Can we simply drop the Ascension story?

The Ascension confirms and completes the Resurrection in a way that goes beyond mere symbolism.

Detail from 16th-century icon of the Ascension, from Michurin, Bulgaria. (Wikipedia)

The Ascension of Jesus Christ, related in the Gospels of Mark and Luke and referred to throughout the New Testament, can be taken as something of an awkward anecdote in the Catholic canon. “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight…” (Acts 1:9).

There is something about the Ascension that is inconceivable, even for a miracle—something that is almost too fabulous about the idea and image of Jesus “flying.” For those who stumble over the Ascension, there is often an aspect of mythical fantasy or primitive whimsy involved in accepting such a thing. Can people really take seriously the account of a Man floating into the clouds? Is the Ascension worth the risk of alienating those influenced by a cynical realism?

This is the Faith, after all, not a fairy tale. Can we drop this story of Christ soaring through the sky?

C. S. Lewis took up this very question in Miracles:

Can we then simply drop the Ascension story? The answer is that we can do so only if we regard the Resurrection appearances as those of a ghost or hallucination. For a phantom can just fade away; but an objective entity must go somewhere—something must happen to it. And if the Risen Body were not objective, then all of us (Christian or not) must invent some explanation for the disappearance of the corpse. And all Christians must explain why God sent or permitted a ‘vision’ or ‘ghost’ whose behaviour seems almost exclusively directed to convincing the disciples that it was not a vision or a ghost but a really corporeal being. If it were a vision then it was the most systematically deceptive and lying vision on record. But if it were real, then something happened to it after it ceased to appear. You cannot take away the Ascension without putting something else in its place.

Lewis draws attention to the physical importance of the Resurrection, pointing out that the Ascension, like the Resurrection, required a Body—a point that cannot be dropped. While the Ascension of Christ is a moment of spiritual transcendence that may be difficult to relate or react to, it is also a material mystery. In other words, the Ascension is as much about the body as it is about the soul. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Dogma and Preaching, “The expression of our belief that in Christ human nature, the humanity in which we all share, has entered into the inner life of God in a new and hitherto unheard-of way. It means that man has found an everlasting place in God.” The whole purpose of the miracle of the Ascension is that it points out the way for all flesh. It was a physical miracle involving a physical body that illustrated a relationship that is supernatural and eternal: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Ascension confirms and completes the Resurrection in a way that goes beyond mere symbolism. It has a tangible dimension as it deals with a tangible body. The body of Christ disappeared from the tomb and then reappeared before disappearing again forty days later. It did more than just vanish, however. It was moved. It went somewhere and, even now, is somewhere. It is this second disappearance that gives modern sensibilities some pause, for it is in a way stranger than the first. There is a kind of gravity in the idea of a man rising from the dead. There is a kind of levity in the idea of a man rising into the sky. That such spiritual physicality can arouse human incredulity and challenge the scientific thinker is precisely the point. Miracles are as factual and physical as they are spiritual, and their breaking with the bands of nature must be held as a matter of faith and as a matter of fact. G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy:

I conclude that miracles do happen. I am forced to it by a conspiracy of facts: the fact that the men who encounter elves or angels are not the mystics and the morbid dreamers, but fishermen, farmers, and all men at once coarse and cautious; the fact that we all know men who testify to spiritualistic incidents but are not spiritualists, the fact that science itself admits such things more and more every day. Science will even admit the Ascension if you call it Levitation, and will very likely admit the Resurrection when it has thought of another word for it.

Chesterton agrees—the miracle of the Ascension cannot be simply dropped so long as man is material. The promise of extraordinary exaltation and supernatural splendor is not simply a matter of spiritual consequence, but a matter of physical consequence as well. Though Jesus’ body was glorified at the moment of the Resurrection beyond the normal experience of nature, He retained a body that was still in some veiled way like the body He had. There was certainly a different bodily relation that Jesus possessed with things like time and space, yet He was not outside of them. Though He did come and go at times like a specter, Jesus was sure to show His disciples that He was not spectral, as Lewis noted. He proffered His hands to His friends to touch and hold, for their eyes to see and believe. He ate and drank with them. He was flesh and blood. There was clear and careful intention in ascertaining these physical facts for the sake of the spiritual fact that was soon to follow.

From Annunciation to Ascension, there is a concrete side to the Incarnation that is harder to accept than the mystical character of Our Lord’s miracles. As Our Lady showed, however, it requires faith to hold that with God nothing is impossible, even though some things might seem implausible. Though the modern mind may struggle to believe the story of a Man ascending into a heaven somewhere on high where, as the Son of God, He sits on a celestial seat at the right hand of God the Father, this is the challenge of reconciling faith with facts. The support of reason is present given the common sense involved in communicating a physical promise to physical creatures, but there must always be something obscure in the realm of faith.

The Ascension of Jesus Christ is not simply a glorious finale of the story of human salvation, but a glorious beginning. In His departure from earth, Our Lord came to man as never before. By the mystery of the Ascension, Jesus gave his Church a miraculous sign that He is not far, and that the human body that houses the human spirit is something that belongs with God. As Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote concerning the significance of Our Lord’s bodily Ascension:

[Christ’s] intercession consists in this, that He perpetually exhibits himself before the eternal Father in the humanity which He had assumed for our salvation: and as long as He ceases not to offer Himself, He opens the way for our redemption into eternal life.

