Thursday, May 25, 2006
Ascension Thursday

According to St. Augustine, the Feast of the Ascension is of Apostolic origin. As early as the fifth century, documentation of this feast is preserved. Since the ninth century during the Pontificate of Pope Leo III (r. 795-816) and up until the 1950s, the Ascension had an associated Octave attached to it. Predating this Octave is the long-established practice of having a Vigil for the Ascension.

While the Feast of the Ascension – despite its high rank as one of the most important holy days in the year – has fallen into obscurity and lack of observance in many areas (often transferred to the following Sunday), it is still a public holiday in many countries (e.g. Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Haiti, Iceland, Indonesia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Namibia, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Vanuatu). As such, Catholic culture underscores the importance of the Ascension through its customs that precede and follow Ascension Thursday.

How Did Jesus Ascend?

After establishing the importance of reflecting on the Ascension, the Roman Catechism immediately follows with an explanation as to how our Blessed Lord, Who was physically resurrected and likewise physically ascended into Heaven:
“The pastor is also to teach that He ascended by His own power, not being taken up by the power of another, as was Elias, who was carried to heaven in a fiery chariot; or, as the Prophet Habacuc, or Philip, the deacon, who were borne through the air by the divine power, and traversed great distances.
Neither did He ascend into heaven solely by the exercise of His supreme power as God, but also by virtue of the power which He possessed as man. Although human power alone was insufficient to accomplish this, yet the virtue with which the blessed soul of Christ was endowed was capable of moving the body as it pleased, and His body, now glorified, readily obeyed the behest of the soul that moved it. Hence, we believe that Christ ascended into heaven as God and man by His own power.”

Fr. Leonard Goffine in The Church's Year succinctly affirms that the Ascension was performed by Christ’s own power when he writes, “Christ ascended into heaven by His own power, because He is God, and now in His glorified humanity He sits at the right hand of His Father, as our continual Mediator.”

Unlike Elias, who was taken up into Heaven, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was assumed by the power of God body and soul into Heaven at the end of her earthly life, the Lord Jesus ascended by His own power. No mere man has the power to fly, much less to ascend out of the earth’s atmosphere and into the furthest reaches of space to Heaven. But Jesus, Who is fully God and fully man, possessed the power to do so, thus performing another miracle to the approximately 125 people who saw Him ascend.

Where Did Jesus Ascend?

Our Blessed Lord ascended from the Mount of Olives into Heaven. As Fr. Goffine concisely teaches, “Where and how did Christ ascend into heaven? From Mount Olivet where His sufferings began, by which we learn that where our crosses and afflictions begin, which we endure with patience and resignation, there begins our reward.” The Baltimore Catechism concurs when it states, “Christ ascended into heaven from Mount Olivet, the place made sacred by His agony on the night before His death.”  Thus, by meditating on the place of the Ascension we have before us a source of great spiritual consolation, yet so few Catholics seem to have meditated on the connection between the Agony and the Ascension.

Likewise, the “Golden Legend” by Blessed Jacobus de Varagine, published in the late Middle Ages, further aids our meditation on the Mount of Olives in its account of the Ascension:
“The first point, note that He rose to heaven from the Mount of Olives, out toward Bethany. This mountain, following another translation, was also called the Mount of Three Lights, because from the west the light from the Temple fell upon it by night, for a fire burned continually on the altar; in the morning it caught the sun’s rays from the east before they reached the city; and the hill’s olive trees produced a plentiful supply of oil, which feeds light.” 
Today, a chapel sits on the Mount of Olives at the exact place of Our Lord’s Ascension. According to Sulpicius Severus, bishop of Jerusalem, when a church was built on the Mount of Olives the spot where Christ had stood could never be covered with pavement; and more than that, the marble slabs placed there burst upwards into the faces of those who were laying them. He also says that the footmarks in the dust there prove that the Lord had stood on that spot. Those footprints are still discernible, and the ground still retains the depressions His sacred feet left as a remarkable display of Our Lord’s last footstep on this earth.

Why Did Jesus Ascend into Heaven?

The answer to this fundamental question is found in the Preface for the Ascension, a Preface found in the Traditional Roman Rite, but unfortunately lost in the Novus Ordo:
“It is truly meet and just, right and availing unto salvation that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty and everlasting God; through Christ our Lord. Who after His Resurrection appeared and showed Himself to all His disciples; and while they beheld Him, was lifted up into heaven, so that He might make us partakers of His Godhead…” 
The Lord ascended “so that He might make us partakers of His Godhead.” As the Roman Catechism likewise expounds on the reasons for the Lord’s Ascension:
“Ascending on high, he led captivity captive: He gave gifts to men. …
He also ascended into heaven, according to the Apostle, that he may appear in the presence of God for us, and discharge for us the office of advocate with the Father. … 
Finally, by His Ascension He has prepared for us a place, as He had promised, and has entered, as our head, in the name of us all, into the possession of the glory of heaven.” 
Our Lord ascended for us. He ascended so that we might have a share in His divinity in Heaven. Up until our Lord’s Ascension, the doors of Heaven were closed as a result of Adam’s sin. While the debt for this sin was paid through the death and Resurrection of Christ, the doors remained closed until He, the Victor over death, should open them and be the first to walk through them. Ascension Thursday recalls this sublime mystery: the opening of Heaven to the souls who had waited in the Limbo of the Fathers. It was on the day of the Lord’s Ascension that humanity, in the Person of Christ, first entered Heaven.

The renowned Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B. describes this sublime reason for Our Lord's Ascension thusly:
“Jesus ascended into heaven. His Divinity had never been absent; but, by Ascension, His Humanity was also enthroned there, and crowned with the brightest diadem of glory. This is another phase of the mystery we are now solemnizing. Besides a triumph, the Ascension gave to the sacred Humanity a place on the very throne of the eternal Word, to whom it was united in unity of Person. From this throne, it is to receive the adoration of men and of angels.” 
Likewise, the Roman Catechism succinctly affirms the reality that Jesus Christ, true man and true God, physically entered into Heaven on Ascension Day: “This, then, the faithful must believe without hesitation, that Jesus Christ, having fully accomplished the work of Redemption, ascended as man, body and soul, into heaven; for as God He never forsook heaven, filling as He does all places with His Divinity.”

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen likewise develops this reality by commenting on Our Lord’s Ascension in His human nature:
“In the Ascension the Savior did not lay aside the garment of flesh with which He had been clothed; for His human nature would be the pattern of the future glory of other human natures, which would become incorporated to Him through a sharing of His life. Intrinsic and deep was the relation between His Incarnation and His Ascension. The Incarnation or the assuming of a human nature made it possible for Him to suffer and redeem. The Ascension exalted into glory that same human nature that was humbled to the death.” 

O Almighty God, we firmly believe that Your only-begotten Son, our Redeemer, ascended this day into heaven. May our minds dwell always on this heavenly home. Through Our Lord . . .

2 comment(s):

del_button May 17, 2007 at 4:08 PM
Anonymous said...

Thank you Matthew for the history of the Church of the Ascension. I didn't realize that one could still see Christ's footprint on the spot from where He ascended into heaven. I shudder at the knowledge that this holy relic is in a Mosque! And to think how they have persecuted us for centuries in the face of this divine proof.
Whenever I meditate on the Ascension, I pray God save our church from the ecumainia everywhere, and that our bishops once again abide by Christ's command to His apostles on the 40th day of Easter: Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

del_button May 18, 2007 at 6:51 AM
Matthew said...

I feel the same way, anonymous.

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