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Refocusing on the Ascension of Christ

The Ascension of Jesus into the presence of the Father reveals that while our existence necessarily involves this present world, it most certainly does not end with this present world.

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

Certain mysteries in the life of the Church and certain beliefs and practices can become obscure over time, for a variety of reasons. This is evident, I think, in the commemoration of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. One important factor behind this obscuring of the Ascension is how most dioceses in the United States have transferred this feast day from its traditional position on Thursday—forty days after Easter—to the following. It’s a move that undercuts Scripture and Tradition. Secondly, the feast’s full significance can often be blurred or overlooked because it falls within the end of the Easter season and the upcoming feast of Pentecost.

A third, less obvious but also important, factor that can obscure the Ascension is certain modern biblical scholarship. Scripture scholars such as Robert Bultmann have stated:

What meaning …can we attach to such phrases in the creed as ‘descended into hell’ or ‘ascended into heaven’? We no longer believe in the three storied universe which the creeds take for granted…no one who is old enough to think for himself can really take seriously the fact that there is a God who lives in a local heaven for there is no longer any heaven in the traditional sense of the word. The same applies to hell in the sense of a mythical underworld that exists beneath our feet.i

Such a theological tendency, articulated in Bultmann, can lead in both the academic and popular realms to an undercutting of the full significance of what Jesus does for us in the paschal mystery. Denying the physical and historical nature of the Ascension can feed ideologies that strip Christianity of her divine element. This denial risks dividing the social teaching of the Church from her mission to evangelize and save souls. Such a divide then reduces her mission to secular activism and atheistic humanism, as seen in various neo-Marxist movements and community organizing movements that use groups of people as a political force for change without authentically willing their overall good.

To counter the influence of such a viewpoint, other theologians such as Joseph Ratzinger, encourage us to look at the actions of Jesus in the Scriptures and to more deeply contemplate their meaning in order to better understand the significance of the Ascension.

In the account from the first reading of the Feast of the Ascension, we hear the following:

When they had gathered together, they asked [Jesus], “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” (Acts 1:6-11)

We see that the actions of Jesus at his ascension into heaven culminate 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.”ii Pope Benedict XVI describes how the cloud is an element that presents Jesus’ departure “not as a journey to the stars, but as his entry into the mystery of God. It evokes an entirely different order of magnitude, a different dimension of being.”iii

Saint Thomas Aquinas also notes that although Christ ascends by the power of His own person into Heaven, “he was raised up and taken into heaven by the Father, since the Father’s power is the same as the Son’s.”iv This shows the divine intimacy that Christ as God the Son has with God the Father as well as his obedience to the Father in all things as He already showed in His passion.

The Ascension of Jesus is reveals that while our existence necessarily involves this present world, it most certainly does not end with this present world. The ultimate purpose of each human person is divine union with God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The entirety of the paschal mystery of Jesus culminating with his ascension into heaven makes this possible. This mystery of our salvation and sanctification in Jesus Christ is at the heart of the life, mission, and identity of the Church.

The Catechism reminds us of this truth where it states:

Left to its own natural powers humanity does not have access to the “Father’s house”, to God’s life and happiness. Only Christ can open to man such access that we, his members, might have confidence that we too shall go where he, our Head and our Source, has preceded us.v

In his passion and death on the Cross on Good Friday, Jesus paid the debt that we owed to God the Father for our sins. In his Resurrection from the dead at the tomb on Easter Sunday, Jesus elevated and restored our human nature in body and soul from the effects of sin and death. The Resurrection then brings every aspect of our nature as human persons back into harmony with grace—supernatural life—in this natural life. The Ascension of Jesus brings our existence as human persons into the depths what grace is: intimate divine union with the Holy Trinity in Heaven in the life of the world to come.

The Catechism further explains the significance of Jesus lifting up to heaven for us as connected to the rest of his passion:

The lifting up of Jesus on the cross signifies and announces his lifting up by his Ascension into heaven, and indeed begins it. Jesus Christ, the one priest of the new and eternal Covenant, “entered, not into a sanctuary made by human hands. . . but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” There Christ permanently exercises his priesthood, for he “always lives to make intercession” for “those who draw near to God through him”vi.

Just as seeing the world around us clearly is essential, so is seeing how every aspect of the Paschal Mystery is redemptive for us in unique and complementary ways. This interlinking of the elements of the paschal mystery is essential to maintain, just as is looking at its unique parts. By supporting this unity of faith upon the mysteries of the life of Jesus, particularly in the paschal mystery, we are aided in keeping our eyes on Jesus in the earthly journey of life so that we are not distracted by earthly projects, passing fads, or fleeting temporal gain.

