Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord: ‘God Mounts His Throne to Shouts of Joy’

The new order of creation that Jesus brought out of his tomb will never end and never be defeated.

“The Ascension,” from the Drogo Sacramentary
“The Ascension,” from the Drogo Sacramentary (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In most of the United States, today is the Solemnity of the Ascension. In a limited number of dioceses, primarily in the Northeast, the Solemnity was celebrated on its proper day, i.e., Ascension Thursday, May 26. The U.S. Bishops were allowed to transfer the Solemnity to the 7th Sunday of Easter if the bishops of a particular ecclesiastical province so decided. That explains why, in America, liturgy is subordinate to geography. The rationale for this adaptation was that imposing a holy day of obligation on a Thursday was too burdensome for Catholics, so another “pastoral adaptation.” 

If you live in those minority of dioceses that still observe the Ascension on its proper day, this blog remains relevant, because the artwork chosen is also appropriate to the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

There is, in fact, a certain neatness to observing Ascension this year, in which we focus on the Gospel of Luke, on a Sunday. Luke wrote two New Testament books: the Gospel bearing his name and the Acts of the Apostles. He wrote them for a convert, Theophilus, to provide him “an orderly account … so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). The Gospel spans the conception of Jesus to the end of his earthly mission; Acts spans the Ascension to the establishment of the early Church, with Peter and Paul in Rome. So, this year, the First Reading picks up where the Gospel leaves off.

Jesus ascended to heaven on the 40th day of Easter. Note the preposition: “of,” not “after.” The Church is deliberate because it wants to stress that Easter is one great feast. Indeed, today’s Solemnity reminds us it is a never-ending feast. What Jesus did for us on Easter did not just end with a Sunday sunset. The new order of creation that Jesus brought out of his tomb will never end and never be defeated. The Devil is finished. He fights — and unfortunately takes many with him — in vain, because what happened on Easter Sunday ends with the Second Coming, when he will “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more” (Revelation 21:4). In fact, we still live in the time of Easter … and will until he comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

The Gospel of Luke’s account of that 40th day are bare, but tally with the other Gospels: Jesus reaffirms his mission was to “suffer and rise again from the dead on the third day” (26:46), in consequence of which his message of conversion — of turning from sin and turning to God — was to be preached by his witness Apostles (vv. 47-48). He promises to send his Spirit to complete his work (v. 49), blesses them, and “was taken up to heaven” (v. 51). The disciples then returned to Jerusalem (v. 52) to wait for that promised Spirit.

The First Reading, from Acts, amplifies the details of the Ascension. It obliquely adds the perspective that the Apostles still don’t completely “get it” — while the Gospel (26:46) just told us Jesus’ mission was spiritual, not political, their old habit of self-importance puts in a last question about whether he “is going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6) Jesus indirectly rebukes them by telling them “it is not for you to know” (v. 7)when the Kingdom (in a spiritual sense) would come about, but he tries once more to direct them to the larger task of carrying his message “to the ends of the earth” (v. 8). He then ascends to heaven. In Acts, Luke adds the detail of the two angels (v. 11) who provide an eschatological perspective: the Ascension is not a stand-alone, one-time event. He whom you saw go will also come back “in the same way” (v. 11b) at the end of the world “to judge the living and the dead” who should have heard that message of repentance to be carried to the world’s ends. 

(If you live in a diocese where the Seventh Sunday of Easter is observed today, the Gospel is John 17:20-26, the conclusion of Jesus’ Last Supper Discourses with his High Priestly Prayer for Unity. He prays not just for the Apostles but for “those who believe in me through their word” (John 17:20), i.e., the message with which Jesus at the Ascension commissioned them to “go and teach all nations” (Mt 28:19, the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry in Matthew’s Gospel). In John’s preceding verses, Jesus makes clear already that “I will remain in the world no longer but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you” (v. 11). In John’s Gospel today, Jesus makes clear that his message is more than an intellectual exercise: those who “know” him through the Apostles are to be joined to him and his Father “in the love with which you loved me” (v. 26), a moral bond of goodness which requires the “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” Jesus demands in today’s Ascension Gospel from Luke (24:47).

Bethany, where Jesus ascends, is a town on the outskirts of Jerusalem, along the slope of the Mount of Olives, about two miles from the city. Bethany is where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived, where Jesus stayed just before his Palm Sunday entrance to Jerusalem, and the site of his Ascension.

The artwork selected to illustrate today’s Gospel comes from the Drogo Sacramentary, a manuscript made for Charlemagne’s son, the Bishop of Metz in what is today the Alsace region of France, dating to around A.D. 850. A “sacramentary” is the book that contains the prayers for celebration of Mass (i.e., that usually red book on the altar). Before books were printed, they were manuscripts that were copied. 

Manuscripts were richly illustrated, including in the initials that begin prayers or readings. The “C” includes an illumination of the Ascension. 

The dramatis personae are the same as in Luke’s text: eleven Apostles (Judas was dead and Matthias is still to be selected), the Blessed Virgin Mary at center stage, holding that infant Church together, and the two angels descending to talk to the aforementioned people as Christ enters heaven. Contrary to Luke, who speaks of the angels who “stood beside them” (Acts 1:10), these angels descend from heaven since, after all, angels are God’s messengers. Each also carries a cross (as does Jesus, making three), symbolic of the unity of this event with what preceded it in time (the Paschal Triduum) and what will come (the Last Judgment), when angels will also descend from heaven. 

What I especially like about this illustration, however, is the depiction of Christ: He is going home to his Father, who takes his Son by the right hand — the hand of power — leading him home. And since “no one has ever seen God; it is his only-Begotten Son who has revealed him” (John 1:18), it is Jesus who leads us to the hand of the Unseen One.

The Gospel for the Seventh Sunday of Easter also speaks of Jesus praying to his Father that his Apostles, proclaiming his Word, come to be joined in the same love of the Father and Son. The Drogo Sacramentary illustration makes that same point: Christ’s followers, gathered at the foot of the mount, watch where their Master is going because “where he has gone, we hope to follow” (Preface of the Ascension I). He’s gone “to prepare a place for” us, with the promise “I will come back and take you with me” (John 14:3). So, while Jesus prepares our heavenly home, let’s get to the work he left us!

(For more on the iconography of the Ascension, see here.)