to us now than he was when he walked the roads of the Holy Land.

Let’s celebrate the Ascension of the Lord with joyful confidence that he remains among us in word, sacraments and service. Let’s observe this special feast day with the conviction that he dwells within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. †

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