It appears that this great feast of the Lord’s Ascension, the second of the great Easter Feasts, risks being overshadowed by the celebrations of the Resurrection at Easter and the coming Solemnity of Pentecost. Yet the Lord’s Ascension is an essential part in the completion of the salvation which the Son of God was sent to accomplish for us.
In the first place, the Ascension of the Lord testifies to the Lord’s proclamation to us today: All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Today’s solemnity reminds us, indeed urges us, to have confidence in his great power and love. It admonishes us as well, lest we be too short-sighted, like the apostles, who ask: Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? All too readily, though perhaps understandably, we conceive of this power in terms of earthly might, and the church has all too often grievously damaged the spread of the gospel by identifying her mission with that of earthly kingdoms. Rather, God has revealed the surpassing greatness of his power …with the exercise of his great might, seating [Christ] at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power and dominion. .. And he has put all things under his feet. Jesus is not some worldly agent among other worldly agents, just bigger and better that the others. Jesus has been seated at the right hand of the Father. His power is the power of God. Jesus has manifested the judgement of Almighty God once and for all on the whole of creation, the set and determined decision of God that what God created to have life shall indeed live. Jesus tells us: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. But this power is not that we may escape death, but that we may not fear death; not that we will never suffer evil, but that we may never be overcome by evil unless we ourselves consent. It is the power to resist the attraction of sin, which leads to everlasting death.
There are yet more truths contained in today’s feast. As the opening prayer of this Mass reminded us today, “the Ascension of Christ your Son is our exaltation, and, where the Head has gone before in glory, the body is called to follow in hope.” St. Leo the Great, from whose first homily on the Ascension this prayer was taken, goes on in most beautiful words to explain to us the great mystery of our salvation which we are celebrating today. He writes: “Indeed there was a great and ineffable cause of rejoicing, since… the nature of the human race was ascending with him above the dignity of all heavenly creatures, about to surpass the order of angels and to be raised beyond the heights of archangels. Nor was it to have a measure of its advance in the highest heights, but by the permission of the Eternal Father it would be united to the glory of him on the throne, to whose nature it has been joined in the Son. . . Today we have been confirmed as occupants of heaven, and we have even entered into the highest heights of heaven in Christ, having obtained more abundant things through the grace of Christ than we had lost through the envy of the devil.” This is the great condescension of God’s love for us, which we are invited to contemplate in today’s feast. For mankind, at the very beginning of the human race, had turned away from God and his protecting command and, by envy of the devil, had given into our lust for power, for fame, for pleasure and for the exploitation of others for our own benefit. The Bible reveals this to us in the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve, and, if we need further confirmation, we need only to consider human history and look at the sad realities which tear asunder the human community today. God, however, far from abandoning us to the fate we had chosen for ourselves, revealed the unfathomable depths of His creative love and showed His mercy to us, the creatures He had formed for life in His own divine image and likeness. God sent His Son, the Word through whom all that exists was created, the image of the unseen God, in whose image we ourselves were created. The Son of God, Jesus Christ Our Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit took on our full, true and complete human nature, born of the Virgin Mary. In that human nature which he shares with us, he both destroyed the power of sin and everlasting death by absorbing it into himself in his passion and death on the cross, and, by rising from the dead, restored to our human nature that life which God had intended for us from the beginning. Today, Christ, his work of redemption completed, returns to his Father in the very human nature he shares with us, ascending in his human body in the sight of the apostles. In his Ascension, our human nature, given supreme dignity in the beginning as created in the divine image and likeness, is now by God’s mercy raised above all of creation to become for all eternity a partaker of the divine nature. This is the great wonder we celebrate today. For as we have heard, [God] put all things beneath [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way. As his body, the church, we share already now in Christ’s exaltation, the perfection of which we long for when the Lord Jesus will come again and establish his reign with us for all eternity.
Finally, this is the day on which the Lord gives to us, his disciples, the Great Commission: 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. That Commission, given first to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee, is given no less to us today. It is for this that the Lord has just told us: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. If we are to teach others to observe all that Jesus commanded us, we will indeed need the constant help and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order that we may confirm our teaching by the integrity of our lives. Lest we entertain illusions regarding the openness of the world to this teaching, we ought to recall that all of those present with Jesus on that mountain in Galilee, with the exception of the Beloved Disciple, verified the truth of their message by the shedding of their blood. The world is no more open today to observing all that Jesus commands than was the world of their day. Nevertheless it is we who have been given the Commission for this time and place to announce the gospel of salvation. When we are tempted to discouragement in the face of ridicule, scant success, or worse, let us remember that the success of our teaching is God’s problem not ours. Let us rather trust in the power of the Spirit, which the risen and exalted Lord has poured out on us. In the power of the Spirit let us cling more closely to Christ our Head, so that we, his body, the church, may be renewed in holiness and the world may be drawn to obey the teaching of Christ our Head by the beauty of the truth and the abundance of charity in his members. And let us ever be mindful that he, to whom all power in heaven and earth has been given, is with us always, until the end of the age. Amen.
Abbot Placid Solari, O.S.B.
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