Sharers in his Divinity - 1st June 2014

The last phase of the fifty-day season of Easter is marked by the feasts of the Ascension of the Lord and of Pentecost Sunday. Originally the Lord’s ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit were celebrated together on the solemnity of Pentecost. It was not until the end of the fourth century that the Ascension became a separate feast from Pentecost.

The first reading for the feasts of the Ascension of the Lord is always from Luke’s prologue to the book of Acts. Just as Jesus travelled to Jerusalem to his passion and death, so the Church will take the Good News out to the world, beginning in Jerusalem and reaching to the ends of the earth.

The earlier practice of commemorating the Ascension of the Lord exactly 40 days after the resurrection was based on a literal interpretation of Luke’s account. However, the number 40 is not intended to be taken literally here. The numeral held significance for the early Christians: the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert after his baptism, the risen Christ instructs his disciples for 40 days after the resurrection.

The brief Gospel reading from Matthew set down for the feast this year does not mention the ascension. It is an account of Jesus’ final commissioning of the disciples to go out into the whole world and proclaim the Good News, reassuring the followers of Christ that, although Jesus is no longer physically present, he is with them even to the end of time.

The Missal provides two options to use for the Preface on this day. The core of each provides insight into the meaning of the feast:

Mediator between God and man,
judge of the world and Lord of hosts,
he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state
but that we, his members, might be confident of following
where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before. (Preface of the Ascension I)

For after his Resurrection
he plainly appeared to all his disciples
and was taken up to heaven in their sight,
that he might make us sharers in his divinity. (Preface of the Ascension II)

The Ascension is not a farewell or a time of sadness at Jesus’ departure from this world. Like every Christian festival, the Ascension celebrates the on-going presence of the risen Christ in our midst. What we celebrate is not just a past event or the hope of our own glorious future destiny but the life we share now with the risen Lord. Hence ritually extinguishing the Easter Candle during Mass on this day is not appropriate.

In Australia the Ascension marks the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The theme for this year is “Has Christ been divided?”, a reference to 1 Corinthians 1:1-17. Resources, including readings, reflections, questions and prayers for personal use during the week, are available from the National Council of Churches in Australia website www.ncca.org.au.

May you, who believe Christ is seated with the Father in his majesty,
know with joy the fulfilment of his promise to stay with you until the end of time.
(from Solemn Blessing for the Ascension of the Lord)

Elizabeth Harrington