The Fortieth Day
The Feast of the Ascension should be celebrated on Ascension Thursday, but because most Catholics would not attend Mass on a weekday, the Bishops have transferred it to the following Sunday. Personally, I think this is a bad idea, because most Catholics don’t go to Mass even on Sundays, and lowering the standards only affirms our infidelity. The Bishops of England, to their credit, have restored Ascension to its rightful place on Thursday, and I have no doubt that, in five or ten years, the Bishops of the United States will do the same (they have already done so in the East Coast dioceses).
In any case, 40 days after he rose from the dead, as Luke writes in our first reading, Jesus as “lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” I can remember the Ascencion Thursdays of my boyhood, when Mom would take all of us kids out of school and drive us into the mountains for a family picnic. Jesus was very present to us on those Ascension Thursday picnics. We could not see him, but we knew he was there. Doing away with Ascension Thursday not only does away with those family picnics, but also does away with the Church’s first novena, the nine days of prayer for the Holy Spirit between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost. “Stay in Jerusalem,” the Lord told the apostles, “and wait for the promise of the Father … you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” So the apostles spent those nine days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost in Jerusalem with Jesus’ mother, praying and waiting for the Holy Spirit. We are in that time right now, between Ascension and Pentecost, which we celebrate next Sunday. And boy do we need the Holy Spirit now. So pray that He comes to us, that we may be his witnesses. The world needs faithful Catholics today more than ever—without us, it will go over the edge.
He does not leave us
Did Jesus leave us on Ascension Thursday? St. Luke tells us in Acts that he was “lifted up” and St. Mark says he was “taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.” As I said, during our family picnics in the mountains, I felt Jesus very close to us, even though we couldn’t see him. Do you have to see someone to know they are with you? A little girl sleeps alone in her room, but knows that Mommy and Daddy are in the house, and so she is not afraid. If she is home alone, she is afraid, because she knows they are not there. Just knowing they are there is enough. Jesus promised us that he would not abandon us, that he would be “with us all days, yea, even unto the end of time.” And St. Luke tells us that, after Jesus was “taken up,” the apostles returned to Jerusalem with “great joy.” Only their certain knowledge of His abiding presence could explain their great joy. No, Jesus did not leave us when he returned to heaven. In fact, he took us with him, making us his own body. We are the Body of Christ. We are his witnesses: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus lives and rules in His Church, today. He lives in each disciple who even attempts to witness to Him.
We have a job to do. A beautiful and exciting job, for we have been sent by God to bring his love and truth to the world. The world is dying, is shriveling up, is collapsing for want of love and truth. You see how unhappy, how desperate, even how violent many are. We can’t sustain our marriages, we can’t live without drugs, we can’t bear life, and it is because we do not have God. Only we, God’s disciples, can bring Him to all the lonely people. “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every Creature,” Jesus told them. “Whoever believes will be saved…” Do you want to save those you love? Bring them to Jesus. This is your job. He has sent you to be his witness, and He will work with you: “the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word thorough accompanying signs.”
We can’t witness to Christ without the Holy Spirit. Even the most excited teen in our youth program lasts only a year or two if he or she is not sustained by the Holy Spirit—the Sacraments, the Word, the Community. The same is true of any adult—how many have I seen just give up on Jesus when they meet opposition. But I’ve seen just as many remain faithful despite terrible trials—only through the Holy Spirit. So pray for the Holy Spirit as we prepare for Pentecost next Sunday, that, like Our Lady, we may bring others to the Love of Christ, to the Kingdom of Heaven.