The Paschal Mystery
The Scripture readings for today depend upon where one is living. There are several archdioceses and dioceses in the United States that still celebrate today as the Feast of Ascension. These include the dioceses in the state of Nebraska as well as some of the Diocesan Sees on the East Coast. For the rest of the country, the Feast of the Ascension has been moved to the following Sunday.
We call the events of Jesus' passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit the Paschal Mystery. These events are described in the Christian Scriptures as taking place as the people of Israel celebrated the Passover. Careful reading of the Gospels seems to indicate that these events unfolded over a three day period beginning with the Last Supper on the day before Passover, followed by the death of Jesus as the lambs were being slaughtered for the Passover Supper, followed by his resurrection before or at dawn on the first day of the week, and culminating in his ascension later that day after having bestowed the Holy Spirit upon those men and women gathered in the upper room. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke seems to separate these events by several weeks so that they coincide with the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Traditionally, we have celebrated these days separately, especially the ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit.
However, it is important for us to remember that our liturgical celebration of these events is not a mere historical commemoration of them. Rather, the Church separates these events into separate celebrations in order to give us time to reflect on each part of the Paschal Mystery and to come to appreciation of what they mean for us.
The word "paschal" comes from the Aramaic word "pasha," which means "passing over." In the context of the Paschal Mystery, the word "mystery" does not indicate that this is a riddle to be solved. Rather, in this context, the word mystery indicates that these events are still unfolding and that their meaning is still becoming clearer to us. By reflecting upon them and celebrating them, we remind ourselves that Jesus' passing over is not simply something that happened in history, but that they are events which are still affecting us and are still effecting change in our day and age. As our faith in the Paschal Mystery continues to grow, we are able to unite ourselves with the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. We are also able to appreciate the presence of the Spirit among us.
Because of our human limitations, it is impossible for us to think outside of the realm of time and space. We are a people with a past, a present and a future. However, such limitations do not exist for God. God has no past. God has no future. God is only now. Consequently, God's actions cannot be thought of as inhabiting time and space in the same way we do. As we draw nearer to eternity itself, we gradually come to understand that the Paschal Mystery is a present reality, that Jesus' redemptive act is still occurring.
As St. Paul mentions in a different context, we see and understand these realities "dimly," as in a mirror. However, as they continue to unfold, we will come to understand them more clearly. Our own paschal mystery (with a lower case "p") draws us ever closer to the reality of redemptive suffering. For this we are ever grateful to God.