Today is one of those feast days that our Bishops have so tactfully relocated to this upcoming Sunday. Today, however, is the actual Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord. We, Catholics have feast days just about every day of the year, but for the key moments of Jesus’ time here on earth we honor such days with an emphasized feast day known as a solemnity. While not all solemnities are days of obligation for the faithful, optional solemnities become such when Bishops and Episcopal Conferences move such days to the nearest Sundays. Since… you know… every Sunday is a holy day of obligation.
This particular solemnity, that of the Ascension, carries with it a certain dogmatic weight. This means that belief in the Ascension is considered a necessary component of one’s profession of faith. Today marks the end of the forty days after Christ’s resurrection wherein He taught his followers of the kingdom of heaven in depth; He gave them the fullness of the Deposit of Faith. It also marks an event that Jesus forewarned them about numerous times. In John’s Gospel, he recounts what Jesus told the apostles:
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you… “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. – John 16:7, 12-14
The Apostles were very sad when Jesus told them he was preparing to depart, but He explained this ascension as necessary so that the Holy Spirit might come to them and give them help. Their sadness wasn’t one borne of a friend who was going away and such that “Aww, we’ll miss him!” It was primarily because, in light of all that has taken place thus far, their fearless leader was about to leave them alone. Even though Jesus promised them He would be with them always, His actual departure from them would prove to be a test of their faith. Their sadness, then, was more of a fear they experienced; a sense of hopelessness.
So often in our own lives we forget the promises Jesus has made to us in His Sacred Scripture and through the Sacred Tradition of the Church. Our faith in Jesus falls short and we place it in worldly saviors that, in the end, fail to satisfy. We are like the apostles in this sense because we know, if we read and hear, what Jesus has told us but actually living by those words causes us to put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. Living our faith is much easier in theory than it is in all actuality.
With the current state of the race for America’s next president, for example, the doomsday prophets have come out in full force and many Christians have completely lost sight of themselves because our current options are just terrible. While this observation may seem a bit arbitrary, it is just one example of another way wherein we are just like the Apostles. We have become sad because the hope we have put in temporal leaders has slowly and surely eroded away completely.
The difference? None of the presidential candidates can make promises that even slightly compare to the promise Jesus has given us.
His apostles were sad, but they had to endure ten whole days of just being alone with themselves and relying totally on faith. This period of waiting for them must have felt like an eternity. They likely prayed in a very nervous manner asking, “Ok God! Ha Ha Where are you? You can come out now! We totally believe you… just come. Please!” They had to experience a time of spiritual desolation during a time wherein their very lives were at stake for even associating with the man called Christ. (sound familiar?) When the Holy Spirit finally came, whatever spiritual desolation and weakness of faith they may have endured would have come to light.
Roughly ten days from today is Pentecost Sunday; the “birthday of the Church”, if you will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
Being seated at the Father’s right hand signifies the inauguration of the Messiah’s kingdom, the fulfillment of the prophet Daniel’s vision concerning the Son of man: “To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” After this event the apostles became witnesses of the “kingdom that will have no end.” – CCC #664
This kingdom that will have no end is sacramentally expressed through the Church over which the gates of the netherworld shall never prevail. The Church, guided into the fullness of truth by the same Holy Spirit that descended onto the Apostles at Pentecost, lives constantly in the fulfillment of the promise Jesus made to His disciples in John 16. We need the Ascension. We need it because of all it teaches us about our own moments of doubt, desolation, or fear. It is a necessary part of our creed because it forces us to announce with our lips not only the reality of what happened, but the reality of what is to come. Without the Ascension there would be no Pentecost, no coming of the Holy Spirit, no Church, and no Hope. The enduring element of Jesus’s most perfect sacrifice begins to come to fruition with the event of the Ascension.
We need the Ascension. Now go to confession and get yourself to Mass, ya filthy animal. (just kidding, but seriously.)