The Image of Man Has Been Raised Up: On the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord | Carl E. Olson | May 13, 2010 | Ignatius Insight
The Image of Man Has Been Raised Up: On the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord | Carl E. Olson | May 13, 2010
"You ascended into glory, O
Christ our God, and You delighted the disciples with the promise of the Holy
Spirit. Through this blessing, they were assured that You are the Son of God,
the Redeemer of the World."
—Troparion for the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Feast of the
Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ
"Christ's Ascension is therefore not a spectacle for the disciples but an event
into which they themselves are included. It is a sursum corda, a movement toward the above into which we are all called.
It tells us that man can live toward the above, that he is capable of attaining
heights. More: the altitude that alone is suited to the dimensions of being
human is the altitude of God himself. Man can live at this height, and only
from this height do we properly understand him. The image of man has been
raised up, but we have the freedom to tear it down or to let ourselves be
— Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, from Images
of Hope: Meditations On Major
Feasts (Ignatius Press, 2006)
"As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven." (Lk 24:51)
Psa. 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
Eph. 1:17-23 or Heb. 9:24-28; 10:19-23
With these simple, matter-of-fact words, Luke describes the Ascension of Jesus,
expressed even more concisely in the Creed: "He ascended into heaven." This
event is so important for Luke that the Acts of the Apostles opens with a
description of the same event. As the disciples looked on, Luke records, Jesus "was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight"
(Acts 1:9). Mark's account, heard today, is equally direct and succinct: "So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them,
was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God" (Mk. 16:19).
This dramatic moment has been celebrated in the Church on
the fortieth day after Easter since the earliest centuries. Some of the Church
Fathers, including Augustine, said that the feast had been observed since the
time of the apostles, although the earliest evidence of its celebration dates
to the fifth century. In the Latin Rite in the United States the Feast of the
Ascension is one of six solemnities, the others being the solemnities of Mary,
Mother of God (January 1); the Assumption of the
Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15); All Saints (November 1), the Immaculate
Conception (December 8), and the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (December
Despite being a solemnity and a
holy day of obligation, the Feast of the Ascension is sometimes
completely overlooked or not given much attention. Ask Catholics what is the
significance of the Feast and answers aren't always immediate. The rather
mysterious nature of the Feast is heightened in some ecclesiastical provinces
by its transference from the sixth Thursday of Easter to the following Sunday.
 In a way, the Solemnity bears a resemblance to the sacrament of
Confirmation, the exact meaning of which is not always understood well and
suffers for not being more clearly explained and comprehended.
This occasional murkiness is
unfortunate because the Ascension is such a joyful event in the work and life
of Jesus Christ, as well as being a vital reality in the ongoing life and
mission of the Church. To appreciate this joy and vitality we should keep in
mind what the Catechism of the Catholic Church states about the liturgical calendar: The Church, "in the course of
the year, . . . unfolds the whole mystery of Christ from his Incarnation and
Nativity through his Ascension, to Pentecost and the expectation of the blessed
hope of the coming of the Lord" (CCC, 1194).
Hinted at here are revealing
parallels between the Incarnation and the Ascension and between the Nativity
and Pentecost. In the Incarnation the eternal Son of God took on human nature in
order to save mankind. By the power of the Holy Spirit, divinity and humanity
were united in one Person; the Word became flesh (Jn 1:14) and lowered Himself
to the level of dust and death. The Nativity is the physical, outward
revelation of this reality: the Christ Child is born and history and the world
are never the same.
At the Ascension the crucified,
risen Son of God returns to His Father. Having descended to dusty earth, He now
returns to heavenly glory. Having conquered death, He ascends to eternal life.
