Today, 20 May 2012, throughout Australia we are celebrating Ascension Sunday. In numerous other parts of the world they celebrated it a few days ago on Ascension Thursday. Have you ever wondered why this event in the life of Jesus was deemed so important that we mention it each time we pray the Creed? And why some countries where respect for Holy Days of obligation is weaker than others make sure a Feast Day like this is remembered by everyone who comes to church on Sundays?
These questions only raised themselves a few years back when, as part of the preparation of a small group of First Communicants, I was studying side by side the prayer immediately after the Consecration in all four Eucharistic prayers. In Eucharistic Prayers I, III and IV the Ascension is deliberately mentioned, but not in quickie No. II. It’s worth typing them out, so as to get the full impact.
I. Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into Heaven of Christ, Your son, Our Lord, we, Your servants and Your holy people, offer to Your glorious majesty from the gifts that you have given us, this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.
III. Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the saving Passion of Your Son, His wondrous Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven, and as we look forward to His second coming, we offer You in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.
IV. Therefore, O Lord, as we now celebrate the memorial of our redemption, we remember Christ’s Death, and His descent to the realm of the dead, we proclaim His Resurrection and His Ascension to Your right hand, and, as we await His coming in glory, we offer You His Body and Blood, the sacrifice acceptable to You which brings salvation to the whole world.
How come, I asked myself, I was conscious that at this point in the Mass that we offer to God the life, death and resurrection of His Son, but had failed to listen to the Ascension? It’s in all three Eucharistic Prayers, so it has to be far more important than I realise and on a par with ‘life, death and resurrection’ and not an optional extra.
Resolved to understand the importance of the Ascension better, I studied how the Church Herself saw it by looking at the the Office of Readings; the prayers and antiphons for Morning and Evening Prayer; the Opening prayer and other Proper prayers for the Mass of the Ascension, and what the Catechism of the Catholic Church had to say (passages 659-667).
One of the Opening prayers speaks of the Ascension being ‘our glory and our hope’.
Pope St Leo the Great helped us to understand this when he wrote, ‘When the Lord departs for heaven, they (the Apostles and disciples) are not saddened but filled with joy. And did they not have great cause for joy? As the disciples looked on, man was ascending beyond the angelic orders, beyond archangelic heights. Having been united to God’s nature in His Son, man now shared the Son’s glory at the Father’s throne.’
St Augustine put it this way, ‘Christ descended from heaven out of mercy to us, and though He alone ascends, we also ascend, for we are one with Him through grace. We are not claiming for the Body the dingity of the Head, but we are assured that the Body is inseparable from the Head’ and ‘ Though He is there, He is also with us; though we are here, we are also with Him. He is with us though divine power and love; we have no divine power, but we can be with Him through love.’
The Catechism, referring to one of the Prefaces for the Ascension, paragraph 661 says, ‘Left to its own natural powers humanity does not have access to the ‘Father’s house’, to God’s life and happiness. Only Christ can open to man such access that we, his members, might have confidence that we too shall go where He, our Head and our Sources, has preceded us.’
The Reading for Evening Prayer 1 is from Ephesians 2:4-6 gives us a glimpse of the greatness of the promise that Jesus has given us in His Ascension. ‘God’s Mercy is so abundant, and his love for us is so great, that while we were spiritually dead in our disobedience He brought us to life with Christ; it is by God’s grace that you have been saved. In our union with Christ Jesus He raised us up with Him to rule with Him in the heavenly world.’
So the Ascension truly is our glory, our hope and cause for great joy. I remain ever so thankful to God for raising the ‘Why?’ question in me, because the answers continue to blow my mind with God’s love, providence, generosity and mercy; and because I will never celebrate the Ascension in a ‘ho-hum’ way ever again.
Thank you, Jesus for remaining with us, as you promised, to the end of days through Your presence in the Blessed Sacrament and in Your priests.
Our Lady, and all the holy Apostles and early disciples who witnessed the wonder of the Ascension of Jesus, pray for us.