Recovering the Meaning of the Ascension

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Today is really the Solemnity of the Ascension.  I know that the canonists have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s to transfer the celebration in most of America to next Sunday. But Jesus ascended to Heaven on the fortieth day of Easter, not the forty-third.

            By the time the American bishops got to tampering with (eh, “pastorally adapting”) the celebration of Ascension – ostensibly in the name of accompanying Catholics who would find the obligation to attend Mass on a Thursday burdensome – some hierarchs decided to draw a line on accommodating the Zeitgeist.  That’s why we have liturgy subordinate to geography (via canon law): it’s Ascension Thursday in Pennsylvania, but Ascension Sunday in Ohio.

            Some might ask: why the big deal?  Aren’t we better helping the average Catholic with this arrangement?  My answer is “no,” and that for theological reasons – because ecclesiastical discipline and “pastoral adaptation” should be in the service of good theology, not vice versa.  The current arrangement merely accommodates the worst of American individualism and utilitarianism.

            How so?

            Well, first of all, by discounting the significance of the Ascension.  Our minds don’t like to think too deeply.

            Jesus does not ascend to Heaven simply because He finished teaching everything He wanted to, and it was time to go home.  What Jesus does is not just for His convenience but, above all, for “us and our salvation.”

            The Ascension is not just Jesus “traveling tonight without a plane.”  The Ascension stands in direct link with Easter in the “past” and the Second Coming in the “future.”  Those terms are in quotation marks because past/future are our categories, not God’s, who eternally Is.  The forgiveness of sins made possible by Easter results in the call for repentance that the Apostles are to carry to the ends of the earth until the end of the world, when Jesus will return “as you saw Him go.”

            So the Ascension is very much part of our salvation history.  It’s not Christ’s bon voyage; it’s our commission with a “due by” date.  The Ascension is very much part of our spiritual journey, not just Jesus’.

            The Ascension also teaches us divinely-appointed waiting.  Jesus explicitly instructs His Apostles to stay in Jerusalem and await the Holy Spirit.  He didn’t say wait until . . . . Jesus’s Ascension discourses as they relate to time are notoriously open-ended (as the Apostles hear when they’re told that opening day for the Kingdom “is not yours to know”).  They are to wait in the Spirit’s good time.


            They waited nine days.  Not seven.  God wanted them to wait nine days, to prepare for the Holy Spirit.  Good thing there were no Americans among the Apostles to seek a dispensation.

            Because we are time-bound creatures, we wait on God’s good time for His grace.  That’s why Easter is bounded by 40 days of Lenten preparation and 40 days of Paschal celebration. . .until Ascension.

            The remaining days are part of Eastertide, but they also assume a distinctive character.  No longer are they just Paschal celebration, they are Paraclete anticipation.  Their celebration is supplemented by preparation.

            That’s why we can say – contrary to certain 1960s liturgists – that novenas have a certain divine sanction.  They were not invented by Rosary-toting old ladies with time on their hands.  They were Jesus’ own model for His Apostles’ time to prepare for Pentecost, the Church’s great feast (alongside Easter and Christmas), which brings liturgical Eastertide to an end but empowers the Ascension mission of evangelization until the Last Day.

            We have lost novenas in the Church, wrongly dismissed as an anachronistic “popular devotion.”  We have lost the sense of needing to prepare and constantly testing ourselves.  Lent remains our only serious season of preparation. Advent is supposed to be preparatory but has lost any penitential hues.  The regular rhythm of penance has been reduced in America to mandatory abstinence on seven Fridays per year (the rest being maybe “do-it-yourself”) and to fasting on two days out of 365.  Post-communion periods of silent thanksgiving are brief and nominal, not infrequently interrupted by bulletin reading, clerical adlib, and/or passing the basket (again).  Where are American Catholics supposed to learn to wait and prepare?

            Contemporary theologians tell us “we’re on a journey,” and that’s true – a journey to the Parousia.  But that means “connecting the dots” between Jesus’ Life, Death, Resurrection, Ascension, the Sending of the Spirit, and His Second Coming.  We are not doing that.

            Instead, we are “pastorally adapting,” without asking whether people and/or jobs and/or schedules can also “adapt” to the demands of the spiritual. If we don’t ask that, people instinctively assume that those demands are not really important.  They’re just so much tradition and “discipline” – and rules are made to be changed, or broken.

            We’ve already lost our sense of American history by turning most civil holidays into Monday vacations.  Why are we doing the same to our salvation history?

*Image: The Ascension of Christ by Hans Süss von Kulmbach, 1513 [The MET, New York]. Kulmbach emphasized Christ’s Ascension into heaven by depicting the Lord  leaving the pictorial space.

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli’s Ongoing Ascension

Benedict XVI’s A Co-Responsible Laity

John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.