Depending on where you live, today is either the Feast of the Ascension or it is not. Here in Florida the Feast is celebrated today and thus was the focus of last night’s Vigil Mass. I did my best to stay focused on the solemnity, but last night was one of those times when my funny bone was acutely sensitive. I blame it on a musical selection by our choir prior to Mass. I was minding my business reading St. Augustine’s sermon on the Ascension when I realized that the musical piece had the same melody line as the theme song to the old 1950’s kid show, “Andy’s Gang.” And once you start on Andy, you return to that great phrase of 1950’s television, “Pluck your magic twanger, Froggy.” It was downhill after that and everything was funny. Sometimes you just have those days.
Be that as it may, the readings from today’s liturgy are compelling. The first reading is the introduction to the Acts of the Apostles, which most scholars believe is a second volume of St. Luke’s Gospel. Luke, in fact, makes reference to “my first volume” in today’s reading. None the less, Luke repeats the scene of the Ascension somewhat differently from his Gospel account. In Acts, the disciples press Jesus about the future, specifically the date of the fulfillment of the new Israel. Jesus chides them a bit for their curiosity and focuses them on the realities at hand. Jesus’ words make greater sense when we observe the melancholy of men who are not quite clear about what to do next. Deciphering God’s timetable should not have been among their greater priorities.
I should interject here that Luke’s two volumes, the Gospel and Acts, are bound together by the theme of the Holy Spirit. Luke begins his Gospel with the Holy Spirit encountering Mary in an event we refer to as the Annunciation. From his conception Jesus will always be the “spirit filled prophet.” In the Acts of the Apostles this same Spirit will descend upon the disciples and conceive the Church, so to speak, in next week’s dramatic Pentecost event. Not for nothing is Pentecost often referred to as the “birthday of the Church.”
The Ascension can sometimes be overlooked in this sequence, something of a plot device to set the stage for Easter to pass into the Age of the Spirit. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Ascension is not a feast of relocation. Rather, it is a feast of glorification, the return of Jesus to his place at the right hand of the Father. It is certainly a vindication of every work and utterance of the human Jesus. The feast affirms for future generations the very nature of Jesus the Christ: fully human and fully divine. Jesus himself tells the disciples that they should be happy to see him go, and if we think back to the Resurrection in the Gospel of John, Jesus commands Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples that he is going to his glory (Ascension) rather than announce his Resurrection.
The Gospel of today’s Mass comes under the heading of Mark, but it is one of the three endings of Mark’s Gospel added by later inspired authors to round out what had been a very blunt original ending (Mark 16:8), When we compare Luke’s first reading with Mark’s Gospel, the theological differences are quite vivid. Even with the amended ending, Mark’s Gospel is concluded with no mention of the Holy Spirit at all.
One of the best sermons on the meaning of the Ascension comes from St. Augustine in today’s Office of Readings. Drawing from St. Paul, Augustine explains that even though Christ is in heaven, he remains with us in his Spirit. This being so, he teaches that the reverse is also true: we who are presently on earth are also united to Christ in glory by virtue of Baptism. It is reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in the Last Supper discourse, that “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Ascension is a celebration of this organic connectedness: the glorification of Christ at the right hand of the Father is a destiny we taste of now and look forward to in hope and great expectation. Perhaps the disciples can be excused for asking when all of this will happen prior to Jesus’ ascent.
Ascension has a psychological piece: it is a feast of human anthropology, describing why we have been created and what our destiny will be. It is an article of faith that cannot be boxed or compartmentalized, as in “well, that’s nice for my soul but not for the real me.” The Easter drama and its feasts make no mention of such division, which is really the stuff of Plato. Easter is bodily resurrection; Ascension is bodily glory; Pentecost is bodily rejuvenation. You wonder what the world of Christianity would look like if the truth of Easter engendered a psychological awareness of human worth now and a genuine feeling of anticipation beyond the grave.
It’s a splendid meditation, Thursday or Sunday.
Wild Card Sunday