When we recite the Creed at Mass, as we will in just a few moments, have you ever thought about the passage that states, “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father”? Today, we are celebrating exactly that event in salvation history, the Ascension of Our Lord.
The feast of the Ascension is traditionally celebrated on the Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, which happens to be forty days after Easter Sunday, but many diocese, the Archdiocese of Chicago included, have moved it back a couple more days to today, the Seventh Sunday of Easter. The traditional placement of the feast of the Ascension forty days from Easter is significant, as our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us. Following his resurrection, Our Lord spent forty days with the Apostles teaching them and preparing them for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The number forty frequently appears within the Scriptures whenever there is an event that is important within God’s plan of salvation. Examples would be the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, the forty days and forty nights that the Great Flood lasted, even the forty days Our Lord spent fasting in preparation for his ministry. All of these events were important periods of preparation for a key point in salvation history. The forty days before the Ascension is no less important. During this time, Our Lord was preparing the Apostles for the reception of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, as well as their mission to preach to the whole world, as St. Matthew records in his Gospel.
Getting back to the first reading, we hear that Jesus ascended into heaven on the fortieth day, disappearing behind a cloud. What’s the significance of the cloud? Did he just happen to pass through a random cloud as he ascended? Not quite. As I’ve mentioned in previous homilies, there is symbolism throughout the Scriptures. The cloud is more than just a convenient way for Jesus to disappear as he ascends, but is actually a symbol of Heaven itself. By disappearing into the cloud, Jesus is shown to already be in Heaven, seated at the right hand of God. In fact, throughout the Scriptures, clouds are present whenever God manifests himself, such as the Father speaking through the clouds at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River or again at the Transfiguration.
When Our Lord ascended into Heaven, he completed his saving work on Earth, opening the gates of Heaven to us who follow him. Not only does this event lift our hearts to God, as the priest exhorts us to do at every Mass, but it finishes the work that Jesus began in his passion and continued through his death and resurrection. The Ascension of Our Lord opens the gates of Heaven to allow us to enter, while also allowing God’s grace to flow through us by the coming of the Holy Spirit upon all who believe.
As believers, we all want to be recipients of that grace, and we definitely want to follow Our Lord through the gates of Heaven and receive our eternal reward. How do we do this? In order to receive these gifts from our Heavenly Father, we must prepare ourselves much as the Apostles were prepared throughout the forty days that they spent with Jesus following his resurrection. Now, many of us can’t leave work, family, and other obligations to spend forty days totally immersed in prayer and reflection, but we have the tools available to prepare throughout our lives. Most importantly, we have the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist, which provide the graces that we need to overcome our sinful nature and to bring us closer to God. We also have devotions, such as the Rosary, which can aid us in developing a regular pattern of prayer. In addition, we can spend time in study and reflection over the Scriptures, allowing us to be immersed in God’s word. Many more tools are available; these are just a small sampling of the wide variety available to us.
As we celebrate this feast of the Ascension, may we imitate the Apostles in preparation, and one day follow Our Lord into Heaven after our time on Earth is finished.