Put Out into the Deep

Recognizing the Spiritual Meaning of The Feast of the Ascension

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

This Thursday, we celebrate the feast of the Ascension of the Lord.  In some ecclesiastical provinces in our country, the feast will be celebrated on Sunday, May 9, while others will celebrate the feast on Sunday, May 16, giving more people an opportunity to celebrate this meaningful feast. Each year, this feast reminds us of the conclusion of the pascal mystery. The suffering, the death, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ are completed as His resurrected body ascends to Heaven.

During these days of the pandemic, we are very aware of the fragility of our human existence and how our bodies, when COVID-19 invades, can suffer and even die. The meaning of human suffering is a complex mystery that only, with great effort, can we comprehend. Why is there suffering in this world, and why eventually must we die?

The Ascension of the Lord is depicted in this painting by 15th-century German artist Johann Koerbecke. The Feast of the Ascension is celebrated on May 20. (Photo: CNS/Courtesy the National Gallery of Art)

We must remember that it was not God’s original plan that death enters the world; however, it was through sin and turning away from God that death became a part of human existence. No one can imagine if there were no death. In God’s plan, it is not the human body that would last forever, but the human soul.

Today, as we celebrate this feast, we recognize its spiritual meaning for us. After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to His Disciples for 40 days, eating and drinking with them, proving to them that He was no mere ghost. Rather, His body now had new properties. He suddenly appeared among them, walking through closed doors. He appeared at many different locations. This indicated to us the properties of the risen body.

As we look to our own society, the respect for the human body has certainly diminished. When we are alive, we surely pamper ourselves. There is nothing too good for us or too good to make ourselves more beautiful than we are naturally. In death, however, it used to be the almost universal custom that embalming a body enabled us to say our last goodbyes to our loved ones with sadness, but pretending that our loved ones were just asleep as it seemed. During the coronavirus period, we know that even the embalming of bodies, funerals, and burials was very difficult. We see in the news today that in India, where their custom is to cremate bodies, there is a lack of wood and a lack of space in the places normally used for cremations. This has caused the coronavirus-stricken bodies to be burned in the streets.

In a somewhat unrelated interesting fact, legislators in both the Senate and Assembly of the State of New York have introduced legislation that will allow for the “natural organic reduction” of human bodies by placing the body in a special chamber surrounded by wood chips, alfalfa, and other materials, and for 30 days the chamber rotates to encourage decomposition so that the bodies can be used as fertilizer. If this bill becomes law, New York would be one of the first states in the nation to legalize human composting. It is truly incredible how the respect for the human body has diminished. The Christian respect for the human body, however, comes from our faith that one day we will rise from the dead at the end of time. Christ’s ascension into Heaven reminds us of this fact, that His glorious body sits at the right hand of the Father in Heaven, awaiting the end of time, the universal judgment, and the coming of all humankind before the Lord.

The human composting legislation has been introduced in both houses of the New York State Legislature. In the State Assembly, the bill number is A.382 sponsored by Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D-Westchester), and in the companion legislation in the State Senate, S.5535, is sponsored by State Senator Leroy Comrie (D-Queens).

If you disagree with this proposed legislation contact your local representative and voice your opinion. The New York State Catholic Conference website provides a link to “Find Your Lawmaker” if you wish to contact your representatives on this issue.  I would encourage you to use this site if you wish to send a message but are unsure who represents you in Albany: https://www.nyscatholic.org/nys-catholic-conference-action-center/?vvsrc=%2fAddress.

There is another aspect of the Ascension of the Lord that is essential for us to understand. This is the fact that without Christ’s ascension, the Holy Spirit would not have come. It was Christ’s ascension that made Pentecost possible. “It is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you,” Jesus told His disciples (John 16:7). The event is the completion of the Easter mysteries of the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is the final step before the Holy Spirit comes to us. Christ’s ascension is the ultimate goal for each and every one of us. It reminds us that He will come back again someday at the end of time. We need to be prepared for the remaking of the world at its conclusion.

Each time we recite the Creed at Mass, we profess our faith in the resurrection of the dead. Perhaps because it comes at the end of a long list of beliefs, we do not recognize its full meaning. After our death, there is eternal life, and that someday, at the end of time, our bodies will come back together again to resemble the glorious body of Jesus Christ, Himself. It is the new Heaven and the new earth that is proclaimed in the Scriptures that we await. In the meantime, however, we have the responsibility of remaking the earth and being witnesses to the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As Pentecost draws near, we celebrate the feast of the Ascension in anticipation of the coming and the revival of the Spirit within each one of us. We put out into the deep recesses of our spiritual life, recognizing that we cannot live without the Spirit of Jesus within us. The Spirit was given to us in our baptism and fully bestowed upon us in our Confirmation. On this feast, we come together praying that we open our lives to the Spirit and become true witnesses of Christ in the world.

Follow Bishop DiMarzio on Twitter @BpDiMarzio