Doctrinal note for the Ascension
The second feast that is kept during Paschaltide is the Ascension, which crowns the whole of our Lord’s life. For the Risen Christ must needs cease to tread the soil of our poor earth and must return to His Father in whose bosom, as God, He must be for all eternity, and where, in St. Cyprian’s words, “His humanity is now welcomed with a joy no tongue can express.”
Christ is now to take possession of the Kingdom of Heaven which He has won by His sufferings, and to open to us His Father’s House, “setting our frail nature at the right hand of God’s glory”, that there, as God’s children, we may fill the place from which the angels fell. So, as Conqueror of sin and Satan, Jesus enters heaven; while the angels hail and greet their King, and the souls of the just, freed from Limbo, form for Him an escort of glory. “I go to prepare a place for you ” He told His apostles, and St. Paul asserts that God has made us “sit together” with Christ, “in the heavenly places,” since already “we are saved by hope”. “There, where the Head has entered,” says St. Leo, “the body also is called to penetrate.”
The triumph of Christ is the triumph of His Church. Like the High Priest who, under the Old Law, entered the Holy of Holies to offer the blood of the victims to almighty God, our Lord, the Apostle tells us, has entered the Holy of Holies of the heavenly Jerusalem, there to offer His own Blood, the Blood of the New Testament, and to obtain for us favours from God. It is on Ascension Day that Christ begins His heavenly Priesthood, showing His glorious wounds to God. “He is … always living to make intercession for us,” and has obtained for us the Holy Ghost, with all His gifts.
While it is the complement of all of our Lord’s feasts, the Ascension is the fount of our sanctification.
As the Church sings in the Preface: “He was lifted up into heaven, so that He might make us partakers of His Godhead.” It is not enough,” says Dom Gueranger, “for a man to rest on the merits of our Redeemer’s passion, not enough to unite to His memorial that of the resurrection as well. Man is saved and restored only by the union of these two mysteries with a third: that of the triumphant ascension of Him who died and rose again.”
Historical note for the Ascension
Forty days after our Lord’s resurrection, still in the Paschal cycle, is kept the anniversary of the day that marked the end of His visible reign on earth.
The apostles, who had come to Jerusalem at the approach of Pentecost, were assembled in the Cenacle when our Lord appeared and took a last meal with them, afterwards leading; them outside the city on the Bethany side to the Mount of Olives, the highest of the mountains which surround the capital. Then Jesus blessing His apostles raised Himself towards the sky.
This was at midday. Then a cloud hid Him from signt and two angels came and told the disciples that “This same Jesus” who had ascended into heaven, would thence return to earth at the end of the world.
As a reminder of this last walk of our Lord and His apostles from the Cenacle to the Mount of Olives, it was the custom at Rome to have a solemn procession at the hour of Sext (Midday), when, after Pontifical Mass at St. Peter’s, the Pope went with the cardinals and bishops to St. John Lateran.
On the Mount of Olives, on the spot where our Lord ascended into heaven, St. Helen built a basilica, after the pattern of that of the Holy Sepulchre. By a happily devised piece of symbolism, it was open to the sky. It was destroyed by the Mohammedans and replaced in the fourteenth century by a monument of mediocre style.
Liturgical note for the Ascension
The Feast of the Ascension was formerly not distinguished from Pentecost because Paschaltide was regarded as a single feastday, beginning at Easter and ending with the descent of the Holy Ghost on the apostles. Before long the Ascension was kept on the fortieth day after the Resurrection, having its own vigil and octave. It is now a holy-day of obligation.
The symbolic ceremony peculiar to this feast, is the final extinction of the Paschal candle, whose light during these holy forty days has represented the presence of our Lord in the midst of His disciples. It is extinguished after the reading of the Ascension Gospel, which speaks to us of our blessed Lord’s departure into heaven. The white vestments and the Alleluia, “that drop of the supreme rejoicing,” says Rupert (Benedictine monk from Liege, abbot of Deutz near Cologne, died in 1135), “which thrills through Jerusalem above,” betrays the joy felt by the Church at the memory of our Lord’s triumph, at the thought of the happiness of the angels and the just men of the Old Law who share it, and of the expectation of the Holy Ghost, who will make her to join in it herself.
The spirit of this feast is emphasized in the collect, which shows us that having with the liturgical cycle, followed our Lord through the whole course of His life, we must lift our gaze towards heaven, and dwell there by faith and hope, for it is the true fatherland of God’s children.
– From the St. Andrews Missal