Ascension Thursday is one of six holy days of obligation (not counting all Sundays) in the United States, although most dioceses have now transferred it to the following Sunday. Canon Law has relegated the holy days to local bishops or provincial synodal decision. There are actually, as of 1993, only seven states in the U.S. that still celebrate the Ascension on Thursday rather than the following Sunday. I was surprised to find that Hawaii and Canada have only two holy days of obligation, Christmas and the Immaculate Conception for the former, and Christmas and the solemnity of the Mother of God (January 1) for the latter.
Nevertheless, although not a holy day of obligation in New Hampshire (because of its transferral to the following Sunday) it is a very important feast for the universal Church. It marks the completion of Our Lord’s saving work on earth and it anticipates the coming of the Holy Ghost ten days after.
Our Lord remained on earth for forty days after His Resurrection before ascending to His Father. During this time, He appeared twelve times to His Apostles and/or disciples, instructing them, and preparing them for the coming of the Paraclete in His fullness. In the Cenacle, after rising, He appeared to the Apostles and gave them the power of the Holy Ghost so that they could forgive sin.
The Gospels can be a little hard to follow sequentially in their accounts of the Resurrection. That is an issue that Brother Andre has written about masterfully on our website here.
What I found intriguing in the accounts of the Resurrection is that no one believed it until they saw Jesus with their own eyes. And this, even though He had spoken to the Apostles of His passion and resurrection four times. They would not even believe those to whom He had appeared. Our Lord was not pleased; in fact, when He did appear to them all together in the Upper Room “he upbraided them with their incredulity and hardness of heart, because they did not believe them who had seen him after he was risen again” (Mark 16:14).
Take Mary Magdalene for example. She, and a few other holy women, saw the empty tomb and two angels, albeit in the form of young men, sitting in the sepulchre. The angels told the women that Jesus is not there, He has risen, as He said He would. Yet, they did not believe the angels, or if they did, it was weakly so. They were in a state of stupor, “for a trembling and fear had seized them.” Mary Magdelene, even after receiving the news from the angel, still asked “the Gardener” who had asked her why she wept (as had the angel also): “Sir, if thou hast taken him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15). It was then that Jesus revealed Himself to her.
Mark’s Gospel ends with a word about the Ascension, but just in one sentence. More detail is given in Acts. Now Mark is called “the interpreter of Peter,” so we will see the personality of Peter in this disciple’s Gospel more than the others. Notice the emphasis on Baptism at the end of the Gospel. “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned (Mark 16:16). Do we need an “interpreter”? Are the words not clear enough? This is the Savior’s last will and testament, so to speak. This is His commission to the Twelve. “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (vs 15). The words certainly struck Saint Peter. Jesus meant what He said. And, though the Apostle wavered even as he saw the empty tomb, still, in his heart Peter believed: “To whom shall we go Lord?” he had confessed after Our Lord’s challenging sermon on the Eucharist, “thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:69).
And these are the signs Jesus promised, as recorded in Mark’s Gospel, that will be given to those who believe: “In my name they shall cast out devils: they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them: they shall lay their hands upon the sick, and they shall recover (Mark 16:17-18).
Peter spoke in tongues, cast out demons, and healed the sick. Why his very shadow healed, as we read in Acts 5:15. In his travels, perhaps he was given poison or, like Saint Paul, was bitten by a serpent. He certainly tread on serpents in the moral sense.
Finally, let us turn to the account of the Ascension in Acts.
They therefore who were come together, asked him, saying: Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? But he said to them: It is not for you to know the times or moments, which the Father hath put in his own power: But you shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you, and you shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had said these things, while they looked on, he was raised up: and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they were beholding him going up to heaven, behold two men stood by them in white garments. Who also said: Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven? This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come, as you have seen him going into heaven. Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount that is called Olivet, which is nigh Jerusalem, within a sabbath day’s journey (Acts 1:7-12).
“Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven?” As if to say, “You have work to do, you are sent. Ite Missa Est! Get ye down and pray and prepare to receive the Holy Ghost.” Then, “go and set the world on fire!”
What is this coming the angels speak of? It is as Judge. “This word going,” says Saint John Chrysostom, “sufficiently intimates, that he ascended by his own power: for so will he come by his own power to judge the world — Jesus Christ shall come on the last day, in the same body, in the same majesty, to judge the living and the dead. This he had likewise promised, in more than one place of the gospel, speaking of the vengeance, which he will exercise on the city of Jerusalem.”
But the Lord had also promised to be with the Church until the end of time: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:19). He said this to the Apostles on a mountain in Galilee sometime before His Ascension from Mount Olivet near Jerusalem.
He ascends yet He remains. He ascends in glory and sits at the right hand of the Father. He remains in love and humility to feed us with His Flesh and Blood and abide with us in our tabernacles. Saint Hilary says “And that same body, which thus ascended to heaven, and which will thus descend, is given us in the blessed Sacrament.” (Super Matt. XXIV: 32)
“O miracle!” exclaims Saint John Chrysostom, “He that sitteth with his Father above, is at the same time handled by men below. Jesus Christ ascending to heaven, both hath his flesh with him above, and hath left it with us below. Elias being taken up, left his disciple, Eliseus, his mantle and double spirit, but the Son of Man ascending, left his own flesh for us.” (Lib. iii. de Sacerd. him. 2. ad pop. Ant. hom. de divit. et paup.)
See here the relation between the Ascension (the going) and the abiding kenosis (the coming). Jesus became our Emmanuel (God with us) for all time on a Thursday, abiding in the Holy Eucharist and making us one with Himself in Holy Communion. And Jesus ascended to His Father in glory on a Thursday where He sits at the Father’s right hand. The day will come, if we persevere in grace, when our bodies will rise and go to heaven from the grave in glory and we shall sit with the King at His table in one unending Communion.
Thank you O Blessed Virgin Mary for your assent in the fiat of the Incarnation.