Today, as the month of May is nearing its end, the Roman Catholic Church commemorates the Ascension of Our Lord, also known as Ascension Thursday. On this day, I am posting Dom Prosper Gueranger‘s (b. 1805- d. 1875) commentary on the Ascension from his book, The Liturgical Year. It is lengthy, and I have considered shortening it, but I do not wish to eliminate any part of his teaching on this, often forgotten, feast day which commemorates the second Glorious mystery of the Holy Rosary. It is notable that Our Lady features in the events of this day as the unmovable Tower of Ivory, a strong anchor which the Apostles and holy women relied upon as the Roman Catholic Church was born. So without further ado, Dom Prosper on the Ascension:
Dom Prosper Gueranger:
The sun of the fortieth day has risen in all his splendour. The earth which shook with gladness at the birth of our Emmanuel (Psalms xcv. xcvi. xcvii.)now thrills with a strange emotion. The divine series of the mysteries of the Man-God is about to close. Heaven has caught up the joy of earth. The Angelic Choirs are preparing to receive their promised King, and their Princes stand at the Gates, that they may open them when the signal is given of the mighty Conqueror’s approach. The holy souls that were liberated from Limbo on the morning of the Resurrection are hovering round Jerusalem, waiting for the happy moment when Heaven’s gate, closed by Adam’s sin, will be thrown open and they will enter in company with their Redeemer: a few hours more, and then to Heaven! Meanwhile, our Risen Jesus has to visit His Disciples and bid them farewell, for they are to be left for some years longer in this vale of tears.
They are in the Cenacle impatiently awaiting His coming. Suddenly He appears in their midst. Of the Mother’s joy, who would dare to speak? As to the Disciples and the holy women, they fall down and affectionately adore the Master who has come to take His leave of them. He deigns to sit down to table with them. He even condescends to eat with them, not, indeed, to give them proof of His Resurrection, for He knows that they have no further doubts of the mystery, but now that He is about to sit at the right hand of the Father, He would give them this endearing mark of familiarity. Admirable repast, in which Mary, for the last time in this world, is seated side by side with her Jesus, and in which the Church (represented by the Disciples and the holy women), is honoured by the visible presidency of her Head and Spouse.
What tongue could describe the respect, the recollected mien, the attention of the guests? With what love must they not have riveted their eyes on the dear Master? They long to hear Him speak. His parting words will be so treasured! He does not keep them long in suspense. He speaks but His language is not what they perhaps expected it to be — all affection. He begins by reminding them of the incredulity wherewith they heard of His Resurrection (Mark xvi. 14). He is going to entrust His Apostles with the most sublime mission ever given to man. He would, therefore, prepare them for it by humbling them. A few days hence, and they are to be the lights of the world. The world must believe what they preach, believe it on their word, believe it without having seen, believe what the Apostles alone have seen. It is by faith that man approaches His God: they themselves were once without it, and Jesus would have them now express their sorrow for their former incredulity, and thus base their Apostolate on humilty. Then, assuming a tone of authority, such as none but a God could take, He says to them: “Go into the whole world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believes and is baptised, will be saved: but he that believes not will be condemned” (Mark xvi. 15, 16). And how will they accomplish this mission of preaching the Gospel to the whole world? How will they persuade men to believe their word? By miracles. “And these signs,” continues Jesus, “will follow them that believe: in my name they will cast out devils; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands upon the sick, and they will recover” (Mark xvi. 17, 18). He would have miracles to be the foundation of His Church, just as He had made them the argument of His own divine mission. The suspension of the laws of nature proves to us that it is God who speaks. We must receive the word and humbly believe it. Here, then, we have men unknown to the world and devoid of every human means, and yet commissioned to conquer the earth and make it acknowledge Jesus as its King! The world ignores their very existence. Tiberius, who sits on the imperial throne, trembling at every shadow of conspiracy, little suspects that there is being prepared an expedition which is to conquer the Roman Empire. But these warriors must have their armour, and the armour must be of Heaven’s own tempering. Jesus tells them that they are to receive it a few days hence. “Stay,” says He, “in the City, till you be indued with power from on high” (Luke xxiv. 49). But what is this armour? Jesus explains it to them. He reminds them of the Father’s promise, “that promise,” says He, “which you have heard by my mouth; for John indeed, baptised with water; but you will be baptised with the Holy Ghost not many days hence” (Acts i. 4, 5).
