In today’s first reading, St. Luke gives the surprising news that there is more of the story to be told. The story did not end with the empty tomb, or with Jesus’ appearances over the course of 40 days. Jesus’ saving work will have a liturgical consummation. He is the great high priest, and he has still to ascend to the true Holy of Holies in the heavenly Jerusalem.
The truth of this feast shines forth from the Letter to the Hebrews, where we read of the great high priest’s passing through the heavens, the sinless intercessor’s sacrifice on our behalf (see Hebrew 4:14-15).
Indeed, his intercession will lead to the Holy Spirit’s descent in fire upon the Church. Luke spells out that promise: “In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). Ascension is the preliminary feast that directs the Church’s attention forward to Pentecost.
On that day, salvation will be complete; for salvation is not simply expiation for sins (that would be wonder enough); it is something even greater than that. Expiation is itself a necessary precondition of our adoption as God’s children. To live that divine life we must receive the Holy Spirit. To receive the Holy Spirit we must be purified through baptism.
The Epistle strikes a distinctively paschal note. In the early Church, as today, Easter was the normal time for the baptism of adult converts. The sacrament was often called “illumination” or “enlightenment” (see Hebrew 10:32) because of the light that came with God’s saving grace.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, speaks of glory that leads to greater glories still, as Ascension leads to Pentecost: “May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,” he writes, as he looks to the divinization of the believers. Their “hope” is “his inheritance among the holy ones,” the saints who have been adopted into God’s family and now rule with him.
This is the “good news” the apostles are commissioned to spread — to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem — at the first Ascension. It’s the good news we must spread today.
Scott Hahn is founder of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, stpaulcenter.com.
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