Ascension Day 2016 is one week away, on Thursday, 5 May. That, in case you don't know, is a public holiday in Indonesia, followed on 6 May by a holiday in honor of Muhammad’s Isra and Mi'raj. In North America, however, it not only is not a public holiday, most churches won’t celebrate it (if they do celebrate it) until Sunday, 8 May, the date listed as the Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord in most ecclesiastical provinces of the Catholic Church.
In the preface to Ascension Theology, I remarked on the decline of attention to this feast, and on the negative consequences for Pentecost, given that the latter cannot be interpreted properly without reference to the former. Indeed, since every eucharistic celebration depends upon “the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into heaven”—these three mighty acts of God in Christ—there are negative consequences year round, for the instruction of the faithful, when we neglect the Ascension.
These consequences touch on the gospel itself and on the mission of the Church, as last Tuesday’s lection, drawn from Mark 16, may serve to remind us:
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.
In this conclusion to the so-called longer ending of Mark, the taking-up is the precondition for the sitting-down (that is, for ascension of the heavenly throne and assumption of the divine authority belonging to it) and the sitting-down for the going-forth (that is, for the proclamation to the rulers and subjects of this world that a true king and kingdom have been established over all).
Which is to say: To preach the gospel omni creaturae, with all sobriety, is an assignment impossible to accept and a mission impossible to conduct without a firm conviction that Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of God, as Lord of each and high priest for all. Indeed, it is impossible to accept without the equally firm conviction that he will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead, and to save those who are waiting for him.
The contours of our culture, however, seem designed to deflect this gospel and to deny this proclamation any purchase. I won’t venture to say that Indonesia affords a culture more open to it than does North America, but at least one has there a public holiday to which to appeal, not to mention a holiday and a story about Muhammad with which to compare. (That story is much more analogous to Paul’s story in 2 Corinthians 12, of course, than to what scripture says about Jesus; the Mi'raj is a putative heavenly journey, not an ascension in the relevant sense, much less a counter-claim about the Ascension.) In our culture, on the other hand, one simply doesn't talk publicly about such things. Moreover, the very concepts in which the Ascension and heavenly session of Jesus are thought, including kingship and priesthood, have been rendered almost obsolete.
The Solemnity of the Ascension is there to help us deal with this problem, if we will let it. It recalls our attention to the fact that proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, like the Eucharist itself, is always a political and indeed a juridical act. It is a declaration about the way things really are and about who is really in charge. Which is one reason, of course, why I think it better to celebrate the Ascension on its proper day, rather than to allow the demands of secular life or the lassitude of the faithful to determine the timing.
Surely any such allowance is self-defeating. For what does the Solemnity of the Ascension present to us, if not the fact that God has committed to Jesus all authority in heaven and on earth? What does it propose to us, if not a corresponding revision of all our own categories and a reorientation of all our own commitments? What does it rebuke in us, if not our very secularity (in the deceptive, compartmentalizing sense that word has recently taken on)? We no longer know what the “secular” is, if we do not know that the Ascension and the Parousia bracket and define the present age, making it precisely the allotted time for the proclamation to every creature—from the poorest of the poor to the lordless powers who fancy this age as their age—that in fact there is one Lord over all, Jesus Christ, to whom they are called to give their allegiance and so to be saved.
Perhaps even this, not to mention the many other things an “ascension theology” ought to teach us, can be taught three days late, liturgically speaking; but not, I suspect, quite as well. And alas, one too often discovers that it is not going to be taught at all! Where it is not taught, and taught well, talk of the new evangelization is a waste of breath. Who will busy himself preaching the gospel to any creature whatsoever, who does not believe or is not able to explain that Christ is seated at the right hand of God? And what signs will accompany the kind of preaching that does not require such a faith or such an explanation? Certainly not signs worked by the Holy Spirit, such as the casting out of the demons that haunt us in this culture of denial.
If we are to offer our contemporaries the gospel of Jesus Christ, punctuated by the efficacious ‘amen’ of the Spirit, we will need to do so with greater boldness than we have been in the habit of showing. We will need to do so in the spirit of prayer (Acts 1:14) that moved those who originally witnessed the Ascension. Would that not be aided by rendering the whole of Ascensiontide a novena to the Holy Spirit (it stands, after all, at the very foundations of the novena) and a sustained act of very public thanksgiving to him who sits at God’s right hand?
Let the rulers of this world, together with those who are ruled, be placed on notice. And let the people of God take heart and rejoice! As Tuesday’s psalmist put it: “Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of thy countenance, who exult in thy name all the day, and extol thy righteousness!” (Psalm 89, q.v. in full.)
Douglas Farrow is Professor of Christian Thought at McGill University and the author of Desiring a Better Country.