But the hour of separation is come. Jesus rises: His blessed Mother and the hundred and twenty persons assembled there prepare to follow Him. The Cenacle is situated on Mount Sion, which is one of the two hills within the walls of Jerusalem. The holy group traverses the city, making for the eastern gate, which opens on the Valley of Josaphat. It is the last time that Jesus walks through the faithless city. He is invisible to the eyes of the people who denied Him, but visible to His Disciples, and goes before them, as heretofore, the pillar of fire led on the Israelites. How beautiful and imposing a sight! Mary, the Disciples, and the Holy Women, accompanying Jesus in His Heavenward journey, which is to lead him to the right hand of His Eternal Father! It was commemorated in the Middle Ages by a solemn Procession before the Mass of Ascension Day. What happy times were those, when Christians took delight in honouring every action of our Redeemer. They could not be satisfied as we are, with a few vague notions, which can produce nothing but an equally vague devotion. They reflected on the thoughts which Mary must have had during these last moments of her Son’s presence. They used to ask themselves which of the two sentiments was uppermost in her maternal heart — sadness, that she was to see her Jesus no more, or joy, that he was now going to enter into the glory He so infinitely deserved. The answer was soon found: had not Jesus said to his Disciples: “If you loved me, you would indeed be glad, because I go to the Father” (John xiv. 28). Now, who loved Jesus as Mary did? The Mother’s heart, then, was full of joy at parting with Him. How was she to think of herself when there was question of the triumph of her Son and her God? Could she that had witnessed the scene of Calvary do less than desire to see Him glorified, whom she knew to be the Sovereign Lord of all things — Him whom, but a short time ago, she had seen rejected by His people, blasphemed, and dying the most ignominious and cruel of deaths? The holy group has traversed the Valley of Josaphat. It has crossed the brook Cedron and is moving onwards to Mount Olivet. What recollections would crowd on the mind! This torrent, of which Jesus had drunk on the day of His humiliation, is now the path He takes to triumph and glory. The Royal Prophet had foretold it (Psalms cix. 7). On their left are the Garden and cave where He suffered His agony and accepted the bitter chalice of His Passion. After having come as far as what Saint Luke calls the distance of the journey allowed to the Jews on a Sabbath day (Acts i. 12), they are close to Bethania, that favoured village where Jesus used to accept hospitality at the hands of Lazarus and his two sisters. This part of Mount Olivet commands a view of Jerusalem. The sight of its temple and palaces makes the disciples proud of their earthly city: they have forgotten the curse uttered against her. They seem to have forgotten, too, that Jesus has just made them citizens and conquerors of the whole world. They begin to dream of the earthly grandeur of Jerusalem, and, turning to their Divine Master, they venture to ask Him this question: “Lord, will you, at this time, restore again the kingdom to Israel?”
Jesus answers them with a tone of severity: “It is not for you to know the times or moments which the Father has put in His own power” (Acts i. 7). These words do not destroy the hope that Jerusalem is to be restored by the Christian Israel, but, as this is not to happen till the world is drawing towards its end, there is nothing that requires our Saviour’s revealing the secret. What ought to be uppermost in the mind of the disciples is the conversion of the pagan world, the establishing the Church. Jesus reminds them of the mission He has just given to them: “You will receive,” says He, “the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you, and you will be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the Earth” (Acts i. 8).
According to a tradition which has been handed down from the earliest ages of Christianity, it is midday, the same hour that He had been raised up, when nailed to His Cross. Giving His Blessed Mother a look of filial affection, and another of fond farewell to the rest of the group that stand around Him, Jesus raises up His hands and blesses them all. While thus blessing them, He is raised up from the ground on which He stands and ascends into Heaven (Luke xxiv. 51). Their eyes follow Him until a cloud comes and receives Him out of their sight (Acts i. 9).
Yes, Jesus is gone! The Earth has lost her Emmanuel — for [thousands of] years had He been expected: the Patriarchs and Prophets had desired His coming with all the fervour of their souls: He came: His love made him our captive in the chaste womb of the Virgin of Nazareth. It was there He first received our adorations. Nine months after, the Blessed Mother offered Him to our joyous love in the stable at Bethlehem. We followed Him into Egypt. We returned with Him. We dwelt with Him at Nazareth. When He began the three years of His public life, we kept close to His steps. We delighted in being near Him, we listened to His preaching and parables, we saw His miracles. The malice of His enemies reached its height, and the time came in which He was to give us the last and grandest proof of the love that had brought Him from Heaven — His dying for us on a Cross. We kept near Him as he died, and our souls were purified by the Blood that flowed from His Wounds. On the third day, He rose again from His grave, and we stood by exulting in His triumph over Death, for that triumph won for us a like Resurrection. During the Forty days He has deigned to spend with us since His Resurrection, our faith has made us cling to Him: we would fain have kept Him with us forever, but the hour is come. He has left us. Yes, our dearest Jesus is gone! Happy the souls that He had taken from Limbo! They have gone with Him and, for all eternity, are to enjoy the Heaven of His visible presence.
