Solemnity of the Ascension
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May 15, 2021
The Forty Days of Easter
Just as we observe forty days of Lent, so too we observe forty days of Easter so as to mark the time between the Lord’s Resurrection and his Ascension into heaven. During these days, now coming to end, the Church’s liturgy portrays for us the progress of the Apostles from confusion and unbelief towards a joyous faith in the Risen Lord. For, as we recall, the Apostles were devastated by the Lord’s Suffering and Death, and at first they hesitated to accept his Resurrection, as if it were too good to be true. For example, when told that the Risen Lord had appeared to the other Apostles, Thomas declared that he wouldn’t believe it until he physically touched the wounds in the Lord’s body. When, on another occasion, the Apostles caught sight of the Risen Lord on the seashore, not one of them dared to ask who it was, for deep down, they knew it was the Lord. In sum, the Risen Lord’s appearances left the Apostles ‘half overjoyed and half fearful.’
In fact, after the Resurrection, the Apostles experienced two kinds of fears. First, when the Risen Lord appeared to them, they thought they were seeing a ghost. As Jesus materialized before their eyes, they must have felt as if they were in something of a ‘twilight zone’. Yet, as the Risen Lord instructed them, ate with them, consoled them, and imparted to them his peace and his Spirit, one fear gave way to another. At that point, they began to fear that one day they would not see him again. We might say that the Apostles feared both the Lord’s presence and his absence.
Yet, as Pope St. Leo the Great, writing in the 5th century, tells us, the Apostles made such great progress that, by the time the Lord ascended into heaven, “…they now found joy in what had terrified them before.” As the Apostles gazed into the skies, Pope Leo tells us, “They fixed their minds on Christ’s divinity as he sat at the right hand of the Father”… and came to realize “that [Christ] had not left his Father when he came down to earth, nor had he abandoned his disciples when he ascended into heaven.” Indeed, even as Jesus disappeared from human sight, the Apostles experienced the presence of the Risen Lord in a new and powerful way. For they were thunderstruck by “the surpassing greatness of [the Father’s] power… [in] raising [Jesus] from the dead and seating him at his right hand.” In that defining moment, they saw with new clarity the power of the Risen and Exalted Lord over sin and death, and over every ‘principality and power’ – whether visible or invisible.
Thus, when the Apostles regrouped in the Upper Room to watch and pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit, they were no dispirited band. Rather, their hearts were already brimming with joy, with hope, and with expectation. They were united and ready to receive the powers and the gifts that they would need to fulfill the Lord’s command to ‘go into the whole world proclaiming the Gospel’ . . . to baptize and to make disciples, in a word, to evangelize the whole world.
The Mission Continues
So, what the liturgy has portrayed in the Easter season is not just a history lesson. In describing the Apostles’ halting progress as well as the missionary spirit of the earliest Christians, the Church’s liturgy has sent us a clear and coherent message, and it is this: Like the Apostles, we too should be making progress in our lives of faith. None of us has witnessed the spectacle of the Risen Lord’s appearances, and none of us physically ate with the Risen Lord, or listened to the sound of his voice, or touched the wounds in his hands, his feet, and his side. Yet, my friends, all this time we have been in the presence of the Lord. For, as Pope St. Leo the Great says in the same passage, from which I quoted earlier, “…our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments” . . . In and through the sacraments, the Risen Lord is present and active among us, no less than he was with the Apostles in the Upper Room.
The progress we must now make may be different from that of the Apostles, but it is no less crucial for the outcome of our lives. Perhaps we need to struggle through the personal issues that COVID has surfaced in our personal lives, in our families, and in other relationships, so that we might emerge from this pandemic physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy. Perhaps we need to journey from the disillusionment caused by the scandals to a renewed and living faith and hope in the Risen Lord and in his Body, the Church. Or perhaps we need to progress from a faith that is lukewarm, on again and off again, to a wholehearted faith that we are ready to share with others. That is why St. Paul, in today’s reading from Ephesians, prays that ‘the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened’, that it might dawn on us just as it dawned on the Apostles that we are meant to share in the power of Christ’s victory over sin and death, and over any and every force, be it visible or invisible, that would hinder us from doing so.
In contemplating the progress we must still make, let us keep two things in mind: First, that many Christians, past and present, have made similar journeys. Pope Leo speaks of generations of believers whose faith was increased by the Ascension and was strengthened by the gift of the Holy Spirit … They exhibited a faith “unshaken by fetters and imprisonment, exile and hunger, fire and ravening beasts, [unshaken by ]…tortures…devised by brutal persecutors…” Leo speaks of those who “have given their life’s blood in the struggle for this faith.” To be sure, the history of the Church has its share of scoundrels, but let us not forget the magnificent courage of those who gave their lives for the faith we still profess.
Secondly, as we contemplate the progress we have yet to make, let us, like the Apostles, retreat into the upper room of our hearts, there to watch, wait, and pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit. We have received the Holy Spirit already, in Baptism and Confirmation, and indeed every time we worthily partake of the Holy Eucharist . . . Yet, isn’t it often the case that we need to have our faith stirred into flame? How easy it is in the rough and tumble of life to suppress the Holy Spirit, to entomb the Holy Spirit under a multitude of worries, concerns, and feelings. Like the Apostles, let us pray during the coming week that the Holy Spirit may again overshadow us, both as individual believers and also as a community of faith, so that we pray with fervor, receive the Sacraments with joy, live the faith we proclaim, especially by a life of charity, and spread the Gospel far and wide, just as the Lord has commanded us.
Mary: Source of Renewed Interior Joy
Finally, let us not forget that after the Lord ascended into heaven and the Apostles gathered together again in the Upper Room, they ensured that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was with them. Just as Mary conceived Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, so too the Church would come to life by the power of the same Holy Spirit . . . and from that cenacle the faith would spread to the ends of the earth.
As we contemplate the journey of faith still ahead of us and watch and pray for the renewed coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, let us ensure that Mary, the Mother of the Lord, accompanies us. Let us invite her into the upper room of our hearts, by praying the Rosary devoutly during this month of May. Let us ask her for that docility of spirit by which we can receive anew the Holy Spirit so that our faith may be strong, our hope unshakeable, our love warm and real. May we, like the Apostles, keep our eyes fixed on heaven where Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father – and may God bless us and keep us always in his love!