In the autobiography of Saint Ignatius the “pilgrim” (Ignatius) tells us that he bribed the guards at the Mount of the Ascension first with a penknife and then, later when he wanted to return for another few minutes, with a very precious pair of scissors. He did so in order to be sure that he got Jesus’ foot prints pointing correctly in his own mind . . . hmm
In many dioceses of the United States the solemnity of the Ascension is no longer celebrated on Thursday of the 6th week of Easter (10 days before Pentecost) but has been moved to the 7th Sunday of Easter – the Sunday that precedes Pentecost. The move has been made so that American Catholics have an opportunity to celebrate this critically important feast which we were neglecting in large numbers when the feast remained on (our very busy) Thursday.
So why is this feast so important to bump a Sunday liturgy during the Easter Season? What about the Ascension was so important to Ignatius to nearly get him arrested or have an international incident over it, and what about it has been so badly catechized that even though the Universal Church ranks it as equivalent in importance to our spiritual lives as Christmas, ordinary Catholics have simply failed to get it and absented ourselves in numbers large enough in some dioceses to cause the bishop to determine that the Sunday option was necessary?
As might be expected some clues to the importance of the mystery of the Ascension of the Lord will be found in the readings assigned to the liturgy today. The first reading from Acts narrates something of what the followers of Jesus experienced when, after forty days of being with them in his resurrected body, he told them to remain close to Jerusalem where God would baptize them in his Holy Spirit. They are to wait, one presumes in a little confusion, anticipation and possibly worry, for God’s Spirit to “drown” them in a way – to be poured out in such a way that those who received the Spirit would be born again into a new creation.
It seems to me that the Ascension event doesn’t make much sense – and therefore doesn’t have much meaning – unless we try to put ourselves into the situation of Jesus’ closest friends. After the terrible suffering of the loss of him through a humiliating death – that seems to have negated everything they were sure of – he returns to them, sporadically, in a “glorified” state. We aren’t sure what that actually looks or feels like but it certainly caused confusion and downright chagrin if some of the stories are to be taken seriously. He eats and drinks with them, even jokes a bit with them, but strikes awe into their hearts in his consoling and demanding presence to them. And to top it off, not everyone who had hung around with him before his death could see him – which had to have made those who did see him feel just a bit mad.
Now, having upset everyone’s emotional and spiritual apple carts quite thoroughly, he walked out to a hilltop at Bethany (remember, this is a place where he raised Lazarus from the dead) and went up – ascended – toward the blue sky above and was removed from their sight. The disciples had not yet received the fullness of the Spirit and I think it is safe to say that they were struggling to deal with their grief and loss, their confusion, their gratitude for the call, and any number of other possible feelings. But, paramount among all their feelings had to have been both fear and confusion. Over and over these past weeks since his resurrection, Jesus had been saying to them “don’t be a afraid.”
Perhaps the one thing those first friends knew absolutely was that Jesus is LORD – He is everything they ever imagined God would be like – He is truth and goodness, and he has commanded them to be patient. In their stunning confusion, one thing was certain and absolute – Jesus is LORD – all reality comes into focus ONLY in him and in the light of his love. More than physically ascending from earth to air, Jesus ascended to the thrones of their hearts, and rightly claimed their absolute loyalty. For THIS reason they could fully drown in God’s Spirit a mere 10 days later.
So why did Ignatius bribe the guards at the mount of Bethany not once but twice? Why was it so important for him to get a sense of Jesus’ physical orientation as the Lord ascended? I think because Ignatius knew that this grace of the Ascension is the Christmas grace – the mystery of the Incarnation from the other end of the story – God who descended to join us to himself and to destroy the power of sin for us – now ascends and takes our hearts with him (hopefully) so that “we may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.” (Eph 1.18-19)
So why are Americans too busy to celebrate this central mystery on a Thursday in the spring?
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