Standing in the glow of the feast of the Ascension, which the Church celebrated this past Thursday, forty days after the resurrection of Christ (Acts 1:3), we gather one more time to mark the final week of Easter before reaching the feast of Pentecost next Sunday. As we approach Pentecost and with it the end of the long Easter season it is worth reflecting one last time on the foundations of the Paschal mystery which has been expressed over these past six weeks, and on what we are to build upon those foundations.
Firstly, we remember that the Easter Triduum stretching from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday through the joyful celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday is profoundly shaped by rites, words, symbols, and imagery drawn from the Jewish feast of Passover. At a deeper level, Christ’s victory on Easter is understood by Christians as being the definitive “Passover” of God’s holy people. Our Christian celebration indeed commemorates the time when God’s angel “passed over” the homes of the Israelites, with their doorposts and lintels marked by a lamb’s blood, but it goes beyond that, and sees in the resurrection of Christ from the dead the perfect “Passover” from death to new life which tramples sin and gives hope to all who believe in Christ.
Next, we note that the Ascension, which we observe on Thursday during the sixth week of Easter—exactly forty days after Easter Sunday—also has connections to the Old Testament narratives anticipating Christ. The Ascension reminds us that just as the people of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years, accompanied by the presence of the Lord, before entering the promised land, so too the earliest followers of Jesus were accompanied by him for forty days before he entered into “the promised land” of heaven.
The third element of the Paschal mystery that we examine today is the feast of Pentecost. This wonderful feast is sometimes called “the birthday of the Church” on account of the fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon the early disciples of Jesus on this day, and they then went forth to proclaim the Good News and thus build up the Church. Pentecost occurs on the fiftieth day of the Easter season (the word “pentecost” means fiftieth in Greek) and it too has Jewish origins, since the very first Christian Pentecost described in Acts 2 occurred on the Jewish feast of Shavuoth, which was called Pentecost by Greek-speaking Jews of Jesus’ era.
Having seen how the Jewish roots of the Paschal mystery point forward to, and are fulfilled in, the events of the Paschal mystery, one might say: “That’s interesting, but ‘so what’?—What’s the point of all this?” The point is that we present day believers in Jesus are charged by virtue of our baptism to carry this movement forward, just as Jesus himself carried forward the Old Testament prefigurations of his Paschal victory.
To this end, in today’s Gospel we hear: “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world” (John 17:13, 18). The Ascension reminds us that now that the risen Lord has departed from our world physically, we must heed his command and be willing to be sent into the world as his missionaries, carrying forward the Good News to all those who have yet to hear it proclaimed in a credible way, so that one day they too might rejoice in the words: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica