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Ongoing Ascension

There are books that you read with profit and then put aside. If some years later you happen to return to them, they often seem less substantial than you remember. Others, of course, like the proverbial good wine, only grow richer with age. Or perhaps it is the reader who has matured and now measures more closely to the stature of the book.

I recently returned, through the providential suggestion of a friend, to Jean Corbon’s The Wellspring of Worship. Since I inscribe the date and place of my readings on a book’s title page, I see that I had read the book in November 1988. (There’s a more recent edition available from Ignatius Press here [1].) Re-reading it during this year’s Paschal Triduum was nothing less than a revelatory experience. It was as though much of what I had struggled to express, theologically and pastorally, in the ensuing years was already graciously present in Corbon’s splendid volume.

Corbon, a French Dominican, spent much of his life in Lebanon, where he became a priest of the Greek Catholic eparchy and taught liturgy in Beirut. He greatly influenced the presentation of the liturgy in the Second Part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery.” He was also the main author of the Fourth Part of the Catechism: “Christian Prayer,” which he wrote in strife-torn Beirut, working sometimes in the midst of bombardments.

The “Wellspring of Worship” (the French title is Liturgie de Source) is the very life of the Triune God, that fecund life of communion, flowing eternally among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is this supremely interpersonal life that receives sacramental embodiment in the Church’s liturgy, in particular the Eucharist. Here heaven and earth meet, constellated around the ascended Christ who brings humanity into the very heart of the Godhead.

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By his Incarnation, Jesus Christ weds divinity to humanity. By his Ascension, he leads humanity home to God. “The Ascension,” Corbon writes, “is the decisive turning point. . .the beginning of a new time: the liturgy of the last times.” This eschatological liturgy is celebrated in its fullness by the ascended Christ “seated at the right hand” of the Father. But it is celebrated on earth in via, yet truly, in that sacrum convivium in quo Christus sumitur: the holy banquet in which Christ is received. An earthly liturgy that is, inseparably, memoria passionis ejus and pignus futurae gloriae: remembrance of Christ’s passion and pledge of future glory.

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Here past, present, and future converge and find their ultimate orientation and fulfillment in the ascended Christ. For he himself is the “eschatos”: the “last” Adam, the humanity intended by God and finally realized in Christ: beloved Son.

Commenting upon the great mosaics of the ascended Lord in the apses of ancient basilicas Corbon says: “When the faithful gathered to manifest and become the body of Christ, they saw their Lord as both present and as coming. He is the head and draws his body toward the Father while giving it life through his Spirit.”

If the earthly liturgies we celebrate seem dispirited, it may have less to do with sentimental hymns or prosaic translations (though these are doubtless lamentable), than with a dearth of real awareness and appreciation of what is actually transpiring through Christ in the Spirit.

For the movement of the Ascension is ongoing and will only be complete when the members of the body are fully united with their head. Hence, it is perilous, if not perfidious, to separate in catechesis and theology (much less in our minds and hearts) Pentecost from Ascension. For the Spirit’s work is precisely to configure us to Christ. The Spirit’s energies are directed to furthering the ongoing event of Christification, transfiguring humanity and the cosmos in Christ, in the full Pauline sense of en Christoi. The Wellspring of liturgy has no other end.

“The Ascension,” Corbon insists, “is the ever-new ‘moment’ of Christ’s coming.” Perhaps nowhere is that coming of “the true and faithful witness” more powerfully evoked than in the Book of Revelation. It is the ascended Jesus who comes to speak words of encouragement, exhortation, and judgment to the churches. He is no absentee Lord; he is present as the One who is ever coming.

Pope Francis recently issued an Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, whose theme and urgency derive from chapter five of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium. Both the chapter and the exhortation concern “the universal call to holiness” of all God’s people.

I suggest that what we most desperately need is a recovery of and recommitment to an even more neglected chapter of Lumen gentium: chapter seven on “The eschatological character of the pilgrim church and its union with the heavenly church.” We need to rekindle the Catholic eschatological imagination: to realize anew Jesus Christ’s Ascension as inaugurating the transfiguration of humanity and to envision boldly the cosmic scope and implications of that decisive and ongoing event.

If Jesus Christ lives by virtue of his Resurrection, he reigns by virtue of his Ascension. Thus professing and celebrating Ascension inevitably carries a political charge, however deftly we camouflage that challenge behind flimsy missalettes and spineless hymnals. In the midst of the debased discourse and the mean-spirited actions of our contemporary society and “culture,” Ascension proclaims an integral word of promise and spurs to contemplative commitment and generous action.

The eschatological longing and imagination of the early Christians found poignant expression in the prayer placed at the very end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” In whatever place we lift up our hearts to the Lord, whether ancient Laodicea or contemporary Los Angeles, we discover, with Corbon, that “the true space of the praying heart is the ongoing event of the Ascension.”

Sursum corda— Upward, hearts!

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*Image: Ascension of Christ by Benvenuto Tisi, c. 1515 [Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica or GNAA (National Gallery of Ancient Art), Rome]

Robert Imbelli, a Priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College. He is the author of Christic Imagination: How Christ Transforms Us is available from Now You Know Media.