If you’re from a region of the country where the Solemnity of the Ascension is still celebrated on Thursday, you might feel cheated of the opportunity to go to Confession for having missed a holy day of obligation. In most dioceses in the United States (ours is one of them), Ascension is transferred to the nearest Sunday. If you are bothered by the fact that we are celebrating the Ascension today rather than last Thursday, the fortieth day after Easter, there are a few things I would bring to your attention.
First, the Scriptures do not agree about the time or place of the event of Jesus ascending to the Father. Luke’s Gospel situates the Ascension as having taken place near Jerusalem on the evening of the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, that is, Easter Day. The Acts of the Apostles places the Ascension in Jerusalem at some point after forty days had elapsed since the Resurrection. John’s Gospel makes no explicit mention of the Ascension, but some Scripture scholars surmise that John implies it happened at some point between the Resurrection and Jesus’ appearances to the Eleven. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul seems not to be aware of an Ascension. The second thing to keep in mind is that, for first several centuries of Christianity, the Ascension was not celebrated as if it occurred on the fortieth day after the Resurrection.
As the forty days mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles cannot be said to be a literal reference to the date of the Ascension, we should look elsewhere for an explanation. The reference in the Acts of the Apostles is, I think, an indication of the meaning of the forty-day delay.
The first generation of Jesus’ disciples expected him to return in glory during their lifetimes. Some confusion ensued in Christian congregations when it became apparent that the glorious return of Jesus would be delayed. In the fourth chapter of the first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul offers consolation and encouragement to those who had begun to worry about Jesus’ delay. By the time the Acts of the Apostles was written, Christians had begun to accept the fact that Jesus’ delay was going to be indefinite.
The period of forty days mentioned in Acts is a symbolic rather than a determinate number. In the Scriptures, “forty” means “a long time.” One can see examples of this in the forty years the Hebrews wandered in the desert before entering the land of promise and the forty days that Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert before beginning his teaching ministry. By placing the Ascension after forty days had elapsed since the Resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles indicates that we, too, must wait (perhaps for a long time) for the fulfillment of God’s promises. The story of the Ascension reinforces this idea. The Eleven wanted to know if Jesus was going “to restore kingdom to Israel” immediately, but Jesus told them that such things were not for them to know. (Acts 1:6-7)
The event of the Ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father is a theological rather than a chronological event. The Ascension is the precondition for the continuation of the Church’s mission to evangelize the whole world. (Acts 1:8) In Jesus’ absence, his mission of teaching and reconciling must be continued by his disciples.
In a very real sense, then, the Church celebrates the Ascension every day because every day of the Church’s life is the day on which we are to further Jesus’ mission of proclaiming a renewed Covenant with God. The feast of the Ascension does not intend to make us look back at a previous historical event; rather, it intends to make us look forward to the apostolic work yet to be done.
Today, we face the same question that confronted Jesus’ disciples in the late first and early second centuries: “What are we to do while the Lord’s return is delayed?” Teresa of Avila responded to this question by saying that “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.” Her answer to the question is that we are to be the presence of Christ for the world.
There is a familiar quip about the Last Day that says, “Jesus is coming, look busy!” Our Faith takes a slightly different perspective on the day of the Lord’s return. The Scriptures say that Jesus is waiting for us to busy ourselves with continuing his mission. Rather than “standing there looking at the sky” (Acts 1:11), we are obliged to be ready for the Lord’s return by doing his work each day.