This past week we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension. However, there is a little confusion as to when it should be celebrated. Some of us celebrated it last week on Thursday while some dioceses have moved the celebration to the 7th Sunday of Easter. The idea behind moving it to Sunday is that it enables everyone to participate in the Mass on this very important feast involving a mystery of our faith; the thought is that many people cannot make it to Mass when it is on a weekday and so miss out on it entirely. No matter when we celebrate the Ascension the fact remains that we should take every one of the events surrounding the death, resurrection, ascension and glorification of Jesus very seriously. However, we might think of the glorification of Jesus without having a sense of what this actually means. We may think, “As Son of God what more glorification could He need?” Glorification is not meant as an accolade. There is a lot more to it than meets the eye because this feast is important to our understanding of God and the gift of our salvation. It is about revealing the fullness of who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and that He is going to return again at the end of time to bring us into the New Heaven and Earth that we heard about at last week’s Sunday liturgy. (Rev. 21) And finally, it is about entering into the light with Him.
A few months ago I saw the film Risen at the theater. There were two scenes that made a strong impression upon me, one of which was the ascension of Jesus. Rather than having the apostles standing around staring at the soles of Jesus’ feet as He rose into the air on a cloud, it was far more ‘biblical,’ in evidence that the screen writers had read both Testaments in their Bibles. Jesus was depicted as being enveloped by a bright cloud, reminiscent of the cloud seen leading the Jewish people across the desert with Moses; it was the same cloud Moses entered into when it came to rest over Mt. Sinai or over the meeting tent. That cloud, the Shekinah (God’s protective presence), had fire in its midst and was clearly seen by the people. In the gospels it was the same Shekinah cloud which came upon Jesus when He transfigured before Peter, James, and John on Mt. Tabor. Therefore, to see Jesus in the film being surrounded by the bright cloud and simultaneously seeming to emanate light was a powerful sight to behold. I felt like I was one of the apostles viewing the wonder of it along with them. Rather than just seeing His feet, the fiery cloud showed all of Jesus, rising further and further away into the heavens. It was nothing short of magnificent.
In Scripture fire always attests to the presence of God. This is why the fire is blessed by the priest and is carried into the church in a dramatic way at the Easter Vigil. It is why at baptism the godparents and parents are given a lighted candle for the child who has just entered the community. It is why we light candles before the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is housed and have lighted candles accompany the Word to be proclaimed at the ambo, then stationed at the altar for the Eucharistic sacrifice at Mass. Similarly, cloud is also a sign of God’s presence. We use incense to show this: while it represents our prayers rising on high to God, it also represents the mystery of the presence of God. For example, at major celebrations the priest incenses the altar before the liturgy of the Eucharist begins. The cloud envelops the sanctuary as a sign of the presence and mystery of God. These are powerful gestures because what they symbolize is an unfathomable reality: the presence of God among us.
It is also important that we do not think the Ascension was merely a vehicle to get Jesus into Heaven. That Jesus brought the apostles to Bethany as witnesses tells us that He intended this as an important event. Remember, He had already ascended to the Father in the process of His resurrection. After His death, He first went down to Sheol to release the souls of those who had waited so long for redemption, and accompanying them into Heaven, He opened the gates of Heaven for all of us, returning to earth in His glorified, resurrected body for forty days to instruct the first incredulous, then amazed apostles. He prepared them for the coming of the Holy Spirit so they would be ready to take over leadership of the Church. When the time came for Him to leave He instructed them to take the Good News to the ends of the earth. Then two angels appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, delivering an exquisite message: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into Heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into Heaven.” As if witnessing the Ascension was not enough, they reminded the apostles that Jesus would return again to complete the Kingdom at some time known only to God, as He had indicated to them a few moments earlier. (Acts 1:6-8)
After His resurrection Jesus’ body was glorified, which the apostles ‘experienced’ when He walked through closed doors, yet could eat or be touched. Indeed, we also will have that resurrected body after Jesus returns on the Last Day. But the reality of Jesus’ glorification is much greater than the body He now has. The Ascension in brilliant light and cloud is a sign of His divinity: the Son of God became human so that He could bring us redemption. He came down from Heaven humbly as a vulnerable little baby, but returned there in glory, having accomplished the will of the Father. He remains fully God and fully man for all eternity. But in this feast we are reminded that He is indeed the Second Person of the Trinity, who in His mercy includes us in His Body as His people. He is glorified in everything He accomplished, everyone He healed, every word He spoke, and with every prayer He prayed in which He in turn glorified His Father since they are One. We should be overwhelmed with amazement at this: God has joined us to Himself and nothing can break the bond of His love. In witnessing His ascension through the eyes of the apostles, we are invited into a mystery so great, so vast, so deep, that we cannot fully comprehend it. We are not invited to simply gawk; rather, we are called to rise up to Heaven with Him.