The Ascension of Jesus reveals both the union of heaven and earth in the Incarnate person of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It also helps us develop a proper understanding of our own present moment in history. Too often, skepticism and atheistic trends found in unbridled secularism can tempt us to enter a certain self-referentiality, wherein we view life divorced from the mystery of faith and view our age as superior to that which came before it. This mindset can affect both secular life and the life of the Church to the point where we forget who we are in the eyes of God and our ultimate responsibilities to Him and our fellow man.

This self-referentiality that divorces the city of man from the city of God is at the heart of the cynical skepticism and outright atheism that the Church has struggled against for most of the twentieth century and in our current day in so many forms. How providential that this year, the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus falls on the one hundred and fourth anniversary of the start of the apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima, Portugal as well as the fortieth anniversary of the attempted assassination of Pope Saint John Paul II in Saint Peter’s Square. Both Our Lady of Fatima and Saint John Paul II knew well the damage such a disposition of atheistic communism can do to humanity in both natural destruction and supernatural darkness.

May the glorious ascension of Jesus into heaven as well as Our Lady of Fatima and Saint John Paul II help us to keep our eyes rightly fixed on the mystery of faith in this world so that we may soar to the heights and depths of its mysteries in the life that heaven imparts to us.

Endnotes:

i Rudolph Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. H.W. Bartsch, trans. R Fuller (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1961), 4; Joseph Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Everyday Life (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011), 311; Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1990), 237-239; Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B.Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 18, footnote 15.

ii CCC 659

iii Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem To the Resurrection, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011) 282.

iv Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIIa, q. 57, a 3. Ad I; Cf. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Christ the Savior: A Commentary of the Third Part of Saint Thomas’ Theologica Summa, (Saint Louis: MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1950) 671.

v CCC 661.

viIbid, 662


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About Fr. Matthew MacDonald 9 Articles
Fr. Matthew MacDonald is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Ordained in 2014, he has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, as well as a Bachelors in Sacred Theology, Masters in Divinity, and Masters of Arts in Theology from Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He is currently assigned as parochial vicar at Saint Mary’s Church in Washingtonville, New York.

10 Comments

  1. A truly beautiful reflection on the Feast of the Ascension. I really appreciate all the connections the author made throughout the article. Thank you for making this available.

  2. A cartoon showed two farmers gazing up at spaceships streaking overhead, one blurts, Californians. Not so humorous was a somewhat likened reality. Empyrean Heaven in ancient cosmology was thought situated in the highest heaven imbued with aether. October 1996 a comet with the odd name Hale-Bopp [its discoverers] expected to pass close to Earth. A pseudo religious cult believed trailed by a spaceship commandeered by biblical theosophist Nurse Bonnie Nettles, Marshall Herff Applewhite’s deceased intimate. After Nettles’ death, Applewhite also altered his view of ascension. From ascent and reincarnation, to self inflicted death, ascent to the spaceship then reincarnation with new human bodies. Empyrean was the destination of Applewhite’s and his entourage of religious followers. All wearing black with a patch, Heaven’s Gate Away Team. Needless to say though worthily repeated on Our Lord’s Ascension, “It evokes an entirely different order of magnitude, a different dimension of being” (Benedict XVI Jesus of Nazareth). Fr MacDonald encapsulates the reality, “The Ascension of Jesus reveals that while our existence necessarily involves this present world, it most certainly does not end with this present world. The ultimate purpose of each human person is divine union with God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. Refocus is necessary in a world and increasingly a Church fixated on the ecological here and now rather than our true home.

  3. Whether we believe eye witness accounts or not, it is hard to dismiss the fact that we are told in Acts that Jesus appeared to his 11 for forty days post death. And during that time he taught them many things.
    Does anyone besides me wonder what Jesus taught his men that we don’t know about – that is not in the published record?
    I have always been fascinated by these 40 days when Jesus interacted as fully human – eating and laughing and telling stories – but he had died a gruesome death and they all knew it because they saw it. What did he share that we are not told?
    Did he bodily ascend into heaven in front of them? Why is this so hard to accept? Haven’t we seen strange signs too? The miracle of the sun at Fatima, the dancing sun at Medjugorje? Why disbelieve in the eyewitness account of the ascension now? Will we also throw out the account of the transfiguration?
    Pardon me for being an ignorant lay woman, but sometimes there articles just get my goat.

    • Pamela feed your goat the Apostolic tradition that Christ ascended to a different dimension of existence, as explained by Benedict XVI, that doesn’t at all diminish the relevance of his presence in this world, and most significantly that he is really present to us daily through transubstantiation in the Holy Eucharist. A real presence in a different dimension of existence.

