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The Ascension: Continuing closeness and source of lasting joy

On the Readings for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, May 21, 2020

Detail from "The Ascension" (1775) by John Singleton Copley [WikiArt.org]

Readings:
• Acts 1:1-11
• Psa 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
• Eph 1:17-23
• Matt 28:16-20

Pope Saint Leo the Great (c. 400-461), in a sermon on the Ascension, wrote:

Since then Christ’s Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised, whither 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…

Fifteen centuries later, in his second volume of Jesus of Nazareth (Ignatius, 2011), Benedict XVI emphasized the central place of joy and delight in the Solemnity of the Ascension, stating, “The joy of the disciples after the ‘Ascension’ corrects our image of this event.”

What is in need of correction? The notion that Jesus, by ascending into heaven, has gone away and is now somehow distant from mankind. But if that were true, Benedict pointed out, it doesn’t make sense of the “great joy” expressed by the disciples journeying to Emmaus after Jesus had blessed them, “parted from them and was taken up to heaven” (Lk. 24:51-53).

Nor would it explain why the disciples, having witnessed the ascension of Christ—as we hear in today’s first reading—immediately set about selecting a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:12-26). Rather than being depressed and listless, the disciples were filled with anticipation and a growing understanding of their mission. The opening of the Acts of the Apostles does not flinch from showing that the disciples, even after the Resurrection, were still coming to grips with the exact nature of Jesus’ intentions for the Church and for the world. Between his Resurrection and the his ascension, Jesus spent about forty days instructing the apostles, “speaking about the kingdom of God”. Yet they still asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

As Benedict noted, “Jesus counters this notion of a restored Davidic kingdom with a promise and a commission.” The promise is the gift of the Holy Spirit and of his own continual presence, as heard in the final words of Matthew’s Gospel: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” This promise of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled in a most dramatic and definitive way at Pentecost. It is also fulfilled at every baptism and confirmation and celebration of the Eucharist, for all of the sacraments “are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par 1116).

And it is fulfilled in other ways as well, for the Holy Spirit works tirelessly, through the proclamation the Word of God, through special charisms, and through the many hidden graces offered to us, if we are only willing to see and accept them.

The great commission, stated in both Acts 1 and Matthew 28, is clear and succinct: to be witnesses of Jesus Christ throughout the world, making disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Triune God. Jesus did not ascend into the presence of the Father to “get away” or to be silent, but so he can give himself continually and in perfect love to his bride, the Church. The Apostle Paul, in today’s reading from his letter to the Ephesians, pointed out that the risen Christ is “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion”, having “put all things beneath his feet”.

But the Church, he said, is Christ’s body, “the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” Christ especially comes to us and fills us when we, members of his Mystical Body, receive the Eucharist, which expresses and communicate his love in a most profound way (cf. Catechism, par. 1380).

The Ascension, then, is both a going away and a coming. “‘Ascension’ does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but, rather,” observed Benedict, “the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.”

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the June 5, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)


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About Carl E. Olson 1136 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. 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.

3 Comments

  1. Certainly the gift of Holy Spirit and Real Eucharistic Presence assure we remain in close contact. A point of interest is the whereabouts of Christ’s destination as he rose skyward. Why does Our Lord by drifting upward give reason to believe he’s out there somewhere? As some actually believe. Early on it was made clear to me by Gilson, Aquinas that we, a composite of spirit and matter, understand by the visual, tactile even think by employing material images. Consequently, we understand the spiritual by analogy with visible things like the Ascension experienced by the Apostles. The whereabouts? The Kingdom of Christ, our desired Heaven is another dimension of existence distinct from this universe though inextricably linked to it. Entry is assured not by absorption with the material realities by which we make analogy, rather by love of the spiritual good they point to. A great assurance during the current Darkness. Augustine and Leo the Great in today’s breviary allude that although while here we aren’t with Christ physically, nevertheless as part of his Mystical Body we are with Him mysteriously and spiritually.

  2. Today many will laugh at artistic attempts to depict the resurrected Christ ascending into the stratosphere, like a helium weather-balloon. Where is He going? To the ionosphere or even outer space? How will He manage with no oxygen and exposure to meteorites and cosmic rays?
    Yet, theologically, the ascension of Jesus Christ is documented as a very real and crucially important event. How then could today’s scientifically literate generation properly comprehend it?
    Let’s recall Jesus teaching that God’s realm is “close to you” and even “within you”. Today it would be legitimate to think of God’s realm as an unseen parallel universe of eternal perfection. Contemporary science has revealed plenty of space within quantum physicality, available for all sorts of unseen alternative realities. There is plenty of rational possibility for God’s unseen, unlimited realm of eternal perfection to interact with our universe that is constrained by space-time/energy-matter and that we know is not perfect and not eternal.
    This perspective enables us to look with fresh eyes at events reported in the Bible. A common process (opening of an inter-universe portal) sustains the revealing of hidden information and the enacting of normally impossible processes. For example, Ezekiel chapter 1 records the most dramatic of Old Testament theophanies. Then, in Acts 7:56, Stephen sees heaven open. In chapter 9, Saul of Tarsus has his unprecedented, life-changing encounter with Christ glorified in God’s realm. Then, in chapter 10, a portal opens, allowing Peter to see into God’s realm; causing him to give up Judeocentric prejudice.
    In fact, the New Testament could almost be described as a running record of repeated portal openings between this world and God’s realm, enabling humans to have first-hand experiences of the close-ness and the within-ness of God’s realm, the parallel universe of enduring ethical perfection. One thinks of heaven’s portal opening to enable the Annunciation, the heavenly visions at the Nativity, at Jesus’ baptism, and at the Epiphany.
    Then there are all the signs and miracles that Jesus performed during His years of ministry and preaching. Christ’s own perspective, passed down to us, is that these amazing works were done not for their own sake, not even for His sake but so that the works of God should be revealed here, among us (e.g. John 9:3). As on many other occasions recorded in John’s Gospel and in his Revelation, it is God’s glory that is momentarily observable.
    Throughout history the portal between God’s perfect reality and our imperfect reality has often opened and it still does. It was maximally opened to receive the victoriously resurrected Lamb, and again at Pentecost to pour out God’s Holy Spirit on the gathered friends of Jesus. Was that the end of it? No, far from it! The portal to God’s glorious realm is active in all true believers (see, e.g. Romans 8:9; II Corinthians 13:5; etc.); and, through us, this portal has been and is being made present in every part of the world.
    It was by ascending (moving across the portal) that Jesus Christ opened the way for this wonderful inter-universe access to proliferate (see John 16:7). Because Christ ascended, every true believer has gained direct access to God’s glorious realm, and a taste of the fullness of a perfect eternity in Christ, that is their living hope and joy; and cause of our glorification of God.
    Today’s believers also owe a debt to scientists who have explored the nature of matter and the possibilities of parallel universes and so enabled us to engage with a richer and more coherent theology of the close-ness and within-ness of God’s realm; and, of the high significance of Christ’s glorious Ascension.
    He ascended in the sense of moving from the low ethical ethos of this world to the highest possible ethical ethos in God’s realm; quite unlike the upward floating of a helium balloon!
    Thanks Carl for your helpful and stimulating article.

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