Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

Today, the Roman Church celebrates Ascension Thursday, though most (not all) of the English-language dioceses in North America transfer the feast to the following Sunday. The novena to the Holy Spirit—which recalls the disciples’ own prayer in the upper room (Acts 1:12-14)—normally begins the day after Ascension Thursday and continues nine days to the Vigil of Pentecost. We will reflect on the readings from the Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, since those are the readings that most of our readership will hear in Mass today, but we will do so in light of the Ascension, which some of our readers, as well as other Christians throughout the world, are celebrating today.

At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples, “A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me” (Jn 16:16). Through these words, Jesus refers to his own death, but these words could also be applied to the time after Jesus’ Ascension into heaven. We might then ask, with the disciples, “What is this ‘little while’ of which he speaks?” (Jn 16:18) This is rather an important question, both for the disciples—for whom this “little while” will be the emptiness of Holy Saturday—and for us for whom, as for Paul, this “little while” is the period between Christ’s Ascension and his Second Coming.

There are two points that we may consider today regarding this. First of all, our “little while” is different from the “little while” in the passion, because, through the descent of the Holy Spirit in that period, we are “guided to all truth” through the lives that we strive to live as Christians with the help that God gives through the Church. We must never forget that, through the action of the Holy Spirit in the Church, Christ continues to be present in the world. This is a different sort of presence from that which Christ could have chosen, had he decided to stay and not ascend into heaven. We should reflect in awe at this: after all the dim-wittedness of the disciples that we see in the Gospels, Jesus could have decided that we “just didn’t cut it” and stuck around so he would never have to worry about us getting things wrong or misrepresenting him. Instead, he chooses a disciple that the Gospels single out for his obtuseness—Peter—and entrusts the Church to him, empowering him to accomplish a mission that cannot be fulfilled without God’s help. If one is tempted to second-guess the task that has been genuinely entrusted to Peter, one must know that he is also second-guessing the Lord. 

The second point can seem the converse of the first. Though our “little while” differs from that experienced by the disciples during the passion insofar as Christ remains present with us through the Holy Spirit, there is something about the way that this “little while” in the passion that still applies to us: “you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (Jn 16:20). There is something about the struggle of this world that has caused Christians through the centuries to call it the “vale of tears” (cf. Salve Regina). If one does not know the suffering of the Christian life, perhaps one has not really tried to love (cf. Amoris laetitia 118f, 143ff). Nonetheless, because we have the privilege of loving, our grieving already contains something of the joy of eternity, the delight that the Son shows in being able to give himself for us (Heb 10:5-7).
May 5th, 2016