By Francesco Follo

Ascension of the Lord – Year A – May 24th, 2020

Roman Rite

Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47; Eph 1:17 -23; Mt 28:16-20

Ambrosian Rite

Acts 1, 6 -13a; Ps 46; Eph 4: 7-13; Luke 24: 36b -53

1) Christ rises to heaven: our humanity is carried in the heart of God.

Forty days after the Resurrection, Jesus ascends to Heaven to return to the Father who had sent him into the world. In many countries the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated not on Thursday but the following Sunday; this does not change the fact that it is a holiday whose celebration – for many Christians – is not a reason for particular joy, perhaps because for them it is an event so distant in time that it has become indifferent. However, for those who know that every event in the life of Christ is relevant to their life, the event of Ascension cannot be indifferent, as it was not for Jesus himself who returns to the “space” of the eternal love of the Father.

The joy of Christ is joined by the one of every Christian because in this mystery of the Ascension he contemplates the fact that Jesus, who ascended to heaven, “did not separate from our condition” (see Preface). In fact, in his humanity the Redeemer took men with him in the intimacy of the Father thus revealing the destination of our earthly pilgrimage. As for us he came down from Heaven and for us he suffered and died on the cross, for us he rose and went back to God, who therefore is no longer distant.

St. Leo the Great explains that with this mystery ” not only is the immortality of the soul proclaimed, but also that of the body. Today in fact, not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but in Christ have also penetrated the heights of Heaven” (De Ascensione Domini, Tractatus 73, 2.4: CCL 138 A, 451.453)). This is the reason why the disciples, when they saw the Master rise from the ground and going upwards, were not taken by sadness but felt great joy and a urgency to proclaim the victory of Christ over death. The risen Lord worked with them, distributing to each one his own charism. Saint Paul writes: “He gave gifts to men … And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers… for building up the body of Christ,until we all attain the full stature of Christ “(Eph 4,8.11-13).

In short, the Ascension tells us that in Christ our humanity is brought to the height of God. Consequently, every time we pray, the earth joins Heaven. Just as incense, burning, raises its smoke high, when we raise to the Lord our confident prayer in Christ it crosses the heavens, reaches God himself and is listened to and heard by him.

We too can climb high, but only if we remain tied to Jesus raised on the cross and in heaven. “He is like a roped guide climbing a mountain who, on reaching the summit, pulls us up to him and leads us to God. If we entrust our life to him, if we let ourselves be guided by him, we are certain to be in safe hands, in the hands of our Savior, of our Advocate. “(Pope Francis, April 17, 2013).

In the profound and great book of St. John of the Cross, Ascent to Mount Carmel, we read that “to see our heart’s desires fulfilled, there is no better way than to put the strength of our prayer in what pleases God most. Then , He will not only give us what we ask him, that is, salvation, but also what He sees is convenient and good for us, even if we do not ask him “(Book III, chap. 44, 2).

2) The Ascension is not an abandonment; it is a Goodbye[1] .

The passage of the Gospel proposed by today’s Roman liturgy ends with this phrase of Christ: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Mt 28:20). With an immediate reaction inspired by what is called common sense, one might say that it is a bit “paradoxical” to choose this statement of Jesus for his ascension to heaven. Jesus’ ascension manifests the mystery of the Cross as the throne of glory, abyss of the great tenderness of the Lord “nailed ” by the love for his brothers and raised by the Father. Ascension reveals the mystery of the Man- God. We know from where Jesus comes because we see where He goes: He comes from the Father and returns to Him. Our life is not hanging in the anything: God is our beginning and our end. Ascending to the sky, the Risen One takes us into his heart to put us in the heart of the Father.

With the ascension Jesus disappears but does not leave us orphans. It opens for us the way back home[2].

This house, this paradise, had seen the flight of Adam but history continued and ends with Christ, the new Adam, who returns to the Father. He is the only begotten Son of the Father who became man, the firstborn of many brethren. After a long passion He, the chief, came out into light. History continues and it is the progressive birth of his body made ​​of all men, his brothers. His ascension to Heaven is a vortex that takes us with him into glory.

When in his Gospel Saint Luke describes the ascension of Jesus, he repeats four times that the disciples kept their eyes fixed on the sky. They looked there because there was the one who loved them. Where the treasure is, there is the heart. Everyone goes where his heart is. If our heart does not have the holy desire, it remains motionless like a dead man. If we look up at the stars with Mary, Star of the Sea, we have an orientation on Earth. It is not an umbilical cord that binds but the compass that makes us walk upward in freedom.

The “ascension to heaven” is not the feast celebrating a move to another place; it’s a “good-bye “(ad Deum). It is the celebration of the elevation of Christ that indicates the installation of the crucified man in God’s kingship over the world. It is a celebration because Jesus has gone ahead to prepare a home for us. Even for us there is a place in the palace of the Father. The words of Tertullian are profoundly true and actual ” Be comforted, flesh and blood, in Christ you have taken possession of the heaven and of the kingdom of God” (De car Chr. 7).