Someday we will see Jesus’ complete glory face to face, a reality which is eternal and will never change. But until He resurrected in glory, we were not invited to be at the throne of God. In His Ascension we are not left behind and we are not looked upon as too small or unworthy. Jesus sees us as His brothers and sisters, the beloved of His heart, and so the Ascension is a beacon of hope that one day we will be where He is. Until then, we are called to “glorify Him with our life,” which is the exhortation given by the deacon in the final dismissal at the end of Mass. We are not to sit idly by, staring at the sky. Instead, we are to play an active role in glorifying God by our works of love, mercy, and compassion.
It matters not what day we celebrate the feast of the Ascension. I admit to preferring unity in celebrating the Feast of the Ascension on the Thursday which is 10 days before Pentecost, just as the timeline of Scripture says it took place. But if we recognize that Jesus was not born on December 25 and can live with celebrating Christmas on that day anyhow, then we can live with the Ascension being celebrated on a different day than a Thursday. Everything is in God’s time (Kairos) anyhow. Therefore, rather than wailing and gnashing our teeth about Ascension being celebrated on the ‘wrong day,’ whether our preference is for Thursday or Sunday, what is most important is that we focus on the mystery of our faith, allowing ourselves to be filled with wonder and awe at its reality. The calendar is not important: the glorification of Jesus and participating in it, is. So let us allow ourselves to stand in Bethany with the apostles, witnessing Jesus being enveloped into the light which is simultaneously emanating from within Him. Let us open our mouths in songs of praise, our eyes to the wonder of His Ascension, our minds to the reality that He will come again, and our hearts to the mercy and love which He has offered us. We are His witnesses to the ends of the earth. Let us enter into the light as we await the outpouring of the Spirit anew.
May we sing praise to the Lord for the marvelous deeds He has done! May we be grateful for Jesus’ wondrous love which endured so much in order to bring us salvation! May we have the eyes of the apostles in which to see the world as infused with His presence! May we have hope in the promised return of Jesus! May we be content in the assurance that our suffering and the brokenness of our world will be finally healed when we see Jesus! May we invite others into the Good News as witnesses to the wonders of mercy and love which God has given, sharing it in our word and deed! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The photos are all my own. The first was taken in Theodore Roosevelt Park in North Dakota. I chose it because of the fiery light depicted in the setting sun. The sun was retreating, as if into the heavens, symbolic of Jesus leaving the earth yet in reality is still present. That we cannot see the sun at night does not mean it is not there, but that it is simply out of view. The mix of fire and cloud is appropriate to my image of the Ascension.
The second photo was taken as I was climbing Mt. Mucrone in Biella Province in northern Italy. I was viewing another mountain as a cloud descended upon it during the climb, prior to my own Shekinah/Moses experience on Mt. Mucrone.
Next is the Ascension of the Lord by the famous medieval painter Giotto. I chose this one specifically because it depicts Jesus fully, not just His feet, and He is surrounded by light, similar to what the film, Risen, showed.
The fourth image is a photo of a glorious cloud with the sun just behind the upper portion. The number one rule of photography is not to shoot into the sun, but the cloud cooperated and provided cover so that I could shoot into the sun without the light washing out the shot. This photo is literally the fire in the cloud.
Fifth is an icon called The Second Coming of Christ the King by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose to use this icon because it shows Jesus blessing us, even though the background might seem ominous. He will come on a cloud and He will come in glory: that is what He assured the apostles at the Ascension. We have nothing to fear, and it will be a time of joy in seeing Him face to face as we resurrect, too. The color of His robe depicts peace. The icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-second-coming-of-christ-the-king-149-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Finally, the last photo is also mine. It was taken at Marble Falls, TX. The beauty of the scene depicts creation, and therefore the wonders of all God has done. The new Heaven and Earth will be even more beautiful. Hard to imagine, but true!
Heart Speaks to Heart