What the Ascension Tells Us About the Body
Soon we will be celebrating the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. There is a very famous relief carving at the beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady in Chartres, France which depicts this scene. This relief has always captured my imagination. The carving depicts the 12 apostles looking up to the sky. At the top of the carving is a cloud from which Jesus’s foot (the last thing the apostles could see) is protruding. I have always been enthralled by this very literal depiction of the last glance at the man Jesus in the flesh.
The feast of the Ascension concludes a series of mysteries in the incarnation, the resurrection, and the ascension. All three mysteries are closely linked to the value which God has bestowed on the human body. A value so great that He took on human flesh, He safeguarded it through death, and even reigns bodily in heaven.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes the exceptional importance of the Ascension in regards to Christ’s body.
“…Christ's body was glorified at the moment of his Resurrection, as proved by the new and supernatural properties it subsequently and permanently enjoys. But during the forty days when he eats and drinks familiarly with his disciples and teaches them about the kingdom, his glory remains veiled under the appearance of ordinary humanity. Jesus' final apparition ends with the irreversible entry of his humanity into divine glory, symbolized by the cloud and by heaven, where he is seated from that time forward at God's right hand. Only in a wholly exceptional and unique way would Jesus show himself to Paul "as to one untimely born", in a last apparition that established him as an apostle.” (CCC 659) The Catechism expands on this in the following paragraph, “The veiled character of the glory of the Risen One during this time is intimated in his mysterious words to Mary Magdalene: "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." This indicates a difference in manifestation between the glory of the risen Christ and that of the Christ exalted to the Father's right hand, a transition marked by the historical and transcendent event of the Ascension.” (CCC 660)
In other words, in Christ’s Ascension the flesh takes on a new glory.
This event has significant meaning for our flesh as well. St. Paul beautifully elucidates it’s meaning in 1 Corinthians 15.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve... Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-5,8)
Here again we see reference to the unique appearance of Christ after the ascension which was cited in the catechism (CCC 659). As such, Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 can be a lexicon for understanding this mystery.
So, what is Paul’s teaching?
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ… (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)
Paul’s teaching is that we will be raised like Christ. We are like him. We share in His mystery. He is first, but we are to follow. In so doing our bodies take on new meanings. Moreover, this has been the plan from the beginning. Christ’s incarnation, resurrection, and eventual ascension elevate what we have received from Adam.
So, too, it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being,” the last Adam a life-giving spirit. But the spiritual was not first; rather the natural and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, earthly; the second man, from heaven. As was the earthly one, so also are the earthly, and as is the heavenly one, so also are the heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one. (1 Corinthians 15:45-49)
The significance of bearing this new image is profound. Our flesh is elevated and takes on a new character. One that cannot be defiled.
…we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality then the word that is written shall come about: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15: 51-54)
Our hope in the resurrection is not then only spiritual. It is physical. We will retain not only or souls but will also receive back our bodies, but glorified in the new creation. For as in the words of the psalmist, “I praise you, because I am wonderfully made”. (Psalm 139:14)