The Ascension and Heavenly Liturgy (video talk and text)

What is the Ascension really all about? Is it just an event when Our Lord said Goodbye to the apostles and went up into the sky? In this short talk I look at the way in which Jesus Christ, the great and eternal High Priest fulfilled the feast of the Atonement. By His Ascension, Christ took our humanity into heaven and established the eternal Liturgy in which we participate each day at the Holy Mass. There could be nothing more important for our lives than this living link with heaven.

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Here is the text if you prefer just to read it:

The Ascension and Heavenly Liturgy

Laudetur Iesus Christus.
Praised be Jesus Christ.

Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.

I suspect that for many of you, the feast of the Ascension is a bit of a puzzle. What are we remembering and celebrating? Is this just an interlude between the resurrection and Pentecost? This journey upwards through the clouds with the apostles gazing and gesticulating – what is so special about that? So what is really going on? Why is the Ascension so important? Why does it feature as a top-ranking feast with its own preface and even communicantes? Why is it referenced several times every day in the core texts of the Roman Missal?

That’s what I want to help you to understand: why the Ascension is such a great and tremendous event and mystery, and why it is of such fundamental importance for the human race – and therefore of course, for your spiritual life and mine.

To start with, we need to go back to the great Jewish feast of the Day of Atonement.

The Day of Atonement

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would go into the holy of holies, the most sacred and important part of the Temple. He would have to go through the veil into the holy place which represented heaven. The high priest went symbolically into the divine realm. By way of example, one symbol of this was his vestments – he wore the white tunic of divine purity rather than the usual coloured vestments.

The Day of Atonement was the feast for the taking away of sins. When the high priest went into the holy of holies, he took the blood of animals that had been sacrificed for the occasion and sprinkled that blood on the mercy seat and on the corners of the altar.

This highly significant liturgical rite was essentially incomplete. It did not achieve the forgiveness of sins, but it was the means of imploring the Most High God to do so according to His great mercy. It looked forward to its fulfilment in the the ultimate forgiveness of sins.

The Day of Atonement was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Jesus offers His own blood

The high priest was a mediator. He represented the people before God. Our Lord is the perfect mediator because in His one divine person, He is God and He is man. He often called Himself the Son of Man, an expression which teaches us that He represents the whole human race in Himself. As the Son of Man, He represents the human race to the Father. As the Divine Word, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, He offers the perfect sacrifice and is the perfect and eternal priest. His mediation will go on for all eternity in heaven.

In His mediation, Our Lord does not simply plead for the Father to forgive our sins, He brings that forgiveness about. This atonement is not achieved through the sacrifice of animals, but through the sacrifice of Our Lord Himself, the perfect sacrifice which is also eternal because He makes it available to us until the end of time in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are present in the eternal offering which Christ makes to the Father in heaven.

In the Book of Revelation St John is shown heaven. It is the eternal Temple, the cubic form used to describe it is redolent of the holy of holies of the earthly temple; the priestly service is carried out, the hosts of angels are involved in what we might call a full conscious and active participation.

The veil torn apart

At the crucifixion, the earthly version of the holy of holies was finished. There was no more need for repeated sacrifices to be offered for God’s forgiveness and for repeated sacrifices to beg for people to be admitted again to paradise. The completion of the sacrifice of Christ ended the era of the earthly Temple. Listen to St Matthew’s gospel:

“And Jesus again crying with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And behold the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top even to the bottom. (Matt 27:50-51)

At that moment when the Son of Man declared “It is consummated” the holy of holies, until now shrouded in the veil, was set aside, opened and no longer the place of the presence of the all holy. As St Paul says:

For Jesus is not entered into the holies made with hands, the patterns of the true: but into heaven itself, that he may appear now in the presence of God for us. (Heb 9:21-24)

The difference between Christ and the previous high priests is that Our Lord is the perfect High Priest. He does not just represent the human people before God, He is human Himself, the Son of Man. He does not take the blood of animals that have been sacrificed, He takes His own blood. He does not enter the representation of heaven, he actually enters heaven itself. He does not go through a curtain, he goes through the veil of the clouds. Again, the letter to the Hebrews:

But Christ, being come an high priest of the good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hand, that is, not of this creation: Neither by the blood of goats, or of calves, but by his own blood, entered once into the holies, having obtained eternal redemption. (Heb 9:11-12)

That’s what happened at the Ascension.

The unity of the heavenly and earthly liturgy

The words of Our Lord to the apostles at the Last Supper, as recorded in St John’s gospel, instruct them that He is to leave them so that they will have a greater and more perfect union with the persons of the Holy Trinity. This union is brought about through the sacred Liturgy of the Church which Our Lord set up on the foundation of the apostles.

As St Paul tells us:

Therefore, if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God: Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. (Col 3:1-2)

We are to set our mind to the worship of the heavenly court where the Lord is now at the right hand of the Father. So also in the collect of today’s Mass, we pray:

Concede, quæsumus omnipotens Deus: ut qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum redemptorem nostrum ad cœlos ascendisse credimus, ipsi quoque mente in cœlestibus habitemus.

(Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that as we believe thine Only-Begotten Son our Saviour to have this day ascended into the heavens, so we may also dwell by our mind (soul) among the heavenly things.)
This collect is about the here and now, the continuing present disposition that was established for the rest of time by Our Lord on His Ascension to heaven. Right now, we must dwell in heaven and no longer be tied to the earth. The celebration of the feast of the Ascension is not a matter of remembering an event that happened a long time ago and looking forward in hope to something that we hope to happen in the future, it is a matter of Jesus Christ in heaven now, making Himself present now, on our altars today, as we celebrate the liturgy at eight o’clock in the morning or whenever.

This living link with the liturgy of heaven is referenced when the priest approaches the holy altar at the beginning of Mass. After saying the prayers at the foot of the altar, he says:

Aufer a nobis, quaesumus, Domine, iniquitates nostras: ut ad Sancta sanctorum puris mereamur mentibus introire.

(Take away from us our iniquities, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that we may be worthy to enter with pure minds into the Holy of Holies.)
Acting in the person of Christ, the priest ventures to the heart of the sanctuary, the holy of holies, where Christ is to be offered up liturgically, in union with the eternal offering in heaven. When we celebrate the Mass here on earth, we are doing so in a living union with the heavenly liturgy. It is a living union that is present from that moment of Our Lord’s piercing the clouds at His Ascension until the moment when he breaks them asunder again when he comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.

There is nothing more important in our lives than that we should participate in the eternal offering of worship in heaven which God has deigned in His mercy to make available to us under the veil of the signs and symbols of the sacred Liturgy. Let us adore, praise and give thanks to the thrice-holy God glorified on this feast of the Ascension.

Glory be …
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us

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