At this point in my little journey, going on twenty-one years since I was baptized according to the rite of the Roman Church, I find myself living in Rome herself. And how funny Rome seems today as the brothers and I celebrate a liturgical day unknown to our mothers and fathers in faith, namely the Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter.
I suppose one of the fortunes of living most of my Catholic life thus far in the ecclesiastical provinces of Hartford, New York, and Boston has been the celebration of the Ascension on the fortieth day of Easter, como Dios manda. Most of the world has moved it to this coming Sunday, even the diocese of Rome. (Except within the walls of the Vatican, or so I understand.)
Personally, I think this Ascension Sunday business is dumb. Some say that moving it to Sunday allows more folks to celebrate the mystery. But there's no reason why both Ascension Thursday and the Sunday following could celebrate aspects of the Ascension mystery; after all, we do something similar to that on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. And to those who say that Holy Days of Obligation are an unnecessary burden on people and that it's hard to get to church on a work day, my response is always the same: getting to church on a weekday doesn't seem to be a problem on Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, which isn't a day of obligation, everyone goes to church. In my experience, attendance is rivaled only by Christmas and Palm Sunday. So if a prayer captures the heart and imagination, people will be drawn to it even without someone saying it's obligatory. Maybe we've just forgotten how to preach and celebrate the Easter mysteries. But that's another rant.
The mystery of the Lord's Ascension is good news for the world. Pope St. Leo the Great, in a line that most of us get today in the Office of Readings (and those fortunate to celebrate the Ascension today will read tomorrow), describes this good news with his characteristic clarity:
Quod itaque Redemptoris nostri conspicuum fuit, in sacramenta transivit.
"What therefore was visible of our Redeemer has passed into the sacraments."
In other words, the Risen Lord ascends, but his visibility and availability to the world remain, having passed into the Church as Sacrament and the sacraments she celebrates. The mystery of the Ascension celebrates the Risen Lord as absent in such a way that his presence can now extend to every place and time.
This is part of why Jesus tells his apostles that it is to their advantage that he go. (John 16:7) Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the perfect communion of divinity and humanity for which the creation came to be, is no longer visible to just a small group chosen out of the Israel of history, but is adored in all his tabernacles throughout the world.