Image: The Ascension, Philips Wouwerman [public domain]
In just over a week we will be returning to Ordinary Time. After focusing on penance for the 40 days of Lent and feasting in celebration of the Resurrection for the 50 days of the Easter Season, Ordinary Time might feel a little… well, ordinary.
But as we prepare to wrap up this Easter Season, the Feast of the Ascension offers us an important lesson on how to live the Paschal mystery intentionally throughout the remainder of this liturgical year and the rest of our earthly pilgrimage. The lesson is that of the parousia.
Parousia is a Greek word meaning “presence” or “arrival.” It is used to refer to the Second Coming of Christ, which the angels foretell at the Ascension: “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The penultimate words of Scripture are a prayer for this Second Coming in glory: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20). However, Jesus also promised “behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20); parousia also refers to the continual coming of Christ—his ongoing presence to his Church.
An important aspect of the Catholic understanding of Jesus’ continual coming is in the understanding of the liturgy. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, liturgy is “the participation of the People of God in ‘the work of God’” (CCC 1069). God invites His people to celebrate and participate in His work. Principally, the work that we celebrate and participate in is the Paschal mystery. As the Catechism says, God “accomplished this work principally by the Paschal mystery of his blessed Passion, Resurrection from the dead, and glorious Ascension” (CCC 1067).
Often when discussing the Paschal mystery, the focus is on the suffering, death, and Resurrection of our Lord. That has probably been our greatest focus throughout Lent and Easter. But it is crucial that we not separate the Ascension from the rest of Christ’s Paschal mystery.
Without the Ascension, it is easy to think of the Paschal mystery as solely a past reality. The beauty of the Ascension not being relegated to another category but united intimately with Christ’s suffering, death, and Resurrection, is that according to St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae,
“the Ascension is the cause of our salvation” (III , q. 57, a. 6).
It is in the Ascension that Jesus gives us many gifts (cf. Ephesians 4:8).
The Catechism links Jesus’ Ascension with His presence in the Church— His parousia—as well: “Taken up to heaven and glorified after he had thus fully accomplished his mission, Christ dwells on earth in his Church” (CCC 669). The Church becomes the Body of Christ through the Paschal mystery—including the Ascension.
Each Christian has become a member of the Body of Christ, the Church, through his or her participation in the Paschal mystery in the liturgy, namely the liturgy of the sacrament of Baptism. It is as His Body that Christians are united to Him; He is the Head of the Body to which they belong.
As Head of His Body, Jesus is always united to the Church and present to her. It is in the Church—and especially in the liturgy—that Christians can experience His presence, even if His presence is not felt at other times. There is an assurance in the efficacious nature of the sacraments, especially that when they are received, they “confer the grace that they signify” (CCC 1127).
It would be advantageous for all of us to continue to meditate on Christ’s Ascension, not only as we celebrate the solemnity but also as we trade in the white and gold of Easter for the green of Ordinary Time. We should meditate on the Ascension not just as a moment in the past, or a sign of the opening of heaven to all those united to Jesus. The Ascension can be a reminder of Christ’s presence to all Christians in a new way through the liturgy. The Ascension points us to the parousia—not just when “He will come again to judge the living and the dead” as we recite in the Nicene Creed, but that He continually comes to be with His people in the liturgy. He is really present, here and now!