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The Ascension: A Source of Lasting Joy

On the Readings for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, May 10, 2018

Detail from "The Ascension" by Limbourg brothers (c. 1390-1415)

• Acts 1:1-11
• Psa 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
• Eph 1:17-23 or Eph 4:1-13
• Mk 16:15-20

“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”

That question, uttered by the two angels to the disciples, is easily read over quickly or even misunderstood. The natural reaction, I think, is to conclude the angels were simply saying, “Look: Jesus is gone. There’s nothing more here to see. Go your way.” The impression is that Jesus, in ascending into heaven, had not only departed but created some sort of distance between himself and his disciples. We might even conclude that the disciples were sorrowful or confused, wondering, “What next?”

But such conclusions are incorrect; in fact, they are quite contrary to the real nature of the Ascension.

Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (Ignatius Press, 2011), offered several insights into the nature and meaning of the Ascension. Referring to St. Luke’s account of the Ascension (Lk 24:50-53), he noted that after Christ “was taken up to heaven”, the disciples did not weep or act confused but “returned to Jerusalem with great joy…” He stated, “The joy of the disciples after the ‘Ascension’ corrects our image of this image. ‘Ascension’ does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but, rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.”

Then, a bit later, Benedict remarked upon the meaning of the “cloud” that took Christ up and out of the sight of the disciples. The cloud is meant to invoke several important events, including the Transfiguration, in which a cloud surrounded Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (see Lk 9:28-36); the “overshadowing” of Mary by the Most High (Lk 1:35); and the cloud signifying the presence of God during the exodus (Ex 13:21-22; 40:34-35). The cloud, in short, evokes a profound mystery—the very reality of God. “It presents Jesus’ departure”, wrote Benedict, “not as a journey to the stars, but as his entry into the mystery of God. It invokes an entirely different order of magnitude, a different dimension of being.”

The dimension is referred to in today’s readings from Ephesians 1 and Mark 16 as God’s “right hand”, the place of power, majesty, and glory. This position, St. Paul wrote, is “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion”— it is not part of this temporal world, for it is the inner life of the Triune God. And God, of course, is not limited by time and space, so we can say that Jesus did not “go away” in any temporal sense, but, as Benedict insisted, “now and forever by God’s own power he is present with us and for us.” And, paradoxically, this means Christ is with us in a new and continuing way, which is a cause for great joy among his disciples.

This is heady and mysterious stuff, without a doubt. But what does it mean for us in the here and now? The answer was beautifully expressed in the fifth century by Pope St. Leo I, who wrote, “Since then Christ’s Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the body is raised, wither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven.”

The Son of God, having united himself forever to humanity by becoming man, has now opened the way for man to be united with him eternally in glory, in the beatific vision. This is the “hope” and the “riches of glory” and the “inheritance” referred to by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.

The Lord, Benedict explained, is with us now; he comes to us: through his word and the sacraments, “especially in the most Holy Eucharist…” He fills all things in every way for those who have accepted his gift of divine and everlasting joy.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the May 20, 2012 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

“The Ascension” by Limbourg brothers (c. 1390-1415)

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About Carl E. Olson 1153 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His new book Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021), is published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.