Ps 47 R/. God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, one of the five great feasts of the life of Jesus. In many parts of the world, this Solemnity was celebrated this past Thursday, the 40th day after the Resurrection, the actual day on which the Lord ascended into Heaven. When this feast is celebrated on Thursday, it’s a holy day of obligation — this speaks to its importance in the life of the Church. In many other parts, like in Canada, we move this Solemnity to the following Sunday. This was done in an attempt to make it easier for people to attend Mass on this feast. While it may have made it easier for people to celebrate this feast, it’s also regrettably obscured its importance. Since it falls on a Sunday, it seems we barely take notice of it. But the Ascension of the Lord is a significant moment in the life of the Church!
Our first reading today, describing the event of Jesus’ Ascension, helps us to see why. As I’ve mentioned before, repetition is always a call to pay attention. In these eleven verses, Luke uses repetition to call our attention to several key themes, but today I want to focus on just two of them: the Kingdom (vv. 3, 7); and, the Holy Spirit (vv. 2, 5, 8).
The ‘Kingdom of God’ was a major theme in the preaching ministry of Jesus. He often spoke of the ‘coming of the Kingdom’ or of the presence of the Kingdom. This was related to the ancient expectation Israel had for a Messiah King who would deliver it from its enemies and rebuild the kingdom of David. This expectation is explicit in today’s verse 6, Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6).
But this notion of a kingdom is more than just a political reality. For the Jewish mind, it included the reunification of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who had long been divided and scattered (cf. Sir 48:10; Jer 50:19-20; Hos 11:11; Lk 22:30; Acts 26:6-7). It also carried with it the hope that all God’s people would once again be gathered together under His Name and under His sovereignty.
However, as we know, Jesus spoke of a Kingdom that was much different than a political reality. While Jesus’ Kingdom embodied the aspects unity and Divine Sovereignty, its deliverance wasn’t in regards to political powers like Rome or the gentiles, but rather in regards to sin and death. This we discover more clearly through the Passion and Resurrection. That’s why Jesus spoke of His Kingdom as not being of this world (Jn 18:36).
But more than just these two mentions of the Kingdom, the whole scene is full of this symbolism. As St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, Jesus ascends into Heaven to take up His throne at the right hand of the Father (Eph 1:20-21; cf. Acts 2:33). This is why our feast today is so important: it’s the enthronement of Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven. First, as He said, in order to prepare a place for us so that He might take us up to the Father’s house (Jn 14:1-3). And second, in order to send us the Advocate so that His Kingdom might be built up in this world (Jn 16:7ff)
This is why the Ascension is necessarily tied to the Solemnity of Pentecost, which we’ll celebrate next Sunday. And Luke makes this link clear in today’s reading: you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now (v. 5).
Jesus’ bodily Ascension to the Father is so that He might bestow on His disciples the gift of divine Life, which is the Holy Spirit (cf. Nicene Creed). It’s precisely through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that Christ will unite His Kingdom, and not just the Tribes of Israel, but all peoples, together as one in His Name, in His Spirit, in His Kingdom, which we call the Church. Luke mentions this explicitly in our Gospel today, repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations (Lk 24:47); and in the first reading, too: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
And so, my brothers and sisters, to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins is the mission of the Church — of all the disciples of Jesus —, until the Kingdom of God is spread throughout the earth and all nations proclaim His Name. Because the great desire of the King is that none should be lost, but that all might be one in Him as He is in the Father (cf. Jn 6:39; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pt 3:9; Jn 17:20ff). Again, this is why He has sent us the Spirit of unity.
In the mystery of the Ascension, Jesus has not abandoned us or left us orphaned (Jn 14:18ff), but rather has gone up to the Father for our advantage, so that we might be clothed with power from on high (Lk 24: 49) and be united to Him through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And all of this He does, not because of any merit of our own, but because of His gracious and merciful love for us; not for His own profit, but for our sanctification. Jesus is taken up into Heaven so that He might return to take us up with Him and share with us fully the glory that He has in the presence of the Father.
And so, my brothers and sister, you can begin to see now why the Solemnity of the Ascension is an important event in the life of Christ and of the Church: it further demonstrates His love for us, and continues His mission to draw us all to the Father for our salvation.
As we rejoice in this great gift today, may we open wide our hearts to the Lord, asking Him to make room in us for the gift of the Holy Spirit, to draw us more closely to Himself, to conform us more perfectly to His image and likeness, and to enkindle in us the fire of His love, for our sanctification and the salvation of the whole world. Amen.