May 14, 2015
The Preface of each Mass begins with the exchanges: “The Lord be with you,” “And with your spirit”; “Lift up your hearts,” "We lift them up to the Lord.” The words, “We lift them up to the Lord," are central to what we celebrate on the Solemnity of Ascension.
On the first Ascension day, Christ was lifted up from the earth. In remembering and celebrating this event, the Church on earth today joins Christ even now in being raised to heaven. Ascension day is not something that happened only to Christ long ago, but is a reality that occurs in the community of Christians in a permanent and ongoing manner.
The whole movement of this lifting up, this great Ascension, will be complete only when all of humanity, all of history, all of creation have been drawn into the realm of God's eternal Kingdom.
Ascension day proclaims the hope and glory held out to all who are in Christ. We who are baptized have gone into the waters of death, and in the living out of our baptism we already experience Ascension.
In all the sacraments, Christ reaches out to humanity and draws it to himself. In the great sacrament of the Eucharist, heaven descends to earth, so that earth might ascend to heaven. This worshipping assembly, we might well say, is itself a great act of Ascension.
We find in the Ascension a pressing spiritual invitation to change our lives in practical and concrete ways. All the good and noble things we do involve a lifting up: acting in charity, reaching out in friendship, bringing the good news to the needy, acting out of our best motivations, making the best choices, putting our best foot forward.
In one of his sermons for Ascension day, Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke very expressively on this matter. Newman spoke of people whose hearts and minds are not lifted up to the Lord. These are people, he says, who are too concerned by worldly success or with the wisdom of the world. Instead of being lifted up they are being pulled down, debased, and degraded. Newman speaks of the ways in which we fail to lift up our hearts: When we are overly anxious, or bitter about something, cold and barren in our thinking, hollow in our souls, blind to the future.
The challenge of Ascension day is presented well by Newman. These are his words: "Start now with this holy season and rise with Christ. See, He offers you his hand; He is rising; rise with Him. Mount up from the grave of the old Adam; from groveling cares, and jealousies, and fretfulness, and worldly aims; from [impulsions] of habit; from the tumult of passion, from . . . a cold, worldly, calculating spirit, from frivolity, from self conceit and [self righteousness]."
All of us—the whole Church and the whole world—have much to be raised from, and much to ascend to. The process of rising up and ascending to Christ will never be finished until the final Ascension day at the end of history.
As the permanent Ascension of the Church and of Christian believers continues, we are called to keep our sights high, not to let ourselves be dragged down, not to settle for being less than God calls us to be. We are called constantly to make our own the words of the Eucharistic preface, “We lift them up to the Lord.”
Let us take these words to heart as we celebrate one of the great moments of the Easter season: the Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension.