Thursday, June 2, was this year's anniversary of the Ascension, i.e., Jesus' departure from earth to Heaven after the Resurrection. (Nearly all Catholic dioceses in America transfer the celebration of this solemnity to the following Sunday; this, however, is a recent development, and the Biblical data sets the Ascension at precisely forty days after Easter Sunday.) It is part and parcel with the redemptive cycle, which the whole liturgical year celebrates and commemorates: from the Incarnation, through the Passion, to the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost which brought the Christian Church into full existence.
However, while the Crucifixion has been possibly the greatest locus of evangelism, devotion, theology, and mysticism since the first century -- who could forget St Paul's incomparable "I have resolved to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified"? -- and the Resurrection has always been by nature the indispensible basis for all Christian faith and practice, the Ascension has not always been equally attended to. Nor is it much talked of among contemporary American Christians, at least in my own experience.
Yet it is as vital as the other two. Without the Crucifixion the redemptive cycle would never have been set in motion, and without the Resurrection it would not have continued, for obvious reasons; but the Ascension is the goal and consummation of that cycle.
For the whole notion of redemption is that, through a mysterious unification between ourselves and Christ, effected by faith and sacrament, what has happened to Him will happen to us; what happens to Him happens to us in Him; His presence in us introduces these happenings into our being. St Peter speaks of our being made participants in the Divine nature, and St John says, in words pregnant with anticipation, that We do not yet know what we shall be; but we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. Now, the Crucifixion, introduced into our souls by Baptism (cf. Romans 6.1-11), brings about the death of our old nature; the Resurrection correspondingly infuses new life into us, through the same sacrament.
But even these things would seem very small beer if they carried with them no hope of being united to God in His fullness -- if this new life of the Spirit were confined to our spirits, if there were no summoning of human nature as such to the direct presence of God. Were we to have only the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, we would indeed be spiritually renewed; yet what would become of the world? -- the world, remember, which God so loved that He gave up His only-begotten Son. For it is in the Ascension that Christ carried not only His Divinity, but His glorified humanity, into the direct presence of the Father. The last Gospel records Jesus saying to God the Father, in His last formal prayer before the Passion began, I have glorified You on earth ... Now glorify me in Your own presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed. By this, our regeneration is perfected; not only our souls, but our bodies -- in Dante's (oft-forgotten) lovely phrase, la santa e gloriosa carne, 'the holy and glorious flesh' -- are redeemed.
Most Protestant churches do not observe the Ascension as a holy day, the way Good Friday or Easter or Christmas are celebrated. I think this is a mistake. What we do not commemorate, we cannot expect to keep in mind; or, to indulge in a pun, it is necessary to observe the Ascension in order to observe it. I once heard a pastor assert that it was not necessary to observe the Ascension as we observe the Crucifixion or the Resurrection, because the Ascension was what we lived, while the other two were singular past events. To me (though I admire the man deeply in most respects) this seemed a piece of incomparable silliness. Why not say equally that nobody should observe their wedding anniversary on the grounds that they are married? Or, for that matter, why not part company with St Paul when he says that I am crucified with Christ?
Our Sunday worship should be focused on our whole redemption, the Ascension included; and that fact ought to be celebrated, with the same solemnity and joy which attend Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We should not let distaste for liturgy, or for the bother of thinking about it, dissuade us from such a celebration.