Let’s admit it: the Solemnity of the Ascension is a practically marginal feast for Western Catholics. In many Western countries and much of the United States, it’s even been rendered ahistorical, shunted off from the fortieth day of Easter to the nearest Sunday. The dirty little secret is that the feast is so irrelevant to the self-understanding of most Catholics, evidenced by paltry Mass attendance on Ascension Thursday, that bishops, ostensibly to address the “pastoral burden” of attending Mass on a weekday, transferred the obligation to the next Sunday (where at least the remnant of Catholics still going to Church after the great episcopal lockdown of 2020 might ramp up attendance figures).
I want to suggest that our problems with belief in the Real Eucharistic Presence of Jesus are related to our ignoring of the Ascension.
In 2019—before ecclesiastical field hospitals struck tent and shut down last year—Pew reported that seven in ten American Catholics either misunderstood or simply rejected the Church’s faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
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What does this have to do with the Ascension?
Dissident theologians since Vatican II have pushed a false model of Catholic faith and dogma in their effort to marginalize Catholic teaching they did not accept. In that model, some truths of the faith were “central” to the faith, others more “peripheral.” Catholics had to believe the “central” truths—like Jesus’ Incarnation or saving death—but had more “freedom” about those “more removed” from the central deposit of the faith (e.g., the Virgin Birth or the Assumption or most moral teachings apart from a generic “love your neighbor”).
This model of theology is false because Catholic teaching is not arrayed across a football field, with some truths on the kickoff line and others on the 40-yard line. A more Catholic understanding of our faith is one Joseph Ratzinger has recalled, even though it has a much older provenance: the “symphony” model.
The truths of our faith are not arrayed across a football field, some for the quarterback, others for the wide receiver, and a few hoping for a “Hail Mary” pass across the goalpost. The truths of our faith are a symphony, in which there are major motifs and minor notes, but which all illumine each other and work together to create not just a coherent, but a beautiful work where none of those elements are “optional extras” open to omission, much less rejection.
Ven. Tomás Morales, S.J., reminds us that “the Ascension closes the circle of love opened in the Incarnation. He takes us completely into heaven.” The Ascension is not Jesus’ closing act before dropping the curtain, having “done” what He set out to do. Jesus, out of love of human persons, became a human being in the flesh and redeemed us. Having redeemed us as our Priest, Sacrifice, and Advocate, He returns to His Father to “always plead our cause” (Preface for Easter III) in the flesh at the right hand of God.
Jesus’ Ascension is not, therefore, a marginal event whose celebration imposes a workday “pastoral burden.” (Couldn’t He have waited till the weekend to do the “goodbye” thing?) It is the continuation “in heaven” of His Work “as it was on earth.”
So, the questions for the Ascension become: (1) do we really believe this is a watershed moment (and mystery) in Jesus’ life and (2) do we really believe that human flesh and blood is in heaven?
I suggest that the answers of many Catholics to the second question range from “I don’t know” to “no” to “does it matter?” And if those are our answers to the mystery of the Ascension, it’s not hard to understand why pollsters asking about the Real Presence got answers ranging from “I don’t know” to “no” to “does it matter?”
Perhaps at one time an understanding of a disincarnate “spirituality” accounted for such thinking. Perhaps we so focused on Jesus that we forgot that Jesus “reveals man to himself” (St. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, # 8) so that, where the Head has gone is relevant for the Body that will follow. Or perhaps we really don’t believe much and just go through the motions.
Our culture does not help. The constant drumbeat today is one of a gnostic, disincarnate anthropology that reduces human beings to thoughts or, more accurately, wants with a body attached. What I “want” is “me.” The body is at best a malleable tool to meet those desiderata, at worst a prison oppressing “me.” Ancient Greek dualists had nothing on moderns who think of sex as a psychological state, personhood as consciousness or conferred by the “choice” of another, and other deficient philosophical and theological anthropologies. The problem is that these anthropologies are not just intellectual errors but inflict real damage to persons who should be loved.
And even Catholics cannot swim in these polluted intellectual currents without absorbing some of the toxins.
If “I” am a thought with a body attached, the Ascension (and Assumption) are meaningless: what does it matter that Jesus (or Mary) is body and soul in heaven? If “I” am consciousness, Jesus was in fact a fool: the Passion was melodramatic overkill for salvation that He could have just wished. Time and history are irrelevant: if the body is just $2.98 worth of chemicals serving a particular person at a contingent moment of history, then history is unimportant; it’s all an eternal return and so who cares if it’s Ascension Thursday or Sunday or Saturday afternoon or even if it’s the Ascension?
The Resurrection is irrelevant: as liberal Protestant exegetes once put it pace 1 Corinthians 15, “what would it matter if we dug up the bones of Jesus?” The General Resurrection of all humanity is both meaningless and absurd, imaging it were “even possible,” much less necessary, that all human persons be united soul and body.
And if the body is sub-personal and subject to the “me” that wills, then the Eucharist as the “Real Presence” of Jesus, body and soul, humanity and divinity, is an absurdity: all we need is “spiritual Communion,” joining our thoughts and hearts to Jesus. (This is why the ongoing blur about getting Catholics back to being present at real Mass is not just a pastoral disservice but a theological danger in which the bishops appear to be acquiescing.)
The French poet Charles Péguy wrote in “Je suis leur Père” of Jesus bringing to heaven “a certain taste for man, a certain taste for the earth.” Perhaps the reason we don’t “get,” much less celebrate, the Ascension is that we have lost that taste here on earth.
[Image Credit: Ascension by John Singleton Copley (Public Domain)]