Why did the apostles rejoice at Christ's Ascension?

Christ's ascent to heaven is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Aloysius Church in Great Neck, N.Y. The feast of the Ascension of the Lord celebrates the completion of Christ's mission on earth and his entry into heaven. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

I have often in the past felt a bit confused by the Solemnity of the Ascension, which we celebrated last Sunday. It sometimes appeared strange to me that our response to what seems to be Jesus’ leaving is joy and celebration, not mourning. And yet the Scriptures tell us that the Apostles — even before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on them at Pentecost — returned to Jerusalem after Christ’s Ascension “with great joy” and “were continually in the Temple praising God” (see Luke 24:53).

Clearly, the Apostles must have understood that Jesus had not actually left them, though they could no longer see and touch His bodily form. Otherwise, they would certainly not have been rejoicing and “praising God” but would have been heartbroken and confused. But how was He with them now?

The night before He died, He had taken bread and wine, blessed them, and declared them to be now no longer bread and wine, but His own Body and Blood. And He had conferred on those same Apostles the power to “do this in memory of Me,” to use His very own words, which would once again change bread and wine into His Body and Blood. The Apostles knew this was meant to be a continuing celebration, a “perpetual memorial” (see Exodus 12:14 and the prayer O Sacred Banquet), an “everlasting covenant” (see Hebrews 13:20 and the Eucharistic Prayers for Mass). And He had promised them, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My Blood remains in Me and I in Him” (John 6:56, emphasis added).

That same night at the Last Supper, He had promised to send upon them His Holy Spirit: “I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). And at His Ascension, He promised to send them “power from on high” (Luke 24:49) through the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them at Pentecost. It is by this same Spirit that Christ remains with us today in the sacraments, especially in the sacrament of His Body and Blood.

This time of year affords many occasions for solemn, joyful celebrations for us as Catholics: the Ascension last Sunday, Pentecost this Sunday, followed by the Solemnities of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. And a particular grace for us in the Church in the United States this year is that this last feast also marks the beginning of our three-year National Eucharistic Revival.

The good news of both the Solemnity of the Ascension and the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ is that He is with us. Through the Holy Eucharist, He remains in us, and we remain in Him. We are in Him, and He has taken our humanity to the right hand of the Father. “And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:23). Nothing can separate us from Him but our own choice of sin (Romans 8:38-39). He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). This is indeed cause for great rejoicing!

Sr. Mary Martha Becnel is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.


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