It has been six weeks since we celebrated the glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ on Easter. It was a glorious day, indeed, when the disciples came to the realization that the man they had put all of their hope in was, in fact, alive again, having “rebuilt the temple in three days” as He had promised (John 2:19). However, Jesus’ work did not end with the Resurrection. There was still more to come.
After rising from the dead, Jesus meets two of His disciples on the Road to Emmaus. It is not until He breaks bread with them, however, that their eyes are opened, and they recognize Him (Lk 24:13-31). Later that evening, He appears to the two again, along with the rest of the disciples, and again they are astonished, so Jesus reminds them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you can see that I have,” (Lk 24:38-39). He then proceeds to eat with them again. So, after the Resurrection, Jesus remained on the earth, substantially, in his physical body, interacting with His disciples. What you may or may not know is that He did so for forty days. There is only a brief verse in Scripture that tells us, “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God,” (Act 1:3).
The Church teaches that it was especially during these forty days that Jesus provided instruction and catechesis to the Apostles and disciples on the inner workings of the Church He would establish upon His departure from the earth. Knowing he would not remain with them forever, He had to ensure the leaders correctly understood the Sacraments He had established, the expectations of their missionary work, and how the rituals of the religion ought to be performed. Then, as the Apostles, the first bishops, spread out to other lands, there would be a uniformity in teaching and practice that would later be held together by the Holy Spirit (Pentecost is coming!).
We have a very ancient document that was written in the mid-first century called The Didache, which predates even the gospels. “Didache” is a Greek word used to describe a training manual that would be used by a mentor as he instructs his apprentice. In this document, we see instructions, commands, codes of conduct, and outlines that were practiced by the earliest Jewish-Christians. Jesus was a teacher prior to His crucifixion, so although there is barely a mention of Jesus’ last days on earth in Scripture, it follows logically that He would continue teaching before leaving His nascent Church to fend for itself. The existence of The Didache affirms that.
Now we come to the feast we celebrate today, which is the Ascension, when Jesus, in His physical body, ascends to Heaven. We often talk about the Paschal Mystery in terms of the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, it is the Ascension that is the height of the Paschal Mystery and the completion of the saving events, at least in the earthly sense. To understand this, we need to go back to the Old Testament book of Leviticus. God commanded Moses to have, once per year, a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in which the Jewish people were to atone for their sins. On this day, the high priest would enter the sanctuary, offer prescribed prayers, and sacrifice a goat for the sins of the people, followed by a cleansing of the sanctuary (Lev 16:7-10, 20-23).
How does the Old Testament ritual relate to us? Let’s start with St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves, but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. … [H]ow much more will the blood of Christ purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Heb 9:11-14)
You see, with the Ascension, we have the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement as Jesus, the high priest, enters the heavenly sanctuary and offers Himself as a sacrifice to God the Father for our sins. We no longer need a Day of Atonement once per year because Jesus offers this sacrifice perpetually into eternity, once and for all, which we experience at every Mass (CCC #662). Sometimes Catholics are incorrectly accused of re-sacrificing Jesus at the altar again and again, but this is not so. The Catholic faith teaches that Jesus was sacrificed once, but through His Ascension, He took a singular event that happened in time and brought it into eternity. An event which He is continually and perpetually offering back to the Father on our behalf. In celebrating the Eucharist, heaven and earth meet and we participate in that one, perfect sacrifice outside of time. It is perpetual atonement.
This concept of heaven and earth intersecting is also a Jewish one that our Catholic faith has adopted and by which each of us is called to live. The words of the Our Father – “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – illustrate that the two realms are not independent from one another, having no effect on each other. The very words Jesus gave us to pray show us the interconnectedness between the physical and the spiritual, with God reigning over all of it. It is for this reason, the Catholic Church esteems beautiful art, architecture, and music. These types of things employ our senses to elevate us to the heavens and enable the things of heaven to descend to us on earth. Consider the spire of a beautiful cathedral that reaches high up to heaven while heaven reaches down to touch it.
So, since the Ascension is the concluding act of the Paschal Mystery, where heaven and earth intersect perpetually, what does that mean for us here and now? Let us refer to Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his ascension, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (Matt 28:19-20). This is what we are all called to do – bring Jesus to the world so the world can get to heaven. You are called to be in the place where heaven and earth intersect and to share it with others.