Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Ascension and the Heart's Deepest Longing

For Catholics, Eastern and Roman, we now find ourselves between the Feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost; we are at the end of the great season of the Resurrection. I've always experienced the Feast of the Ascension as a sort-of neglected Feast. Traditionally falling on a Thursday, the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. tends to push the celebration of this Feast to the Sunday following what would traditionally be "Ascension Thursday." I used to scoff at this until the difficulties of adult life prevented me from attending Divine Liturgy on Holy Days that fall in the middle of the work week. Thank God that I can still enter into this Feast through the celebration of the Divine Office.

As I prayed Safro/Morning Prayer for the Feast of the Ascension this past Thursday, it finally dawned on me that this feast is not just about Jesus' ascension to the right hand of the Father in order to prepare a place for us. That's certainly a huge part of the celebration, but I'd never really stopped to absorb what that actually means. This Feast is about the fulfillment of the deepest desires of the human heart! First of all, Jesus ascended in body into heaven! The Feast of the Ascension is, in a very real sense, the completion of our re-creation begun at Jesus' Incarnation. Our full human nature - body, soul and spirit - have been restored to the presence of God, to walking with Him in the cool of Paradise, as we read in Genesis.

Secondly, Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us alongside him. This is the great hope of our Faith; that Jesus Christ, through his Incarnation, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension, has not only restored our fallen nature, but has transfigured it and brought it to that final destination that we were meant to enter into from the beginning. We are invited to enter into this restoration and transfiguration by participating in the life of Christ through His body, the Church, here on earth.

So we live now in this tension between the "already" and the "not yet." Jesus has "already" restored our fallen nature and elevated it up to the right hand of the Father, but as long as we are in this life we still feel within ourselves the effects of the original fall. As Jesus prepares a place for us in heaven, we are preparing ourselves to enter into that place, to receive that final dwelling. It is our job in this life, according to our Baptism, to put the old man to death in order that we might live in newness of life here on earth, and receive fullness of life after we pass on from this life. In other words, in order to prepare ourselves to enter into the heavenly glory that our Lord is preparing for us, we must first daily live out the reality of the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ in our own lives.

In this week between the Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, I hope to offer at least one further reflection on the tension between the "already" and the "not yet" that is set before us by Jesus' Ascension. In particular, I want to show how - at least for the Maronite tradition - this Feast reveals to us the deepest longing of our hearts, as well as the path to obtaining/receiving that deepest longing through faith, hope, the mercy of God, and the consolation of the Holy Spirit.

Until then, let's reflect on the words of the Proemion of the Hoosoyo for Safro/Morning Prayer:

"Praise, glory and honor to the One who descended into the
depths of the earth
in order to raise us to the heights of heaven.
He clothed our corruptible bodies with incorruptibility
and our mortal bodies with immortality..." (emphasis mine)

And in the words of one of my favorite prayers from the Holy Qurbono/Mass:

"You have united, O Lord, your divinity with our humanity, and our humanity with your divinity. Your life with our mortality, and our mortality with your life. You have assumed what is ours and given us what is yours, for the life and salvation of our souls..."