When I was young, my family's favorite hymn was sung on three days of the Church year. We knew it came on Easter and Pentecost, but we scratched our heads when we tried to remember the other festival day hailed in this resounding hymn. Ascension Thursday would catch us each year as a (pleasant) surprise. But the hymn-writers understood Christ's trajectory better than we. The Ascension is not a detour but a necessary and jubilant step in the Paschal journey from Easter to Pentecost.
The Feast we celebrate today, the Feast of the Ascension, deserves more attention. At Crux today, Fr. Robert Imbelli reminds us that “Ascension isn’t Jesus ‘on sabbatical’ until Second Coming.” Today is a day of transformation. It's not the day the Jesus action figure gets put back into the box. It marks, after Jesus's conquest of death, his cosmic exaltation. Imbelli writes:
Too often we limit “Paschal mystery” to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the glorious ascension is not an afterthought, an add-on; it is the culmination of the Paschal Mystery. If Jesus “lives and reigns forever and ever,” as the conclusion of every liturgical prayer confesses, then he “lives” because of his resurrection, but “reigns” because of his ascension.
By bringing his humanity into the very heart of the Godhead, Jesus’ ascension enables his universal salvific presence.
This reminds me of the marvelous formulation of the Incarnation taught in the Athanasian creed: Christ, with his dual nature, is still one—“not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.” The work of the Incarnation is not ended at the Ascension but consummated. The disciples watching Jesus being “taken up” bodily into the clouds see this vividly.
Thus the Ascension is not Jesus leaving us abandoned, orphaned, but Jesus going to prepare a place for us—and to send his Spirit to be with us always. It is from the Right Hand of the Father that Jesus sends the Paraclete of Pentecost. Writing on our blog last week, Douglas Farrow pointed out that the Ascension is a political statement: Jesus is the true ruler, enthroned as king above the earth. “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!” He who reigns on high has told us we are his Body on earth. Another Ascension hymn puts it this way:
Alleluia! Not as orphans
Are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluia! he is near us;
Faith believes nor questions how.
Though the cloud from sight received him,
When the forty days were o'er,
Shall our hearts forget his promise:
“I am with you evermore.”
So I leave you with the royally triumphant words of that marvelous hymn, “Hail Thee, Festival Day”:
Refrain: Hail thee, festival day!
Blest day that art hallowed forever;
day when our God ascends
high in the heavens to reign.
Lo, the fair beauty of earth,
from the death of the winter arising,
every good gift of the year
now with its Master returns. Refrain
Daily the loveliness grows,
adorned with the glory of blossom;
heaven her gates unbars,
flinging her increase of light. Refrain
Christ in his triumph ascends,
who hath vanquished the devil's dominion;
gay is the woodland with leaves,
bright are the meadows with flowers. Refrain
Christ overwhelms the domain
of Hades and rises to heaven;
fitly the light gives him praise—
meadows and ocean and sky. Refrain
Loosen, O Lord, the enchained,
the spirits imprisoned in darkness;
rescue, recall into life those
who are rushing to death. Refrain
So shalt thou bear in thine arms
an immaculate people to heaven,
bearing them pure unto God,
pledge of thy victory here. Refrain
Jesus, the health of the world,
enlighten our minds, thou Redeemer,
Son of the Father supreme,
only-begotten of God! Refrain
Equal art thou, co-eternal,
in fellowship ay with the Father;
in the beginning by thee
all was created and made. Refrain
And it was thou, blessèd Lord,
who discerning humanity's sorrow,
humbledst thyself for our race,
taking our flesh for thine own. Refrain
Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.