SOLEMNITY OF THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
In the Diocese of Charlotte, as in many Dioceses in the United States, the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord is celebrated this Sunday. Whenever this great feast comes around on the calendar, I remember a particular Ascension Sunday Mass I participated in while travelling in Georgia one year.
First, let us briefly remember what the Ascension is all about. The first reading today is from the first chapter of Acts and is St. Luke's account of what happened "the day [Jesus] was taken up."
We celebrate today the fact that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven to be united with the Father. It is the capstone of all the events recorded testifying to Christ's bodily resurrection -- the empty tomb, St. Thomas touching His wounds, Jesus eating a breakfast of fish with His disciples, breathing on Peter, and so on. All of these things testify to the real physicality of the Resurrection.[A]s they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven."
Yet Christ's body was not quite the same as it was before the Resurrection. It was still a physical body, but also more than that. He could appear in the middle of a locked room. He could somehow hide his appearance or identity until He wished to be recognized. And, of course, His was a body that had conquered death. It was a Risen Body that did not belong in this Fallen World. And so He went ahead of us to prepare a New Creation, a new heaven and new earth, a home fitting for perfection where we will one day - God willing - join Him.
Which brings me back to one Ascension celebration in Georgia. I was away from home and attended Mass at a small parish I had never been to before. The pastor gave a good homily telling us why it is important that we believe Christ rose bodily from death and ascended bodily into heaven; that in His passion, death and resurrection He redeemed the whole man, body and soul, and so our bodies and our souls will be saved.
I don't recall any specific words from the homily. However, I do recall what we sang during Communion. You see, words set to music have a way of sticking with you. That is why what we sing at Mass is so important. Often the words we hear in the homily or even the scripture readings may start to fade by lunch time, but the words of a hymn will stay with us for weeks, sometimes longer. Words set to music are powerful things.
On that particular Ascension Sunday, as we received the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, the choir had us singing the refrain, "Jesus has no body now but you." The lyrics of the song were taken from a quote by St. Teresa of Avila. St. Teresa was making the point that the Church is the body of Christ. We - all of the baptized - make up His body and we should be the hands and feet, the eyes and the ears of Christ in the world. This is all quite true and valid. It is a good point to meditate upon and put into action in our lives.
However, one must question the wisdom of singing "Jesus has no body" as we come forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Sung at that particular time in the liturgy, removed from the context of St. Teresa's writings, does that refrain support or undermine belief in the Real Presence of the Eucharist?
And is this an appropriate song to sing at a Mass celebrating the bodily Ascension of Christ? The pastor preached a very good homily about the Ascension being a real physical event and the astounding fact that Jesus's human body resides in heaven united with the Trinitarian God. But how many will have forgotten the words of the homily before they pull out of the church parking lot? Meanwhile they are still humming the refrain, "Jesus has no body..."
The words we say, pray and sing at Mass are vitally important to our faith. They make a difference. This is why the Church instructs us that we cannot simply sing anything we want at the Mass. Just like the lectors cannot read anything they want, but must read the assigned scriptures; and the priest cannot consecrate the Eucharist using any words he wants, but must use the words of consecration, the cantor and choir ought to sing the music assigned to the Mass and not words of their own choosing.
The Church tells us (in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal) that at the Entrance, Offertory and Communion, we should sing the proper antiphon for that Mass (usually taken from scripture) from the Roman Missal, Roman Gradual or Simple Gradual (all official liturgical texts of the Church). It is not an absolute requirement. The Church also gives permission to sing a liturgical chant from another collection of antiphons and psalms approved by the bishops. But the ideal is clear - we should sing the words (and prayers) of the Mass.
For the Solemnity of the Ascension, year C, the antiphon (refrain) which is prescribed to be sung at Communion in the Roman Missal is, "Christ, offering a single sacrifice for sins, is seated for ever at God's right hand, alleluia" (cf. Heb 10:12). Or, from the Roman Gradual, which is the official music book for the Roman Rite, it is, "Sing to the Lord, who has ascended the highest heavens, towards the East, alleluia" (cf. Ps 67:33, 34).
If we sing these words, rather than words of our own making - or even words of a great saint used in the wrong context - we can be assured that we will be supporting, not undermining truths of the faith which the liturgy is attempting to communicate. We can know with certainty that we are singing the liturgy itself, participating faithfully in the Mass by singing or listening to the words the Church desires us to pray with on this day.