He Ascended into Heaven: A Reflection on Ascension Thursday
The Paschal Mystery—the events from Holy Thursday until Pentecost—is treasured by the Catholic faith. The Church wouldn’t exist without these events, and they are the foundation of our faith. Icons and sacred art depict the scenes; hymns honor the moments; the liturgies we celebrate are the most solemn Masses in the liturgical year. We have told the stories for millennia, with the accompanying benefit of theological development and reflection. As glorious as that is, and as beautiful as the feasts are, I’m not sure we fully appreciate the emotional roller coaster that the apostles experienced. How would it have been like to be living through those events? Any of us, had we walked in the sandals of the apostles, would’ve struggled to understand the full weight of the Paschal Mystery. And, while the basis of the Paschal Mystery is God personally acting in the flesh to save humanity, the feast of the Ascension offers a bit of a puzzle. With the human thirst for the presence of God, why did Jesus ascend into heaven so soon after Easter?
The week leading up to Passover started off with a bang—imagine the buzz around Jerusalem after Jesus entered the city in messianic fashion (Luke 19:28-44). The apostles were right in the middle of everything, and could hardly be unaffected by the excitement. Then, at the Passover meal, the apostles watched as Jesus instituted a new covenant right in the middle of one of the most hallowed feasts of the Jewish faith (Luke 22:14-20).
A new covenant? Like those made between men and God Himself in generations past, that grafted the People of Israel onto the heart of the Lord? Like the one mediated by Moses, who spoke to God “face to face” (Ex 33:11)? Or the great promises made to Abraham (Gen 17:9)? One of those covenants? That’s quite a lot to process for a first century Jew.
Whatever surprise the apostles would’ve been feeling was waylaid by the pain of the Passion. The apostles had to deal with the pain on two levels: the vicious torture and murder of their Master and their abandonment of Him. I envision them feeling a giant emotional mess of shock, pain, disappointment, and guilt. Although Jesus had prophesied his resurrection (see Matt 12:40), the hours must’ve passed slowly after the crucifixion, and there’s reason to suspect the apostles may not have fully understood these prophecies. When witnesses came to report that Jesus had risen, the apostles were slow to believe. St. Mark records the resurrected Jesus visiting and upbraiding them “for their unbelief and hardness of heart” (16:14). Luke adds further detail to Jesus’ first appearances to the apostles: “they were startled and frightened, and supposed they saw a spirit” (Luke 24:37). They were too weighed down by the emotional mess to muster the courage to believe.
Once assured of Jesus’ resurrection, their tears turned to joy. The messianic dreams from Palm Sunday probably returned. Yet Jesus spoke of his immanent departure; had I been among the apostles, I would’ve been confused. I would’ve asked along with them, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) In other words, “Jesus, why are You leaving now?”
In the span of one week, the apostles went from triumphant to crushed; scared for their lives to elated. Expecting to go one path, Jesus directed them to another after ascending into heaven.
The Fulfillment of the Incarnation
Thus steps in the puzzle of the Ascension. St. Luke records Jesus disappearing out of their sight, upon a cloud (Acts 1:9). While present to the disciples after the resurrection, Jesus was, in a way, distant. When He appeared to Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday, she must’ve rushed to embrace Him; Jesus responded, “do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). In the same vein, the gospels and Acts of the Apostles don’t tell of Jesus spending every day with the apostles, as He did during His public ministry.
Perhaps Jesus knew of the expectations that would have come from His constant physical presence after the resurrection. In the apostles’ question to Jesus in Acts 1:6, it’s easy to hear excitement in their voices. After everything that had happened the previous week, Jesus was not defeated—He was victorious! The prophecies have been fulfilled, and now all of Israel must be told! Who better to tell them than Jesus Himself? In his first Jesus of Nazareth book, Pope Benedict XVI presented the third temptation of Christ in the desert through this lens. Satan offered Jesus kingship over all the world, but the enticement was far more subtle than a simple demand for worship: “isn’t [Jesus] supposed to be the king of the world Who unifies the whole earth in one great kingdom of peace and well-being?” (1) In a human way of thinking, this was the obvious next step. God had other plans.