The Disciples are still steadfastly looking up towards heaven, when lo! two angels, clad in white robes, appear to them, saying: “You men of Galilee! Why stand you looking up to Heaven? This Jesus, who is taken up from you into Heaven, will so come as you have seen Him going into Heaven! (Acts i. 10, 11) He has ascended a Saviour. He is to return as Judge. Between these two events is comprised the whole life of the Church on Earth. We are therefore living under the reign of Jesus as our Saviour, for He has said: “God sent not His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved by Him” (John iii. 17), and to carry out this merciful design He has just been giving to His Disciples the mission to go throughout the whole world and invite men, while yet there is time, to accept the mystery of salvation.
What a task is this he imposes on the Apostles! And now that they are to begin their work, He leaves them! They return from Mount Olivet, and Jesus is not with them! And yet, they are not sad: they have Mary to console them. Her unselfish generosity is their model, and well do they learn the lesson. They love Jesus. They rejoice at the thought of His having entered into His rest. “They went back into Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke xxiv. 52). These few simple words of the Gospel indicate the spirit of this admirable Feast of the Ascension: it is a Festival, which, notwithstanding its soft tinge of sadness, is, more than any other expressive of joy and triumph. During its Octave we will endeavour to describe its mystery and magnificence: we would only observe, for the present, that this Solemnity is the completion of the Mysteries of our Redemption, that it is one of those which were instituted by the Apostles, and finally, that it has impressed a character of sacredness on the Thursday of each week — the day already so highly honoured by the institution of the Eucharist.
We have alluded to the procession by which our Catholic forefathers used, on this Feast, to celebrate the journey of Jesus and His Disciples to Mount Olivet. Another custom observed on the Ascension was the solemn blessing given to bread and to the new fruits: it was commemorative of the farewell repast taken by Jesus in the Cenacle. Let us imitate the piety of the Ages of Faith when Christians loved to honour the very least of our Saviour’s actions and, so to speak, make them their own by thus interweaving the minutest details of His life into their own. What earnest reality of love and adoration was given to our Jesus in those old times when His being Sovereign Lord and Redeemer was the ruling principle of both individual and social life! Nowadays we may follow the principle, as fervently as we please, in the privacy of our own consciences or, at most, in our own homes, but publicly, and when we are before the world, no! To say nothing of the evil results of this modern limitation of Jesus’ rights as our King, what could be more sacrilegiously unjust to Him who deserves our whole service, everywhere and at all times? The Angels said to the Apostles: “This Jesus will come, as you have seen Him going into Heaven”: happy we if during his absence we will have so unreservedly loved and served Him as to be able to meet Him with confidence when He comes to judge us!
Epistle – Acts i. 1‒11
The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, of all things which Jesus began to do and to teach, until the day on which, giving commandments by the Holy Ghost to the Apostles whom He had chosen, He was taken up. To whom also He showed Himself alive after his Passion, by many proofs, for forty days appearing to them and speaking of the kingdom of God. And eating together with them, He commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but should wait for the promise of the Father, which you have heard (said He) by my mouth: for John indeed baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Ghost, not many days hence. They, therefore, who were come together, asked Him, saying, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” But He said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or moments which the Father has put in his own power; but you will receive: the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you, and you will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even, to the uttermost part of the earth.” And when He had said these things, whiles they looked on He was raised up and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they were beholding Him going up to heaven, behold, two men stood by them in white garments, who also said, “You men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus who is taken up from you into heaven, will so come, as you have seen Him going into heaven.”
Thanks be to God.
Dom Prosper Gueranger:
This admirable description of our Jesus’ Ascension brings the mystery so vividly before us that we almost seem to see the happy group on Mount Olivet. With what affection the Disciples gaze on the Divine Master as they see Him rising up towards Heaven, and stretching out His hand to bless them! Their eyes, though full of tears, are riveted on the cloud which has come between themselves and Jesus. They are alone on the Mount. Jesus’ visible presence is taken from them. How wretched would they not feel in the desert land of their exile, were it not for His supporting grace, and for that Holy Spirit who is about to come down and create within them a new being? So then, it is only in Heaven that they can ever again see the face of Jesus, who, God as He is, deigned to be their Master for three long happy years, and, on the evening of the Last Supper, called them His friends!
