The sun of the fortieth day after Easter has risen in all his splendor. The earth, which shook with gladness at the birth of our Emmanuel, now thrills with a strange emotion. The divine series of the mysteries of the Man-God is about to close. Heaven has caught up the joy of earth. The angelic choirs are preparing to receive their promised King, and their princes stand at the gates, that they may open them when the signal is given of the mighty conqueror's approach. The holy souls that were liberated from limbo on the morning of the Resurrection, are hovering around Jerusalem, waiting for the happy moment when Heaven's gate, closed by Adam's sin, shall be thrown open, and they shall enter in company with their Redeemer – a few hours more, and then to Heaven! Meanwhile, our risen Jesus has to visit His disciples and bid them farewell, for they are to be left for some years longer in this vale of tears.
They are in the Cenacle, expectantly waiting His coming. Suddenly He appears in their midst. Of the Mother's joy, who would dare to speak? As to the disciples and the holy women, they fall down and affectionately adore the Master, Who has come to take His leave of them. He deigns to sit down to table with them; He even condescends to eat with them, not indeed to give them proof of His Resurrection, for He knows that they have no further doubts of the mystery; but now that He is about to sit at the right hand of the Father, He would give them this endearing mark of familiarity.
What tongue could describe the respect, the recollected mien, the attention of the guests? With what love must they have riveted their eyes on the dear Master! They long to hear Him speak; His parting words will be so treasured! He does not keep them long in suspense; He speaks, but His language is not what they perhaps expected it to be – all affection. He begins by reminding them of the incredulity wherewith they heard of His Resurrection. He is going to entrust His Apostles with the most sublime mission ever given to man; He would, therefore, prepare them for it by humbling them.
Then, assuming a tone of authority, such as none but God could take, He says to them, "Go ye into the whole world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned" (Mark 16: 15-16).
The hour of separation is come. Jesus rises; His Blessed Mother, and the 120 persons assembled there, prepare to follow Him. The Cenacle is situated on Mount Sion, which is one of the two hills within the walls of Jerusalem. The holy group traverses the city, making for the eastern gate, which opens on the valley of Josaphat. It is the last time that Jesus walks through the faithless city. He is invisible to the eyes of the people who denied Him, but visible to His disciples, and goes before them, as heretofore the pillar of fire led on the Israelites. How beautiful and imposing a sight! Mary, the disciples, and the holy women accompanying Jesus in His heavenward journey, which is to lead Him to the right hand of His Eternal Father! It was commemorated in the middle ages by a solemn procession before the Mass of Ascension day. What happy times were those, when Christians took delight in honoring every action of our Redeemer!
The holy group has traversed the valley of Josaphat; it has crossed the brook Cedron, and is moving onwards to Mount Olivet. What recollections crowd on the mind! On their left, are the garden and the grotto, where He suffered His agony and accepted the bitter chalice of His Passion. After having come as far as what St. Luke calls the distance of the journey allowed to the Jews on a Sabbath-day, they are close to Bethania, that favored village where Jesus used to accept hospitality at the hands of Lazarus and his two sisters. This part of Mount Olivet commands a view of Jerusalem. The sight of its temple and palaces makes the disciples proud of their earthly city: they have forgotten the curse uttered against her. They begin to dream of the earthly grandeur of Jerusalem, and, turning to their Divine Master, they venture to ask Him this question, "Lord, wilt Thou, at this time, restore again the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1: 6)
Jesus answers them with a tone of severity: "It is not for you to know the times or moments which the Father hath put in His own power" (Acts 1: 7). These words do not destroy the hope that Jerusalem is to be restored by the Christian Israel; but, as this is not to happen till the world is drawing towards its end, there is nothing that requires our Savior's revealing the secret. What ought to be uppermost in the minds of the disciples is the conversion of the world, the establishment of the Church. Jesus reminds them of the mission He has just given to them: "Ye shall receive," says He, "the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you; and ye shall be witnesses unto Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost parts of the earth" (Acts 1: 8).
Giving His Blessed Mother a look of filial affection, and another of fond farewell to the rest of the group that stand around Him, Jesus raises His hands and blesses them all. While thus blessing them, He is raised up from the ground whereon He stands, and ascends into Heaven. Their eyes follow Him, until a cloud comes and receives Him out of their sight.
** Ascension **The disciples are still steadfastly looking up towards Heaven when two angels, clad in white robes, appear to them, saying: "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking up to Heaven? This Jesus, Who is taken up from you into Heaven, shall so come as ye have seen Him going into Heaven!" (Acts 1: 10-11) He has ascended a Savior; He is to return a Judge: between these two events is comprised the whole life of the Church on earth. We are therefore living under the reign of Jesus as our Savior. To carry out His merciful designs, He gave to His disciples the mission to go throughout the whole world, and invite men, while yet there is time, to accept the mystery of salvation.
What a task this is that He imposes on the Apostles! And now that they are to begin their work, He leaves them! And yet, they are not sad; they have Mary to console them; Her unselfish generosity is their model, and well do they learn the lesson.
