Read Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:19-23
The prescribed readings for the Catholic liturgy are usually continuous, but not on this Ascension Sunday. The second reading begins with the end of chapter 9 of the book of Hebrews; it then skips the first eighteen verses of chapter 10 to pick up the text at verse 19, ending at verse 23. Let us try to understand these two blocks of text.
In the first, the author develops a particular interpretation of the passion, resurrection and ascension of Christ in the light of a Jewish ritual in the Temple of Jerusalem. This is an original, very creative reading that seeks to understand the meaning of the Paschal Mystery as the fulfillment of the rites of the Old Testament. The author compares Jesus to the high priest who, once a year, on the Great Day of Atonement ("Yom Kippur"), went into the most sacred space of the Temple, the "Holy of Holies", cut off from the rest of the Temple by a veil. There he sprinkled the floor with the blood of a bull he had offered in sacrifice for himself as well as the blood of a goat offered on behalf of all the people. He then returned to the people outside the Temple to recite the prayer of Atonement.
In fact, the ritual is much more complicated, but this sketch suffices for us to understand the author's comparison. He suggests that by his Paschal mystery, Christ came into the true "Holy of Holies" - heaven - in the very presence of God the Father. Thus, the sacrifice of his own life takes on an eternal value that the annual sacrifices of the high priest could not have. And the sacrifice of Christ, destroying the power of sin forever, becomes the perpetual source of forgiveness for all God's people. When at the end of time Jesus will "come back out" of this sanctuary in returning to us, it will not be in order to intercede for our forgiveness, but to make manifest the glory of the salvation he has already acquired for us.
The second block of our reading draws the consequences: with Christ and like Christ, we can enter the "Holy of Holies", in the very presence of God. The veil of Christ's body was "ripped" in his resurrection, so that his humanity - transformed by the power of the Spirit - would become not an obstacle but a path to God. Already in baptism, the "pure water" that washed our bodies, we have received new life, a life of faith, forgiveness and hope.
This text undoubtedly presents us with many difficulties because of the references to a Jewish ritual that no longer exists. Nonetheless, its invitation still speaks today, an invitation to courage and joy even in the midst of trial. With Jesus, we have access to the Father. Through Jesus, forgiveness is assured. In Jesus, we have boldness, "because the One who has promised is faithful."
The author of the letter to the Hebrews invites us to see the Ascension of Christ, not as a "separation" from him but as a stage in our own transformation. Jesus already takes us with him, beyond appearances, into the "Holy of Holies". Our life is already inhabited by the divine presence. Hallelujah!