Neither are they the only ones who feel this separation. Our Earth leaped with joy as the Son of God walked upon it. That joy is now past. It had looked forward, for [thousands of] years, for the glory of being the dwelling-place of its Creator. That glory is now gone. The nations are in expectation of a Deliverer and though, with the exception of the people of Judea and Galilee, men are not aware that this Deliverer has come and gone again, it will not long be so. They will hear of His birth, and His life, and His works. They will hear of His triumphant Ascension too, for holy Church will proclaim it in every country of the earth. [Two thousand] years have elapsed since He left this world, and our respectful and loving farewell blends with that which His Disciples gave Him when He was mounting up to Heaven. Like them, we feel His absence. But like them, we also rejoice in the thought that He is seated at the right hand of His Father, beautiful in His kingly glory.
You, dear Jesus, have entered into your rest! We adore you on your throne, we are redeemed and the fruit of your victory! Bless us! Draw us to yourself, and grant that your Last Coming may be to us a source of joy rather than of fear!
Gospel – Mark xvi. 14‒20
At that time Jesus appeared to the eleven as they were at table, and He upbraided them for their incredulity and hardness of heart because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen again. And He said to them, “Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptised will be saved, but he who believes not will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: in my Name they will cast out devils; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” And the Lord Jesus, after He had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. But they going forth preached everywhere, the Lord working still and confirming the word with signs that followed.
Praise be to you, O Christ.
Dom Prosper Gueranger:
Alas, how short was His stay here below! At least, how quickly the time passed! How many ages have gone by, and how many must still come over this poor Earth of ours before she can again behold His face. The Church languishes after Him in this dreary exile of the vale of tears, taking care of us, the children her Jesus has given her by His Holy Spirit. She feels His absence and, if we are Christians, we will feel it too. Oh when will the day come, that re-united to our bodies, “we will be taken up in the clouds to meet Christ, and be with our Lord forever!” (1 Thessalonians iv. 16) Then, and then only, will we have attained the end for which we were created.
All the mysteries of the Word Incarnate were to close with His Ascension. All the graces we receive are to end with ours. This world is but “a figure that passes away” (1 Corinthians vi. 31), and we are hastening through it to rejoin our Divine Leader. In Him are our life and happiness: it is vain to seek them elsewhere. Whatever brings us nearer to Jesus is good. Whatever alienates us from Him is evil. The mystery of the Ascension is the last ray of light given to us by our Creator, by which He shows us the path to our heavenly country. If our heart is seeking its Jesus, and longs to come to Him, it is alive with the true life. If its energies are spent upon created things, and it feels no attraction for its Jesus, it is dead.
Let us, therefore, lift up our eyes, as did the disciples, and follow, in desire. Him who this day ascends to Heaven, and prepares a place there for each of his faithful servants. Sursum corda! Hearts on Heaven! It is the parting-word of our brethren who accompany the Divine Conqueror in His Ascension. It is the hymn with which the Angels, coming down to meet their King, invite us to ascend and fill up the vacant thrones:Sursum corda!
A tradition handed down from the early ages and confirmed by the revelations of the saints, tells us that the Ascension of our Lord took place at the hour of noon. The Carmelites of St. Teresa’s Reform honour this pious tradition by assembling in the choir at the hour of midday on the Ascension, and spend it in the contemplation of this last of Jesus’ mysteries, following Him, in thought and desire, to the throne of His glory. Let us also follow him, but before looking on the bright noon which smiles on His triumph, let us go back in thought to His first coming among us. It was at midnight, in the stable of Bethlehem. That dark and silent hour was an appropriate commencement to the three and thirty years of His life on earth. He had come to accomplish a great mission: year by year, and day by day, He laboured in its fulfilment. It was nigh to its fulfilment when men laid their sacrilegious hands on Him and nailed Him to a Cross. It was midday when He was thus raised up in the air, but the Eternal Father would not permit the sun to shine on Jesus’humiliation. Darkness covered the face of the earth, and that day had no noon. Three hours after, the sun re-appeared. Three days after, the Crucified rose again from the tomb, and it was at the early dawn of light. On this day, yes, at this very hour, His work is completed. He has redeemed us by His Blood from our sins. He has conquered death by His Resurrection to life: had he not a right to choose, for His Ascension, the hour when the sun is pouring forth his warmest and brightest beams?
