Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S.

Some folks take birthdays very seriously. Case in point: my mother.

As the story goes, she went into labor with me in the afternoon on Ascension Thursday. When the obstetrician finally entered her room, she asked, “How long is this going to take? It’s a holy day and I have to get back for evening Mass.” Thankfully the physician convinced her that I was a reasonable excuse for missing that year’s obligation.

Today, even without giving birth, more and more people seem to be excusing themselves from the obligation to attend Mass. According to a recent Gallup Poll, “From 2014 to 2017, an average of 39% of Catholics reported attending Church in the past seven days. This is down from an average of 45% from 2005 to 2008 and represents a steep decline from 75% in 1955.”

If this is true for Sunday Mass, it’s easy to imagine the dearth of the devout who will be in church to fulfill that obligation on a Thursday.

Even some Catholic leaders have questioned the wisdom of that obligation. As a result, most places in the USA have transferred the solemnity to the following Sunday. Only in the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha, and Philadelphia is the celebration mandated for the Thursday that comes 40 days after Easter (this year, on May 10).

That timing of the Ascension reflects biblical symbolism, designating a sustained period of testing and learning. Culturally, the number is associated with the years spanning a generation. In this respect, the 40 days during which the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples represents a formative pedagogical period that leads the first generation of disciples into the new Christian reality.

Historically, that new reality begins with the completion of the Jesus story on earth. In the Gospel account, “the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs” (Mark 16:19-20).

That’s a rather odd ending to the story. Space travel by way of a cloud, on which a human body appears to float away out of sight, yet remains visibly seated on a celestial throne?  Such a transposition between earth and heaven simply doesn’t make sense given the dualism of our contemporary consciousness.

But that conclusion to the Gospel story is not merely an ending, however supernaturally it is depicted. Theologically, the Ascension is the fulfillment of the earthy life of Jesus. Bringing the story full circle, the Son of God who came “down” from the divine heights in the Incarnation is also now the Son of Man who has gone “up” to a place of glory proper to him.

What the Ascension really celebrates is the permanence of Easter. The effects of the Resurrection now permeate all the world. No longer is life limited by death. No longer is history hampered by time. No longer is society circumscribed by space. The whole of human existence has been forever uplifted.

If we would just look up.

Far from cosmological superstition, the surreal story of the Ascension invites us to see all things in a new light, in the conjunction between earth and heaven. It draws our gaze upward, that we might see life here below now illumined by the sight of that eternal home to which we are all called, and which has now been opened to us.

Our celebration of this solemnity bids us to look up. For people now accustomed to looking down, locked in on their hand-held devices and suffering because of it, the Ascension offers never-ending hope.

A new study indicates an alarmingly high level of loneliness among all Americans. Of even more concern is the finding that “Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) and Millennials (adults ages 23-37) are lonelier and claim to be in worse health than older generations.”

This survey found no direct correlation between loneliness and social media use, but other studies point to the common-sense link between reliance on digital technology and a resultant experience of isolation.

Looking up from our phones is necessary for young people to form valuable human relationships, as a viral video on YouTube poetically points out. But overcoming the existential loneliness that affects every generation requires looking up even further.

The Ascension raises our view in the right direction. Looking heavenward and “seeing” Jesus there, we come to know by faith that the Lord is always and everywhere looking down upon us. That’s why our celebration on Thursday is not merely an obligation to fulfill but an enduring reason to rejoice.

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Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.