The feast of the Ascension is not always the easiest feast to grasp. Often we can slip past it on the way from Easter to Pentecost. However, it is a central feast, one that is remembered in our Creed, and so we should spend time praying about it.
Of course, the artistic depictions are based on the descriptions of the Ascension that we find in the Bible. Besides those in today’s readings, there are those in the Book of Revelation. There, we have two visions of the Ascended Lord. The first is a terrifying one right at the beginning of the book. Jesus is dressed as priest and king, and has eyes of flame, a voice that sounds like many waters, a sword coming out of his mouth and a face like the sun. There is also the final image of the Glorified Lamb, once slain and now Lord of Love, the final image of Christ in the whole Bible, one that culminates in the marriage feast.
There is another description of the Ascension in the Letter to the Hebrews. Whereas Scripture links Easter with the Feast of Passover, the Letter to the Hebrews links the Ascension to the Day of Atonement. In the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is the High Priest who goes into the Holy of Holies to reconcile humanity to God. And it is this sense of atonement, “at-one-ment”, this sense of ultimate communion, that I would like to focus on. However, I would like to use a slightly different approach, one based on the liturgy of marriage. I want to say at the beginning that this is just an approach. I wouldn’t want to push it too far.
One way of reading the Gospel of St John is to see the first part – the Prologue, the first 18 verses – as a summary of all that follows. If we read it this way, the rest of the gospel spells out the content of the first 18 verses. We might think about the mystery of the Incarnation in the same way. The Incarnation is the mystery of God becoming human, the marriage of God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. Like the gospel, the whole mystery of the Incarnation is there already at the beginning, when our Lord becomes human in the Virgin’s womb. However, we can see the life of Christ as the fleshing out of this reality. More and more of this mystery is set before our eyes, gradually revealed. So, how does this relate to the Ascension?
One way of interpreting the Passion is in terms of creation. If you read John’s Gospel closely, you can see the Genesis account of creation both in the prologue and in the Passion. In fact, one could say that the creation of humanity begun in Genesis finishes on Good Friday. When Jesus says, it is finished, those words that we have emblazoned in Latin above our altar in this Church, when Jesus says this, he could be talking about the creation of humanity. Through his fidelity to the Father, through his obedience, the handing over of his will, he has rectified the original mistake and allowed the work of creation to be completed. On the cross is the first true human being. And the truth of this is revealed in the Resurrection. Humanity which God never destined to perish is back to its original condition. It has passed over from death to live, from slavery to freedom. Humanity is finally whole, holy.
This is where perhaps the liturgy of marriage might help us grasp the Ascension. In a wedding, there are many key moments; however, two central moments are, first, the declaration of freedom, and secondly, the vows by which the couple are married. Perhaps if we see Easter as the freeing of humanity, no longer trapped by death, might we not also see the Ascension as similar to the vows, when humanity receives its final destiny, total union with God, taken by Christ into the heart of God, wounds and all?
I say this because in a marriage at least two things are necessary. First, one must be free to give oneself away. Second, the other person must accept and do likewise. In one sense, then, perhaps we can see Easter as humanity finally becoming free to enter into communion with God, and the Ascension as the heavenly marriage that follows. This seems to work with the beginning and the end of the Bible. The beginning: where a man leaves his parents and goes to unite himself with the woman. And then the end of the Bible: the marriage feast of the Lamb, the culmination of God’s plan for creation.
Perhaps then we might see the Ascension as the end of human freedom: union with God. God saves us that we might become free to choose the union God intends for us. The Incarnation then is the ongoing mystery of becoming free to say Amen to God. Let us pray, then, that, through our baptism, we might freely offer ourselves to God so as to follow where Christ our head has gone.