They love Jesus; they rejoice at the thought of His having entered into His rest. "They went back into Jerusalem with great joy" (Luke 24: 52). These few words of the Gospel indicate the spirit of this admirable Feast of the Ascension: it is a festival which, notwithstanding a tinge of sadness, is, more than any other, expressive of joy and triumph. This solemnity is the completion of the mysteries of our Redemption; it is one of those which were instituted by the Apostles; and, finally, it has impressed a character of sacredness on the Thursday of each week, already so highly honored by the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
We have alluded to the procession, whereby our Catholic forefathers used, on this Feast, to celebrate the journey of Jesus and His disciples to Mount Olivet. Another custom observed on the Ascension was the solemn blessing given to bread and to the new fruits: it was commemorative of the farewell repast taken by Jesus in the cenacle. Let us imitate the piety of the ages of Faith, when Christians loved to honor the very least of our Savior's actions, and, so to speak, make them their own, by thus interweaving the minutest details of His life into their own. What earnest reality of love and adoration was given to our Jesus in those olden times, when His being Sovereign Lord and Redeemer was the ruling principle of both individual and social life! In our modern times, most "Catholics" do nothing to acknowledge Christ the King when in public. To say nothing of the evil results of this limitation of Jesus' rights as our King, what could be more sacrilegiously unjust to Him Who deserves our whole service, everywhere and at all times? The angels said to the Apostles: "This Jesus shall come, as ye have seen Him going into Heaven"; happy we, if during His absence, we shall have so unreservedly loved and served Him, as to be able to meet Him with confidence when He comes to judge us.
The liturgical symbol of this Feast is the Paschal Candle. It was first lit on the night of the Resurrection, and it reminds us, by its forty days' presence, of the time which Jesus spent among His brethren, after He had risen from the grave. The eyes of the faithful are fixed upon it, and its light seems to be burning more brightly, now that we are about to lose it. After the Gospel of the Mass, this sweet symbol of Jesus' presence is extinguished. This expressive rite tells us of the widowhood of Holy Mother the Church, and that we, when we would contemplate our beloved Lord, must turn our hearts to Heaven.
Farewell, dear Paschal torch, that hast gladdened us with thy lovely flame! Thou hast sweetly spoken to us of Jesus, our light in the darkness of our pilgrimage; and now thou leavest us, telling us that He is no longer to be seen here below, and that we must follow Him to Heaven, if we would again behold Him.
A tradition, handed down from the early ages, and confirmed by the revelations of the saints, tells us that the Ascension of Our Lord took place at the hour of noon. The Carmelites of St. Teresa's reform honor this pious tradition by assembling in the choir, at the hour of midday on the Ascension, and spending it in the contemplation of this last of Jesus' mysteries, following Him in thought and desire, to the throne of His glory. Let us also follow Him; but before looking on the bright noon which smiles on His triumph, let us go back in thought to His first coming among us. It was at midnight, in the stable of Bethlehem. That dark and silent hour was an appropriate commencement to the 33 years of His life on earth. He had come to accomplish a great mission: year by year and day by day, He labored in its fulfillment. It was nigh to its fulfillment, when men laid their sacrilegious hands upon Him, and nailed Him to a Cross. It was midday, when He was thus raised up in the air; but the eternal Father would not permit the sun to shine on Jesus' humiliation. Darkness covered the face of the earth; and that day had no noon. Three hours after, the sun reappeared. Three days after, the Crucified rose again from the tomb, and it was at the early dawn of light.
Today at noon, His work is completed. He has redeemed us, by His Blood, from our sins; He has conquered death by His Resurrection to life: had He not a right to choose, for His Ascension, the hour when the sun is pouring forth his warmest and brightest beams? Hail, holy hour of noon, sacred with thy double consecration, which reminds us daily of the mercy and of the triumph of our Emmanuel, of salvation by His Cross, and of Heaven by His Ascension!
In the middle ages, the Sunday after the Ascension was called the Sunday of Roses, because it was the custom to strew the pavement of the churches with roses, as a homage to Christ Who ascended to Heaven when earth was in the season of flowers. How well the Christians of those times appreciated the harmony that God has set between the world of grace and that of nature! The Feast of the Ascension, when considered in its chief characteristic, is one of gladness and jubilation, and spring's loveliest days are made for its celebration. Our forefathers had the spirit of the Church; they forgot, for a moment, the sadness of poor earth at losing her Emmanuel, and they remembered how He said to His Apostles: "If you loved Me, you would be glad, because I go to the Father!" (John 14: 28) Let us do in like manner; let us offer to Jesus the roses wherewith He has beautified our earth: their beauty and fragrance should make us think of Him Who made them, of Him Who calls Himself the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys (Cant. 2: 1). He loved to be called Jesus of Nazareth; for Nazareth means a flower; and the symbol would tell us what a charm and sweetness there is in Him Whom we serve and love as our God.