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.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on May 12, 2021.)
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Very helpful, Sean. Thanks bThis particular manifestation of the Incarnation is, if not a stumbling block, at least a head turner!
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.
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!
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?
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!
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. . .
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.”
There is also Enoch (Genesis 5:24) as well.
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.
“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
kevin your brother
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.”
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.
I look up this fine Article 11. The concluding paragraph Advantages of Deep Meditation on this Article are most helpful. Gratitude to you, Andrew.
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 –
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 .
I am confused:Our LADY of Fatima-May 13;Ascension of Our Lord-May 26;How are these dates coinciding????
‘ Do not hold on , for I have not yet ascended to The Father ‘ –
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 !
I would highly recommend the novel by Delia Maguire, The Rural Gentleman, which contains a wonderful conversation in which the main character (a priest) posits the idea that the feast of the Ascension, should be celebrated the way Christmas is, since it fulfills the deepest desire and hope of all mankind
Christ appeared out of nowhere [it seems] and disappeared to somewhere [so it seems] after the Resurrection. Now there’s an ancient [short lived] tradition that heaven is up there in the sky. Empyrean. It was held by Aristotle, and Dante who had God visiting this heavenly realm.
I’ll end speculation about that possibility stating agreement with Sean Fitzpatrick, that we’ll never get to it in a spaceship. Not because of distance. Rather, it’s not up there. The only means of safe arrival is by living the moral life, obeying Christ’s commandments.
So, the Ascension completes eschatology. As Fitzpatrick alludes, since we humans live in a physical world our thought processes are trained to use symbols, as well in communication. We require the physical appearance of Christ travelling somewhere other than this world. That other world is a distinct dimension of existence entry determined by Christ at Judgment. Why then is the Ascension story necessary? First because it happened, leading us to believe if we follow all that he taught us we will follow him at our resurrection from the dead. And it keeps us from speculation that at times led others to bizarre ideas like Marshall Applewhite and the Heavens Gate cult who believed heaven, the Empyrean, that ancient belief that heaven was up there in the sky. Nonetheless, the endless sky beautifully blue or dark at night arrayed with gleaming stars stirs a kind of poetic desire for heaven. The real one.
In Genesis God creates the entire universe. Miracles are the proof of His continuing dominion over His creation. This was what God was proving in the plagues in Exodus. That He, and not the pagan gods of Egypt, was/is the one and only true God. If God can create a universe then miracles should not be beyond His powers. Talk about straining at the gnat and swallowing the camel.
GregB – My sentiments exactly. I am 59 years old. I have never once questioned that Christ ascended into heaven. The Bible said it happened. As, like you said, with Genesis. To try and explain it feels unfaithful. [It amazes me how people study and read and research and think and talk about why and how an under what scientfic law God’s miracles happen; especially after He told us not to even try]
Look at it this way [my kernel of wisdom free of charge]. Say you were there on the mount at Christ’s Ascension. You as the others look up at the sky as Christ rises until no longer seen. It’s 8 am. At 8 pm you and an Apostle friend return to the mount. It’s night and stars are gleaming. You both look upward and attempt to determine which constellation and which was the proximate direction of ascent. Although you haven’t knowledge of Copernicus or Galileo and don’t realize you’re looking up in the opposite direction which you looked up at in the morning. My advice is, forget about spaceships or somewhere out there. Stay with Christ and the Gospels because he alone is the Way.
I’m not one to doubt given that we, humans, rely on our perceptions of what is real & what isn’t. If one thinks about the real existence of matter, which is tickled by quantum science’s theories, things begin to make sense. We can apply our knowledge of science & logic after all they are both from our beloved, eternal Father, God.
It’s a lot to think about but worth it in my opinion.
“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:”
Fatima seer 9 year old Lucia saw the Blessed Mother ascend into heaven.
