In many places, the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord is transferred to the following Sunday. Where I live, however, it is still observed on the Thursday of the 6th Week of Eastertide.
The Lectionary provides two options for the second reading: Ephesians 1:17-23 or Hebrews 9:24-28′ 10:19-23. I’ll consider both.
The first reading — Acts 1:1-11 — gives us the familiar story of Jesus’ Ascension. Several points are worth noting. The “first book,” mentioned in the beginning, is understood to be the Gospel according to Luke, which also addresses Theophilus at the outset. The resurrected Jesus was seen by the apostles and spoke to them over a period of time. Certain that he was the Messiah, they asked about the common expectation about the Messiah: that he would restore the sovereignty of Israel. Jesus deflects the question, but emphasizes the baptism with the Holy Spirit which they were soon to receive. It would empower them to be his witnesses to the world. Traditions tell of the apostles going to Spain, India, Armenia, Egypt, and points between. The account concludes with two angels promising that Jesus would return.
The responsorial psalm — Ps 47: 2-3, 6-7, 8-9, with the refrain from v. 6 — has us view the Ascension as akin to an enthronement with accompanying celebration.
The first option for the second reading —Ephesians 1:17-23 — focuses on the role of the Holy Spirit in confirming our faith and our understanding of Jesus’ resurrection and his return to the Father. Now Jesus is Lord of all, including the Church, which is his body. In other words, the Church takes the place of Jesus in being physically present in the world. It presents us with a cosmic view.
The alternative second reading — Hebrews 9:4-28; 10:19-23 — invites us to think of Jesus as the eternal high priest who won salvation for us by his sacrifice of himself on Calvary. His ascension is the moment when he came bodily to the Father to present that sacrifice. As in Acts, there is a promise of Jesus’ return. For now, we can approach God in worship in union with the Church, thanks to our Baptism (“hearts sprinkled … bodies washed”), which unites us to Jesus in the Church.
This year the gospel is from Luke —Lk 24:46-53. Like Acts, it contains words of Jesus indicating the work of the Apostles in spreading the gospel around the world and the power which the apostles would soon receive to fulfill that mission. It also speaks of the Ascension itself, placing it in Bethany, a couple of miles outside Jerusalem. Strikingly, there is no indication of a prolonged stay between the Resurrection and the Ascension. The gospel seems to say that the Ascension took place as the final event of the day of Jesus’ Resurrection. Biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson sees the promise of power from on high and the Ascension as two moments in a single process, while the account in Acts elaborates on the process.
The situation of the Church today, and of us, its members, is essentially the same as that of the Apostles after the Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit. We await the return of Jesus. Meanwhile, we have the task of witnessing to him around the world.