  4. Might it be better to say that Christ “ascended” ?!?! into His eternal SUBsistence, rather than into another “dimension” of EXistence?

    Not only into the sky, but “above” even the heavens. Christ was not another or hybrid existent, but was enveloping Being incarnate in history and in person (“I AM who AM,” Gen 3:14). Jesus Christ, “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). In the Incarnation, eternity enters into time, and in the Ascension, time enters into eternity (von Balthasar).

    “They were able to fix their minds on Christ’s divinity as he sat at the right hand of his Father, since what was presented to their bodily eyes no longer hindered them from turning all their attention to the realization that he had NOT left his Father when he came down to earth, NOR had he abandoned his disciples when he ascended into heaven” (sermon by St. Leo the Great, Liturgy of the Hours, Friday, Sixth Week of Easter).

    “He did NOT leave heaven when he came down to us; NOR did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven” (sermon by St. Augustine, Liturgy of the Hours, Ascension).

    Somewhere St. Augustine and St. John Henry Newman, both, explain that Christ is not part divine and part human, a sort of hybrid or “quaternary.” But, instead, wholly both, such that He even “now” elevates human nature (and us, sacramentally) into the divine life of the eternal and “Triune” Oneness (the Trinity).

    Perplexing? Well, good; it is a Mystery. (Except in Germania and the “synodal path”, where even Eucharistic Coherence is reduced to sexual perversity and political inclusiveness…)

    • If we say Christ Christ reverted [if returning as such to himself] into his eternal subsistence the fact remains he never departed from his eternal subsistence [as you agree]. Furthermore, if the heavenly realm were simply his eternal subsistence or Being, then we cannot give reasonable account that there are other distinct beings in communion with God in that heavenly realm. To withdraw from that premise is to trend toward pantheism, where all is divine all is god. We must concede to the eternal existence of unqualified Being, God, and created being dependent for their existence on God and distinct from Him. Whereas ascent is used for human consumption it nevertheless has an ontological dimension in Christ’s human nature and his real presence in the Eucharist. The mystery that is Christ can’t be resolved into syllogistic logic. He is physically here at consecration in the Eucharist otherwise he is not. Otherwise wherein, if not, another dimension.

      • Shalom. I’m beyond my depth, but my tedious point of agreement was simply that “unqualified Being” by definition is not an existence, but rather the self-sufficient or subsistent act of Being itself (Benedict used the term “being”, not existence).

        Existences (or existents) on the other hand, are (as you say) created and contingent—and are composites of essence (thing-ness) and is-ness (versus not existing). The infinite simplicity of the Triune God—both pervading all things, and yet “above” all things (therefore, not pantheism)—is that He is what He does and does what He is. God is love. Whatever else “exists” (not subsists) is not even a blurred emanation from God, but the distinct consequence of His divine Will and creative action (rather than no action).
        So, yes, another “dimension,” but foundational, so to speak, and totally Other than the commonly understood dimension-ality of space and time.

        • Asante (Swahili for Shalom, you can take the missionary out of E Africa but not E Africa from the missionary]. I understand you better now. You’re not out of your depth by any means simply offering an interesting different perspective.

  5. I remember reading the book,called The Poem of the Man God, five columns. In one of the columns as written by Maria Valtorta, (spelling l’m not sure of. Whatever she was shown in the vision, she mentioned about Ascention Thursday where
    Jesus said His goodbyes,to the crowd and started climbing up the mountain, his mother Mary started following Him as she didn’t,want him to go, she was very upset. I think it was,Mt. Tabor. Sorry, l don’t have the book to explain further.

  6. Thanks for this great article which has stimulated the beginnings of a searching discussion that we Catholics so often shy away from. Why? Because we are so often far more children who are focused on this spiritually-corrupt world than Holy Spirit anointed children, focused on God’s Realm of spiritual perfection.

    God’s eternal realm is the matrix in which our space-time/energy-matter universe came into existence. Everything reported in the New Testament of Jesus’ ascension is made intelligible when we realize a ‘portal’ opened to receive Him home after His mission was accomplished. Not surprisingly, an occasion for some of the glory of God’s eternal realm’s spiritual perfection to spill out into our ephemeral world. How wonderful it must have been to be there and to see our future home revealed, even for a moment.

    Ascension means being received back into the eternal, matricial realm of perfectly good ethics, out of this temporary realm where, until Judgement Day, evil ethics continually assaults the good. Let’s all long for that Day and by our loving unity in obedience to Christ, speed it. Come soon, LORD JESUS!

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