Even though logicians (and theologians, for that matter) can demonstrate that heaven cannot be reached by a flight through the clouds, it does not render the Ascension account embarrassing or isolating. People need solid symbols and signs. They need to connect an ever-present, infinite God to the ever-present, infinite sky. The way of redemption exists for people living in the world, not for disembodied souls. It is outward yet inward, with defined margins and divine mysteries. Man requires bodily things to draw him to the divine. He needs incarnations just as he needed the Incarnation.

The Word Made Flesh, therefore, operates in ways consistent with the principle of accord between the physical and spiritual, and this is the reason why we cannot simply drop the Ascension story.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Sean Fitzpatrick 14 Articles
Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania. He teaches Literature, Mythology, and Humanities. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, the Cardinal Newman Society’s Journal for Educators, and the Imaginative Conservative. He lives in Scranton with his wife, Sophie, and their seven children.

13 Comments

  1. Very helpful, Sean. Thanks bThis particular manifestation of the Incarnation is, if not a stumbling block, at least a head turner!

    TS

  2. The supernatural heavens really exist, and the ascension story is true. When the ancients gazed into the starry night sky, they saw that the observable universe must be finite. Because the night sky is mainly deep black, the observable universe has a horizon, it is not infinite. Contrary to what is commonly taught in universities, the observable universe is indeed finite, and the angelic choirs are outside it, and God the Almighty Father is its seat. Through the Mother of God the Virgin Mary and from the Holy Spirit, the Son of God Jesus Christ became created as human being on good Earth, centre of the observable universe. It is about time that we take biblical cosmology quite serious.

  3. This is helpful. I have long had trouble accepting the Ascension. Not that it didn’t happen but how to meditate with thankfulness on it when I rosary on the Glorious mysteries twice a week. Because I want to be closer to God, He has given me more reasons lately to understand somewhat the mystery of this mystery, and it is loving. Otherwise, I was always thinking why is this good? He’s going away. Yes, He says the Comforter won’t/can’t come unless He leaves but still, what up? I am learning in my remedial way the why. As I already said, this helps. Thank you!

  4. There are those skeptics and modernists who claim that the resurrection is a story told by the early Christians to communicate the way in which they experienced Jesus as alive in their hearts and still present in the community of believers after the crucifixion. Despite the fact that many highly educated people think that this is what really happened, there is one thing that simply does not fit. That is the ascension.

    If the disciples were so caught up in their emotions and imagination that they experienced Jesus as still being present with them, where does this story about Jesus being taken up into heaven only 40 days after the resurrection come from? Psychologically it makes no sense. If the memory of Jesus was so strong that it empowered the apostles to go out and preach the gospel to the whole world, that memory would have lasted far longer than 40 days. In fact the New Testament should be full of stories reporting how Jesus appeared wherever the apostles went. But that is not what we find.

    What we do find is that the resurrection was followed by the ascension which itself was a bridge to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As fantastic as that may seem to some, it makes perfect sense if that is what actually happened. As a story that is supposed to tells us about what the disciples were feeling, but is not an accurate account of the actual historical events, it makes no sense at all.

    I personally find the attempt to explain away the most important events recorded in the New Testament to be incoherent and unbelievable. What do you think?

  5. I’m not sure I gave the whole email when I made a comment I’ll do it again but please delete if I already entered it properly.

    Lately when I try to think of the Ascension, one thing keeps astounding me. Before the Ascension, heaven had no physical space, or extension as I think philosophers call it. God is pure spirit and does not occupy space, though he is everywhere. The angels are pure spirit, created spirits, and do not occupy space. With the Ascension of the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, there is now a body in heaven! Jesus occupies space, and he will make a place for all of us!

  6. Present in Absence
    (John 20:12; Acts 1:10)
    The Scriptures mention
    walk-on, walk-off white-clad mystery men
    in close attendance
    both on the morning
    of your rising day
    and the day of your ascending
    to the Home from where you came:
    they play their parts as
    witnesses, consolers, message-bearers
    at once reminding us of what you said
    about your rising and your going,
    and confirming for us
    that even though you yourself
    are risen and ascended,
    we are still to seek and find you
    here among the living,
    in our own time,
    where your abiding Spirit
    still lives and breathes anew among us. . .

  7. There is a parallel in 2 Kings 2. Elisha asked Elijah for a double portion of his spirit, Elijah responded he would receive the double portion only if he sees him being lifted up. So the actual witnessing of the Ascension by the disciples would have had its benefits…but for us “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

  8. Some who read this post will have experienced one or more “Timeless Moments” during their lifetime of different intensity, these Timeless Moments vary in context as they pertain to each individual, but their essence is the same for all of us, often commencing with a glimpse of beauty (including insights pertaining to the beauty of Truth) that catch our senses (Consciousness), we lose the perception of our physical self as if instantaneously we are drawn into the harmony (Singularity) of our Fathers creation.