Christ is the One who, in his incarnation, has united heaven and earth. He has realized the unity of extremes: the poverty of man with the infinity of God. Heaven is not a place faraway and above and beyond the most distant stars; it is something far more daring and greater, it is where man can find place in God. This has its foundation in the interpenetration of humanity and divinity in the man Jesus, crucified and resurrected. Christ, the man who is in God, is at the same time the perpetual openness of God toward mankind.

Christ, “the man, who is in God, is at the same time the perpetual openness of God for man. He himself is, therefore, what we call “heaven”, because the sky is not a space, but a person, the person of the one in whom God and man are forever inseparably united. And we get closer to the heaven, indeed we enter into heaven, in the measure in which we draw near to Jesus and enter into him. “(J. Ratzinger, Homily for Ascension 1975).

If we consider this event from this perspective, we can understand what St. Luke writes at the end of his Gospel when he says that, after the Ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem “with great joy” (24, 52). If it were a separation, these men of Christ could not have been “full of joy “. For them, the ascension and the resurrection were one and the same event. They had the certainty that the Crucified was living, that death that separates man from God had been conquered, and that the doors of real life had been open forever. For them, therefore, the ascension had not the wrong meaning that we routinely give to it, that is, the temporary absence of Christ from the world. It meant rather the new, definitive, and irrepressible form of Jesus’ presence thanks to his participation in the royal power of God.

The resurrection and the return of Christ are mutually intertwined and in the resurrection of Jesus, through which He is now forever among us, his return has already begun.

Christians, then and now, are not expected to be fixed on the future and worry about making assumptions about the time of Christ’s return. They and us with them must remember that He never ceased to be present. Indeed, through them and through us, He wants to become more and more present: the gift of the Spirit and the duty to preach, to be witness and missionaries to the edge of the world, are the way in which Christ is present right now.

3) Witnesses of joy.

The feast of the elevation of Christ that we are commemorating today is therefore a great solemnity and its characteristic feature is joy. God has room for mankind. With this announcement it should happen to us what has happened to the disciples who, from the Mount of the Ascension, returned to their homes “full of joy “.

In the first reading of today’s Liturgy, St. Luke tells the real fact of the Ascension in one line (Acts 1:9) “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” He prefers to dwell on the disciples who ask the Lord: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel? “. Jesus rebukes them. Time is in God’s hands and this certainty must suffice. The rest is negligible curiosity.

What is important is something else: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem … to the ends of the earth.” The task is to bear witness of their Lord everywhere. It is not the nations that come to Jerusalem, but the disciples are sent to the nations. And there are no boundaries, prohibited places, people, or men to whom the Lord cannot be witnessed.

This testimony must be made in joy, the joy of Christ crucified and risen, the joy of the certainty of a God who is always close. To have this joy we must touch the Cross, and the Cross will affect us healing our sins, making us enter the joy of the resurrection and ascending into heaven with us in His heart.

The Ascension should be lived by each of us as an invitation to be witnesses of the Gospel

  • of the joy that penetrates the heart and comforts him,
  • of the joy that never fails because no one can take it away (cf. Jn 16:22),
  • of the ” missionary joy, which is guarded by three sisters that surround it, protect it and defend it: sister poverty, sister loyalty and sister obedience” (Pope Francis)

Joy indeed is a central element of the Christian experience and has a great power of attraction because, in a world often marked by sadness and anxieties, it is an important witness of the beauty and reliability of the Christian faith.

The consecrated Virgins in the world, who belong to the Ordo Virginum[3], are called to witness to the joy of belonging to Christ alone. Meeting them on May 15, 2008, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI said to them, “Be witnesses of attentive and lively expectation, of joy and of the peace that characterizes those who abandon themselves to God’s love. May you be present in the world, yet pilgrims bound for the Kingdom. Indeed, the consecrated virgin is identified with that bride who, in unison with the Spirit, invokes the coming of the Lord: “The Spirit and the Bride say “Come’” (RV 22: 17).

Saint Teresa of Calcutta lived in this way and among the nice things she said about joy, she uttered these words: “We look forward to heaven, where God is, but it is in our power to be in heaven right here on earth and from this very moment. Being happy with God means to love like him, to help like him, to give like Him and to serve like Him “(The joy to give themselves to others, published by Paoline Books, 1987, p. 143)

Patristic reading

Leo the Great

On the Lord’s Ascension

  1. The events recorded as happening after the Resurrection were intended to convince us of its truth

Since the blessed and glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby the Divine power in three days raised the true Temple of God, which the wickedness of the Jews had overthrown, the sacred forty days, dearly-beloved, are today ended, which by most holy appointment were devoted to our most profitable instruction, so that, during the period that the Lord thus protracted the lingering of His bodily presence, our faith in the Resurrection might be fortified by needful proofs. For Christ’s Death had much disturbed the disciples’ hearts, and a kind of torpor of distrust had crept over their grief-laden minds at His torture on the cross, at His giving up the ghost, at His lifeless body’s burial. For, when the holy women, as the Gospel-story has revealed, brought word of the stone rolled away from the tomb, the sepulchre emptied of the body, and the angels bearing witness to the living Lord, their words seemed like ravings to the Apostles and other disciples. Which doubtfulness, the result of human weakness, the Spirit of Truth would most assuredly not have permitted to exist in His own preacher’s breasts, had not their trembling anxiety and careful hesitation laid the foundations of our faith. It was our perplexities and our dangers that were provided for in the Apostles: it was ourselves who in these men were taught how to meet the cavillings of the ungodly and the arguments of earthly wisdom. We are instructed by their lookings, we are taught by their hearings, we are convinced by their handlings. Let us give thanks to the Divine management and the holy Father.’ necessary slowness of belief. Others doubted, that we might not doubt.

