The area here in the front of the church - with the altar, the tabernacle, and the ambo - is called the sanctuary. It's an area specifically set aside for the worship of God. It's separated from the rest of the church - sometimes by an altar rail or by steps - not because of the people that minister here, but because of the significance and dignity or what happens here. It's from the sanctuary that we hear the Word of God proclaimed and it's here that we offer the sacrifice of Jesus' body and blood - the Eucharist.
The Catholic Church didn't invent this concept of a sanctuary - like so much of our faith, it flows from our Jewish roots; and if we want to understand the feast of the Ascension which we celebrate today, then we need to understand something of our religious background.
Through Moses, God directed the Israelites to build a place to worship Him while they were in the desert. It was a tent called the Tabernacle and it came from a design revealed to Moses in a vision. In that tent you would find an altar where incense was burned, a lampstand, and a table with special bread on it. Hanging across the inside of the tent was a veil or curtain that separated off a smaller room called the Holy of Holies that contained the Ark of the Covenant.
When Solomon had the Temple built in Jerusalem, it was modeled after the Tabernacle in the desert. It was a stone and wood building with those same rooms inside. This was a place where the people met the Lord and offered sacrifices; and it was especially significant on the Day of Atonement, one of Israel's most important feast days. On that day, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle blood from sacrifices to atone for the sins of himself and the whole nation for that year
Why am I telling you all of this? It's because the Ascension of Jesus into heaven is much more than Our Lord going home after finishing a job. The Ascension is the completion of Jesus' death and resurrection.
On the cross, Jesus offered Himself to the Father in place of us. He took the weight of our sins on Himself and experienced the death that results from sin, and then He rose. At the Ascension, Jesus takes his humanity and offers his sacrifice to the Father. Rather than a high priest going past the veil and into the Holy of Holies to offer the blood of an animal, Jesus gave Himself. And it doesn't have to happen over and over again because Jesus, as God, makes a sacrifice that is eternal.
What does that mean for us now? Come back to this sanctuary in this church.
When we celebrate the Eucharist every week, we are entering into the heavenly sanctuary where Jesus offers Himself to the Father. When we receive communion, we are joined with His offering. In a very real way, we are experiencing a preview of the life of Heaven.
Though Jesus is no longer bodily present in the world, His ascension ensures that we remain connected to Him and connected to eternity. One day we will see the reality of what we celebrate here every weekend. Jesus ascends from the earth so that one day we can rise with Him as well.