Jesus has ascended and he is not departed and now, thanks to the fact that He is with the Father, he is close to each one of us, forever (Benedict XVI, May 7, 2005).
The feast of the Ascension of Christ makes us celebrate the joyful and glorious manifestation of that true aspect of the Ecce Homo that was hidden by the passion in a dramatic way. A little more than 40 days before this event of heaven, Pilate had shown Christ, the suffering and bleeding Servant, to the people reunited to condemn him, stressing in this way the offended and humiliated face of the man.
“Look at the man,” said the Roman Procurator. The people did not take pity on him and condemned him to death. Even today television, news, web and movies continuously present, sometimes with compassion, more often with cynicism, and many times with the masochistic pleasure of self-destruction, the humiliated and defeated man in all forms of horror: this is how man is, they keep telling us. Science with the theory of evolutionism takes us to the past, shows us the results of its research, the clay from which man came, and “ensures” us that this is what man is.
The event of the Savior’s ascension tells to the old and new disciples that Pilate’s statement upon showing the flogged Christ is only half true. Jesus is not only a man with his head crowned with thorns and his body exhausted by scourging; He is the Lord and his kingdom, with the “violence” of a sacrificial love, gives back to man and to the entire world the original beauty. In ascending to heaven Christ demonstrated to have lifted up the image of Adam. We are not made only of dirt and pain, we are in Christ up to the heart of God.
“The Ascension of Christ is the rehabilitation of man. It is not being hit that lowers and humiliates but to hit; it is not being subject to spitting that lowers and humiliates, but to spit on someone; it is not the one who is offended but the one who offends that is dishonored; it is not haughtiness that ennobles man but humility; it is not self-glorification that makes him great, but the communion with God” (Benedict XVI, Images of Hope, 2005)
To believe and to celebrate the Ascension
What is the meaning of believing that Jesus “is ascended into heaven”? We can find the answer in the Creed: “He is ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father”. The fact that Christ is ascended into heaven means that “he is sitting at the right hand of the Father”. He has entered also with his human nature in the world of God that had been made Lord of everything (as Saint Paul writes in the second reading of today’s liturgy). For us “to go to heaven” or “go into Paradise” means to go and be with Christ” (Phil 1, 23). Our true sky is the resurrected Christ with whom we will reunite after the resurrection of the body.
“The Ascension does not point to Jesus’ absence, but tells us that he is alive in our midst in a new way. He is no longer in a specific place in the world as he was before the Ascension. He is now in the lordship of God, present in every space and time, close to each one of us” (Pope Francis, General Audience, April 17th, 2013). With the feast of the Ascension we celebrate the fact that the Paradise opens its doors to humanity with the solemn and joyful entrance of Christ into heaven to the right hand of the Father.
In his farewell Jesus leaves his truth and his power to the Apostles because the Ascension was not a departure but a way to intensify his presence everywhere in the universe. It was not a farewell (in the current meaning farewell means that we will see each other again only in heaven) but the promise and the certainty of a continuous presence to the limits of time and space: “I will be with you always until the end of the age “(Mt 28:20) In fact “farewell” comes from the Latin “ad Deum”, towards God. When we greet each other in this way we commit ourselves to a journey that means a return to the house of God. Our entire life is towards an event, the one of the encounter with God-Love.
Waiting to make this final encounter through the passage with the body on the last day, Christians are called to make it happen every day with the heart. This passage of the heart towards what is eternal doesn’t divert the Christian man and woman from the historical duties that They have in this world. The question that the two angels in white robes asked to the Apostles, “Why do you look up in the sky?”, is valid for us too.
“To go from this world” and “not to go with this world” (Saint Augustine) we must work on us so that every day the heart can go towards what is eternal. We must look at the true sky, not to the atmospheric one, but to the one of God for which our heart longs for. “My soul thirsts for the living God”. Saint Paul writes: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Phil 3:20) The sky of the Christian life is ultimately a person: it is the risen Christ to whom we are incorporated and with whom we are called to be “one body”.
“To go to heaven” or “to go into Paradise” means to go and to be “with Christ” (Phil 1:23) “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”( Jn 14:2-3) Therefore to celebrate and to live the Ascension is to feed this holy desire of God and of a full life now and for eternity.
To announce the Gospel is to carry Christ’s benediction.
Toward the end of today’s Gospel we read that Jesus: “As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.”
Every time we go to Mass, every time we experience the benediction, we can exit from the Church and go into the world as blessed individuals and not as poor abandoned human beings.
“Personally I will never forget the devotion and the interior dedication my father and my mother showed when they signed us children with blessed water, making the sign of the cross on our forehead, on our mouth and on our chest every time we had to leave. This benediction was a sign of company by which we felt guided. It was a visible sign of our parents’ prayer that followed us with the certainty that this prayer was backed by the Redeemer’s benediction. I think that this act of blessing, as a full and benevolent expression of the universal priesthood of all baptized, should come back regularly into our daily life and should be energized with the love that comes from the Lord; to bless is a priestly act: in the sign of the cross we perceived our parents’ priesthood, its dignity and its strength. (cf Joseph Ratzinger “Introduction to Spirit of Liturgy”).
Hands that bless are hands that offer and pray. The consecrated Virgins are called in a particular way to fulfill this deed. In offering themselves entirely to Christ they unite their hands to those of Christ and become like the roof on our heads. With the benediction of the Bishop, the consecrated life of the Virgins is rewarded with the gifts of salvation and life, is offered in prayer and thanksgiving for the received gifts and is an offering of intercession for the Church and the entire World (Cf Ritual of consecration of the Virgins, prayer of consecration recited by the Bishop N°24).
A short explanation of some of the Gospel’s words
“Taken up” comes from the verb anapherein (= to go up, to be carried up in the new translation of the Bible) which suggests a progressive action, is in the passive form (this is the only time it is used in this way in the New Testament) and explains God’s action with a connection to the description of takings in the Bible( Gen5;24; Sir 44:16;49:14;1 King 2:9;Sir 48:9.24). The idea that the Evangelist wants to transmit is a different one. He indicates the exaltation of the resurrected at the right hand of God as it is confirmed by the Apostles’ preaching (Phil 2; 9; 1Tim3:16; 1 Pt3:22, Acts2:33; 5:31).
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Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47; Heb 9:24-28; 10:19-23; Lk 24:46-53
Acts 1:6-13a; Ps 47; Eph 4:7-13; Lk 24: 36b-53
Monsignor Francesco Follo is permanent observer of the Holy See to UNESCO, Paris.