    Our senses are now liberated and appear to no longer be tied to our earthly (bodily) needs, the beauty of our Fathers Creation intensifies as our senses (Consciousness) perceive reality on a different level, (*Note at times it is still possible to physically touch the visually transformed created objects although generally in these moments we remain stationary*) we feel that we are no longer separate but in harmony within our Fathers (Consciousness, Spirit). Please consider following the link before continuing.

    https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2019/10/03/what-were-up-against-confronting-our-gnostic-empire-of-desire-part-2/#comment-155691

    The transfiguration
    “Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up a high mountain to be alone. As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white, far whiter than any earthly bleach could ever make them.

    It could be said that the disciples were led by Jesus up (Symbolized by the mountain) into the hights of the spiritual reality of God.

    At the Resurrection, Jesus said to Mary Magdalene

    “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brothers, and say to them, I ascend to my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

    Or in other words ‘do not impede me for as of yet my earthly body has not gone up and been transformed by my Father: but go and tell my brothers I ascend (go up) to my Father, and your Father and to my God, and your God.
    We are taught that on the last day our earthly bodies will be raised up but sadly not all will enter (Go up into) our Father’s house (God’s Spiritual reality) and be transformed.

    Then after His resurrection before His leaving of us, we have witnesses of the risen/transformed Lord, as in the locked room where He appeared to the disciples also the Road to Emmaus encounter, etc. Before ultimately ‘having to leave,’ in accordance with His teaching, confirmed by given to us the manifestation of His Ascension. Without which His Gift of the transforming Holy Spirit cannot dwell within us.

    Please consider continuing this theme in my post given via the link
    https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2019/08/15/a-novitiate-for-eternity/#comment-148883

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  9. From the mouth of a child: “Well, if Jesus descended, then must ascend!”

    *CS. Lewis and JRR Tolkien smiles while sitting in a heavenly “Eagle and the Child.”

  10. Yes, Jesus was really and truly physically resurrected BUT His resurrected body is different than our physical bodies. For example, Jesus is able to pass through walls and suddenly appear and disappear in the post-Resurrection accounts. So yes, Jesus’ resurrection is totally physical but his glorified body is not bound by the laws of physics etc. Article 11 of the Catechism of the Council of Trent deals with this brilliantly. It would be interesting to reflect on this teaching in relation to the Ascension.

  11. Would it not be Providential that this year , The Feast of Our Lady of Fatima coincided with the Feast of Ascension Day on May 13th !

    The Disciples would have also recalled the dramatic scene of Elijah being taken up in a whirl wind – not in the fiery chariots , as noted in the good commentary –

    https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/2-kings-2/

    The Spirit likely would have also reminded the Disciples how John The Baptist had the oneness in the mission with that of Elijah , was anointed with the Holy Spirit in the womb , on hearing the voice of The Mother .

    Elisha seemed hesitant at first when invited by Elijah and ? the reason for Elijah seeming to be testing his fidelity , in telling him to stay behind 3 times .

    ? Glimpse of the prophetic parallel , when St.Peter was given a merciful occasion by The Lord , before the Ascension , to proclaim his fidelity and to make up for his earlier denial .

    The yearning for sacredness and holiness , to be ‘born again ‘ as if conceived in total holiness – willed , thus loved by The Life Giver – ? the deep longing in all hearts .. as had been intended for Adam and Eve in the Original Plan and fulfilled in The Immaculate Conception . We too given the grace of same through The Spirit who comes in, in the longing and prayers of the Apostles in the company of The Mother at The Pentecost .

    The Holy Father , blessed in reading the needs of our times that are in the midst of the carnal floods , inviting all, to ascend into the Ark of purity through the Rosary devotions , to fill our thirst for the Oneness in The Love , with the help of The Mother to keep us from going astray .

    Blessings !

  12. ‘ Do not hold on , for I have not yet ascended to The Father ‘ –

    https://biblehub.com/john/20-17.htm

    Magdalene , having tasted the pure Love in The Lord , wanting to hold onto same , calling Him as ‘Rabboni ‘ – Teacher ..and our Lord knew her heart’s desire , wanting to be taught as to how to love and thus requite the Love , with a Love that is worthy ..

    There in The Lord promises what it takes for same – the need to ascend to The Father, to send forth The Spirit , to teach all , to enable all , to Love The Triune God ,with The Love with which we are loved ..

    https://luisapiccarreta.co/?p=6428 – St.Magdalene , as an icon of fallen humanity, esp. of our times , that need to be taught as to how love God ..

    Thank God that St.John Paul 11 ( whose birthday is today ) made his own great contributions in same , the truth of love as responsibility for the sacredness and related dignity of one self and the other , to thus be able to love God , with the His own Heart and holiness .. he spent hours in Adoration , in reparation for the hardness of hearts of many ..

    The above mentioned move by Pope Francis , in having a Feast Day in honor of St.Magdalene – likely in oneness with similar intent ..as well as his efforts to ask The Mother as the Voice of The Spirit ..

    Glory be !

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. FRIDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*