But He returns to the right hand of the Father not just as the Word, but as the
Incarnate Word. The doors of heaven are now open and humanity can now approach
the throne room of God, the way having been paved by the life, death, and
resurrection of the God-man. Pentecost, finally, is the manifestation of the
God-man's Church, which is both human and divine. The Church was revealed to
the world on that day—fifty days after Easter—by the power of the
All of this theology is nice enough,
but what does it mean for us? It means the Feast of the Ascension is a
celebration of salvation won. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that "in the Eastern Church this
feast was known as analepsis, the taking up, and also as the episozomene, the salvation, denoting that by ascending into His glory
Christ completed the work of our redemption." The tendency is often to think of
the Resurrection as the culmination of Jesus' salvific work, but it is the
Ascension that places the final stamp of approval on the sacrificial and
victorious work of our Savior. This is beautifully expressed in the first
chapter of Paul's epistle to the Ephesians:
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may
know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in
his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of
his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might:
which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his
right hand in the heavens ... (Eph. 1:17-20).
Now that the Incarnate Son of God
has ascended into heaven and sits in the throne room of God, mankind can
follow. United to the Son through baptism and deepening communion with Him
through reception of the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments, the hope of
heaven is ours.
"The ascension of Christ is our
elevation," declared Leo the Great in a sermon on the Ascension, "Hope for the
body is also invited where the glory of the Head preceded us. Let us exult,
dearly beloved, with worthy joy and be glad with a holy thanksgiving. Today we
not only are established as possessors of paradise, but we have even penetrated
the heights of the heavens in Christ." Where the sin of the first Adam closed
the gates of Paradise, the righteousness of the new Adam has opened them wide.
Jesus promised His disciples that He would prepare a place
for them (Jn. 14). Because of the Ascension, we know He has prepared a place
for those who are His. Because of the Ascension, we have the hope of His return
and of our future passage into glory. "The Ascension, then," Pope John Paul II
explained in May 2000, "is a Trinitarian epiphany which indicates the goal to
which personal and universal history is hastening. Even if our mortal body
dissolves into the dust of the earth, our whole redeemed self is directed on
high to God, following Christ as our guide."
Our Guide has come, died, rose from the dead, and ascended
into heaven. Let us celebrate the Feast!
 One question that often arises
about the Feast of the Ascension is why do some provinces celebrate the
solemnity on the following Sunday and not on the sixth Thursday of Easter? The
short answer is that the bishops of those regions believe that it makes sense
pastorally to do so.
The website for the United States Council of Catholic Bishops has a page
explaining some of the situation based on the norms of the Code of Canon Law. It notes that Sunday and the six
solemnities referred to above are holy days of obligation. It then quotes Canon
1246¤2: "However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of
obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See." Further on, the page has the
"In accord with the provisions of
canon 1246¤2 of the Code of Canon Law . . . the National Conference of Catholic
Bishops of the United States decrees that the Ecclesiastical Provinces of the
United States may transfer the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord and
Savior Jesus Christ from Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter to the Seventh
Sunday of Easter according to the following procedure.
"The decision of each
Ecclesiastical Province to transfer the Solemnity of the Ascension is to be
made by the affirmative vote of two-thirds of the bishops of the respective
Ecclesiastical Province. The decision of the Ecclesiastical Province should be
communicated to the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the
Discipline of the Sacraments and to the President of the National Conference of
Catholic Bishops. [dated August 6, 1999, Feast of the Transfiguration of the
A reason often given for moving
the day of the Feast from Thursday to Sunday is that many more Catholics (who
are usually working on weekdays) can attend the holy day of obligation. It has
also been suggested that this will allow priests, liturgists, and musicians to
devote more time to prepare for the Feast of the Ascension.
(This article was originally published in 2004 in Our Sunday
Visitor in a slightly different form.)
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II's Teaching on Divinization in the
Trinitarian Encyclicals | Carl E. Olson
The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, O.P.
Theosis: The Reason for the Season | Carl E. Olson
Jean DaniŽlou and the "Master-Key to Christian Theology" | Carl E. Olson
Creation, Salvation, and the Mass | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"The Central Event of History" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Creation | Adrienne von Speyr
Are Catholics Born Again? | Mark Brumley
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous
Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to Our Sunday Visitor newspaper and This Rock magazine. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, their three children, two cats, and far too many books and CDs.
Visit his personal web site (still stuck in the middle of a major overhaul) at www.carl-olson.com.
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