Understanding the reasoning (as much as we’re able) behind the Ascension lies in the big picture of God’s plan for humanity. It was He Who created the human heart in the very beginning! The entire story of salvation, from Genesis forward, tells of the utterly transcendent Lord Who unites Himself with humanity. He created man in His image (Gen 1:26); part of that image is communion. The Holy Trinity is a communion of divine persons, united by a common nature and a love beyond all telling. Thus, God didn’t leave Adam by himself in the garden of Eden: “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). That is, humans need communion—with God and with each other. God’s method of communicating with the human race shows His understanding of this. Rather than booming voices or lightning bolts from heaven, God united Himself with the human race through covenants. As salvation history progressed, humanity’s knowledge of God increased and the communion grew. Knowing that need in our hearts for communion with God, and desiring to capture them with love, God became man in order to save humanity. The Incarnation is an unfathomable expression of God’s love for His children!
Thinking only along mortal lines, the Ascension looks like the opposite of the divine love: Jesus abandoning the apostles. Such a reading is too narrow, though; within the context of the New Testament, it’s clear that Jesus never abandoned His flock. Jesus promised His perpetual presence (Matt 28:20), asked His disciples to abide in Him (John 15:7), and prayed that His followers would be unified with Him (John 17:20). St. Paul, to whom Jesus revealed Himself and the gospel (cf. 1 Cor 11:23, 15:8), spoke very frequently about the unity between Christ and His Body, the Church (e.g. 1 Cor 12:12-31; Col 1:18; Eph. 1:22-23; Rom 12:4).
Jesus knew His presence was needed for the Church to function and thrive, so He provided a means for the faithful to commune with Him in an intimate way: the Eucharist. The unity made possible by the sacrament is both spiritual and physical, since “we unite ourselves to Christ, who makes us sharers in his Body and Blood to form a single body.” (2) A survey of the New Testament and the early Church Fathers show a practice of the Eucharist and a belief in Jesus’ Real Presence.
Even with the Eucharist in place, the Ascension does not shatter the unity between Christ and His Body; mysteriously, Jesus’ return to the Father intensified that unity. Fr. Damian Howard puts it best: “Christ’s withdrawal brings about a new mode by which Christ can be present to us, intimate, yet universal and ‘interceding for us at the right hand of the Father.’” (3) The beauty of the Ascension is heightened further after seeing it as a realization of the prophet Daniel’s vision:
...and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a Son of Man, and He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him; His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (4)
The work that begun in the Incarnation was brought to completion, and the Ascension brought Jesus to His rightful place in heaven. Far from taking something away from the Church, God instead gave us everything: the Holy Spirit, the very life of the Holy Trinity. The Ascension is a great feast that can get lost in the shadow of its two bookends, Easter and Pentecost; yet the Ascension encompasses them both. It hearkens back to the morning of resurrection, that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, as “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). The Ascension also anticipates the sending of the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, Who will enflame the hearts of the apostles and Our Lady at Pentecost. When asked if the kingdom would be restored to Israel (Acts 1:6), Jesus only answered by repeating the promise of the Holy Spirit (1:7). In John’s gospel, Jesus promised the ability to perform great signs, “because I go to the Father” (14:12). Pushing the point further, Jesus later says that “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). However difficult it was for the apostles—and however much we’d like Jesus walking around with us today—in terms of God’s plan for the Church, Jesus’ Ascension was a necessary, wonderful gift.
Scripture quotes from The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version – Catholic Ed. Ignatius, 1966.
(1) Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Ignatius Press, 2007, pg. 38
(2) Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1331
(3) Quote taken from Fr. Damian Howard, S.J. “Reflections on the Feast of the Ascension” http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20120516_1.htm
(4) Dan 7:13-14, cited in Fr. Damian Howard’s article(3)