Hail, holy hour of Noon, sacred with your double consecration which reminds us daily of the mercy and of the Triumph of our Emmanuel, of salvation by His Cross, and of Heaven by His Ascension! But are you not, Jesus, Sun of Justice! Are you not yourself the noontide of our souls? Where are we to find that fullness of Light for which we were created — where that burning of eternal Love which alone can satisfy our longing hearts — but in you, who earnest down upon the earth to dispel our darkness and our cold? It is in this hope that we venture to address you in the sublime words of your faithful spouse Gertrude:
“O Love, Noontide, whose ardours are so soothing! You are the hour of sacred rest, and the unruffled peace I taste in you is all my delight. You whom my soul loves, you who are my chosen and my elect above all creatures, tell me, show me, where you feed your flock, where you lie to rest in the midday. My heart kindles with rapture at thought of your tranquil rest at Noon! That it were given me to come so near to you, that I might be not only near you, but in you! Beneath your genial ray, Sun of Justice, the flowers of all the virtues would spring forth from me, who am but dust and ashes. Then would my soul, rendered fruitful by you, my Master and my Spouse, bring forth the noble fruit of every perfection. Then should I be led forth from this valley of sorrows and be admitted to behold your face, so long, so wistfully longed for. And then would it be my everlasting happiness to think that you have not disdained, you spotless Mirror, to unite yourself to a sinner like me!”
The Lord Jesus has disappeared from our Earth, but His memory and His promises are treasured in the heart of the Church. She follows, in spirit, the glorious triumph of her Spouse, a triumph so well deserved by his having accomplished the world’s Redemption. She keenly feels her widowhood, but she awaits with unshaken confidence, the promised Comforter.
O JESUS our Emmanuel! Your work is done, and this is the day of your entering into your rest. In the beginning of the world you spent spend six days in harmonising the varied portions of the creation, after which you entered again into your rest. When later on you would repair your work which Satan’s malice had deranged, your love induced you to live among us for three and thirty years, during which you worked our redemption and restored us to the holiness and honour from which we had fallen. Whatever had been assigned you in the eternal decrees of the Blessed Trinity, whatever had been foretold of your by the Prophets, all was done, dear Jesus. Not an iota of it all was forgotten. Your triumphant Ascension was the close of the mission you had so mercifully undertaken. It was your second entrance into your rest, but this time it was with our Human Nature which you had assumed, and which was now to receive divine honour. You would have companions in your Ascension — the souls you had liberated from Limbo. And when about to leave us, you said this word of consolation to us: “I go go to prepare a place for you!” (John xiv. 2). Confiding, Jesus, in this promise, resolved to follow you in all the mysteries achieved by you for our sakes — in the humility of your birth at Bethlehem, in your sufferings on Calvary, in the joy of your Resurrection — we hope, also, to imitate you when our mortal course is run, in your glorious Ascension. Meanwhile, we unite with the holy Apostles who rejoiced at your triumph, and with the ransomed captives of Limbo who entered Heaven in your company. Watch over us, Divine Shepherd, while we are in our exile! Tend your faithful sheep. Let none be lost. Lead them all to your fold. The mystery of your Ascension shows us the object of our existence. it re-animates us to study more attentively and love more warmly all your other mysteries: our one ambition, then, our one desire, will henceforth be our own Ascension to Heaven and to you It was for this you came into the world: by humbling yourself to our lowliness, to exalt us to your own majesty, and by making yourself Man, to make man a partaker of your divinity. But until the happy day of our union with you, what would become of us without that power of the Most High which you have promised to send us, that He may bring us patience during our pilgrimage, fidelity to our absent King, and that solace of a heart exiled from its God, love? Come, then, Holy Spirit! Support our weakness. Fix the eye of our souls on the heaven where our King awaits us, and never permit us to set our hearts on a world which, had it every other charm, has not the infinite one of Jesus’ visible presence!
Only Begotten Son of God who, having conquered death, passed from Earth to Heaven: who, as Son of Man, are seated in great glory on your throne, receiving praise from the whole Angelic host, grant that we, who in the jubilant devotion of our faith, celebrate your Ascension to the Father, may not be fettered by the chains of sin to the love of this world, and that the aim of our hearts may unceasingly be directed to the Heaven to which you ascended in glory after your Passion. Amen (end of Gueranger excerpt, source)
May you have a blessed Ascension Thursday.
~Image: the Ascension of Our Lord, Pietro Perugino, circa 1496-1500, source.