Posted by: Fr Chris | May 29, 2019

Ascension Thursday

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The Eastern Catholic Churches keep Ascension Thursday, rather than transfer it to Sunday as most Roman Rite dioceses in America do, so as to keep the important symbolism of both the forty days of Easter and the nine days of waiting for the Holy Spirit, in what was the origin of the custom of making a novena. Ascension is an important feast day for several reasons.

First, it confirms again that Jesus was physically present among the disciples after Easter Sunday.

Second, Christ ascends to heaven physically – His human body goes into paradise, showing that mortal flesh has a destiny beyond this life, and indeed is worthy of that life to come. In fact, in the Matins the prayer after Psalm 50 refers to the wonderment of the angels, where it says: Today the Powers on high see our nature in heaven, and they marvel at this wondrous Ascension, saying to one another, Who is this Who has just arrived in heaven? But when they recognize their own Lord, they order the gates of heaven opened. This fact becomes very important in dealing with Gnostic heresies that return even today, that treat the body as corrupt or a prison for the soul.

Third, Jesus will return in glory, at a definite point in history and time, in this manner – that is important for rejecting false messiahs who claim that they are Christ incarnate, which we have in our own time in Asia and Africa and different cults.

Fourth, the angels at the Ascension are important. In Luke’s account they represent Moses and Elijah, who testified to Jesus at the transfiguration. Now they testify to the Jewish apostles and disciples, that Christ is Who He says He is, and also that He is the fulfillment of everything in the scriptures.

Finally, Saint Augustine writes of this feast that while the Apostles  certainly saw, touched and felt the Risen Lord during the forty days that He repeatedly came to them after His Resurrection, and even though They confirmed their faith by looking at Jesus, touching Jesus, eating with Jesus and see Him physically disappear into the sky, it was still not enough to ensure that they would become witnesses of Christ and bravely endure everything for the preaching of the truth, even to the shedding of their blood, starting with St. Stephen.

So Who gave them such a capability? Augustine says:  Listen to the Lord himself “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

It is the same for us. We are limited in what we can do on our own. If I try to tackle a spiritual issue on my own, I will not do well. If first I stop and pray ask the Holy Spirit to come and help me, then I end up saying things that the other person inevitably responds to. in fact, people will say, that’s exactly what  I needed to hear, and I know that didn’t come from me but from God.

Luke tells us that the disciples and Our Lady gather for nine days, praying in the upper room and going at the regular times to pray throughout the day in the temple in the morning, at noon, and in the afternoon, praising God.  The Jews were preparing for Shavuot, the Hebrew name for Pentecost Sunday. That is the feast of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

For Christians, it is the fulfillment of the New Law, the Birth of the Church.  The Jews decorate their homes on Pentecost or Shavuot with greenery because it was said that the barren slopes of Sinai burst into flowering plants while God spoke to Moses, showing the new life that would come to Israel through the Torah. We will have the same here in church on Pentecost Sunday, and we can do the same at home, putting greenery up in the icon corner and fresh flowers, as a sign to ourselves of the new life the Holy Spirit brings to us.

Christ promises in the gospels to both return, and in Matthew He says that He is with us always, until the end of the age.  The question is, am I with Him always? We have received the Holy Spirit in Chrismation/ Confirmation – how responsive am I to the Holy Spirit living in me? These nine days are the opportunity to make a real novena, a real nine days of prayer, examining my heart, looking inside, and seeing where I need to  open myself up to God’s working. Do I need to pray more, or better? Do I need to read Scripture more, at least daily? The Holy Spirit knocks at the door of our hearts especially in these nine days as we prepare for His coming – remember that in sacred time the Divine Liturgy brings us to both the passion, death, resurrection, and glory of heaven, and the particular feast. We will be here on Pentecost, kneeling to receive the Spirit of God, ruah YHWH. But we must be open to Him, and wish to receive Him, as those disciples did that first Pentecost. Christ is among us.

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