  1. And therefore they are in the highest degree instructive

Those days, therefore, dearly-beloved, which intervened between the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension did not pass by in uneventful leisure, but great mysteries were ratified in them, deep truths revealed. In them the fear of awful death was removed, and the immortality not only of the soul but also of the flesh established. In them, through the Lord’s breathing upon them, the Holy Ghost is poured upon all the Apostles, and to the blessed Apostle Peter beyond the rest the care of the Lord’s flock is entrusted, in addition to the keys of the kingdom. Then it was that the Lord joined the two disciples as a companion on the way, and, to the sweeping away of all the clouds of our uncertainty, upbraided them with the slowness of their timorous hearts. Their enlightened hearts catch the flame of faith, and lukewarm as they have been, are made to burn while the Lord unfolds the Scriptures. In the breaking of bread also their eyes are opened as they eat with Him: how far more blessed is the opening of their eyes, to whom the glorification of their nature is revealed than that of our first parents, on whom fell the disastrous consequences of their transgression.

III. They prove the Resurrection of the flesh

And in the course of these and other miracles, when the disciples were harassed by bewildering thoughts, and the Lord had appeared in their midst and said, “Peace be unto you ,” that what was passing through their hearts might not be their fixed opinion (for they thought they saw a spirit not flesh), He refutes their thoughts so discordant with the Truth, offers to the doubters’ eyes the marks of the cross that remained in His hands and feet, and invites them to handle Him with careful scrutiny, because the traces of the nails and spear had been retained to heal the wounds of unbelieving hearts, so that not with wavering faith, but with most steadfast knowledge they might comprehend that the Nature which had been lain in the sepulchre was to sit on God the Father’s throne.

  1. Christ’s ascension has given us greater privileges and joys than the devil had taken from us

Accordingly, dearly-beloved, throughout this time which elapsed between the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension, God’s Providence had this in view, to teach and impress upon both the eyes and hearts of His own people that the Lord Jesus Christ might be acknowledged to have as truly risen, as He was truly born, suffered, and died. And hence the most blessed Apostles and all the disciples, who had been both bewildered at His death on the cross and backward in believing His Resurrection, were so strengthened by the clearness of the truth that when the Lord entered the heights of heaven, not only were they affected with no sadness, but were even filled with great joy. And truly great and unspeakable was their cause for joy, when in the sight of the holy multitude, above the dignity of all heavenly creatures, the Nature of mankind went up, to pass above the angels’ ranks and to rise beyond the archangels’ heights, and to have Its uplifting limited by no elevation until, received to sit with the Eternal Father, It should be associated on the throne with His glory, to Whose Nature It was united in the Son. Since then Christ’s Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised, whither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly-beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven, and have gained still greater things through Christ’s unspeakable grace than we had lost through the devil’s malice. For us, whom our virulent enemy had driven out from the bliss of our first abode, the Son of God has made members of Himself and placed at the right hand of the Father, with Whom He lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] Goodbye (addio in Italian, adios in Spanish, adieu in French) comes from the Latin “ad Deum”, to God. When we greet each other in this way we engage in a journey, in an exodus that means a return to the house of our God. Our life is stretched into an event: the encounter with the God of Love.

[2] It is in this sense that the following words of Jesus at the Last Supper must be understood: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”(Jn 14:2-3)

[3] The Ordo Virginum has its roots in the first four centuries of Christianity. From the times of the apostles some women followed Jesus’ invitation with joy and embraced virginity “for the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12), a fact reflected in the writings of Paul (1 Cor 7, 25.34) and the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 21:9). The figures of the early Christian virgins mentioned in the Roman Canon, Agatha in Catania, Lucia in Syracuse, Agnes and Cecilia in Rome, Cristina in Bolsena, are unique and fascinating figures of women cultivated by the Spirit. Numerous historical sources attest that virginity soon became a choice of lifestyle made ​​by many. Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp and Justin testify to the presence and role of virgins in the community, and together with Cyprian, Ambrose and Augustine teach and accompany them with fatherly care. Over the centuries, however, the monastic life became the exclusive mode to lead a life dedicated to God and this resulted in the progressive disappearance of consecrated virgins.

It was the spirit of Vatican II, characterized by the search of the sources of the Church, to bear new fruit even in the context of religious life, restoring what had been the first consecration of women in the Church, the Ordo Virginum. Pope Paul VI promulgated on May 31, 1970 the Rite of Consecration of Virgins inserted in the Roman Pontifical, which stated that even women who intended to live in the world the total gift of self to Christ outside of all structured religious life ,could be admitted to this consecration.

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