The Dance of the Sun
Then, opening Her hands (Lucy relates), Our Lady made them reflect on the sun, and as She ascended, the reflection of Her own light continued to be projected on the sun itself. That is the reason why I cried out to the people to look at the sun. My aim was not to call their attention to the sun, because I was not even aware of their presence. I was moved to do so under the guidance of an inner impulse. It was at this precise moment that the crowd could contemplate the extraordinary spectacle of the “dance of the sun”.
Quoted from The Whole Truth About Fatima, Science and the Facts. By Frere Michel de la Sainte Trinite, of the little Brothers of the Sacred Heart
As of 2019, In the lab, science has mimicked dual Realities, like the miracle “The Dance of the Sun’. While God chose the Reality of the sun dancing in the sky for 60,000 people in Fatima, God, at the same time, chose the Reality of the sun in its usual place for the rest of the world. God chose some of the 60,000 people at Fatima, to see the sun in its usual place as well. God chooses what each individual on earth will see and experience as Reality.
Physicists have long suspected that quantum mechanics allows two observers to experience different, conflicting realities. Now they’ve performed the first experiment that proves it.
The Miracle of the Sun.
The multiple Realities experienced in the miracle of “The Dance of the Sun”, is what science is referring to when they talk about the ‘Multiverse’. Two different groups of observers, experiencing two different universes.
Where Albert Einstein failed in his EPR experiment, is that he failed to understand that even the ‘laws of nature’ out of, All Possible Laws of Nature, only come into existence when conscious observers, mankind, look at and experience them. When a conscious observer is no longer looking at a star, such as when a conscious observer blinks, the star no longer exists. When the conscious observer opens their eyes again, after the blink, then the star comes back into existence, for the conscious observer to see. Or, after the blink of a conscious observer’s eye, whatever God chooses to now be the conscious observer’s different Reality, out of All Possible Realities, comes into existence after the blink of a conscious observer’s eye.
Some of the 60,000 people present at ‘The Dance of the Sun’ miracle in Fatima, only saw the sun in its usual position and intensity. While most of the 60,000 others present at the Fatima miracle saw the sun dancing in the sky at a lower intensity that they could look at. Our sun dancing in the sky, at a lower intensity, is from an alternate universe with very different ‘laws of nature’, out of our All Powerful God’s ‘Multiverse’, of All Possible Universes. It is God Who chooses what Reality every individual conscious observer ever born will receive, at any moment in physical time.
Neils Bohr’s ‘ ‘Peek A Boo’ universe, a universe which does not exist when man is not looking at it.
In the Bible, elevation is regularly used to describe closeness or distance, from God. Closeness to God is described as rising into the sky. Distance from God is described as ‘cast down to earth’ or cast down into the earth or below the earth.
When Israel was ‘cast down from heaven to earth’, Israel was never in heaven. It was God who removed His Presence from Israel, which distanced Israel from God.
How the Lord in his wrath has detested daughter Zion! He has cast down from heaven to earth the glory of Israel, Unmindful of his footstool on the day of his wrath. The Lord has consumed without pity all the dwellings of Jacob; He has torn down in his anger the fortresses of daughter Judah; He has brought to the ground in dishonor her king and her princes.
Revelation 21 ‘New Jerusalem’ is the ‘Bride of the Lamb’, post Apocalyptic Catholic Church, with Jesus’ Second Coming Presence, now residing in the Body of His Catholic Church on earth. The Catholic Church is on earth and will still be on earth after Jesus’ Second Coming. It is Jesus’ Second Coming Presence entering into Christ’s Bride the Catholic Church on earth, which makes the Catholic Church, ‘come down from heaven’.
Revelation 21: The New Jerusalem.
One of the seven angels who held the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come here. I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” He took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
When Adam and Eve are Ezekiel 28:17 “I cast you to the earth, so great was your guilt”, from the Garden of Eden, well the Garden of Eden was on earth. It is Adam and Eve being cast out of God’s presence, in the Garden of Eden which is on earth, which distances Adam and Eve from God, upon the Fall of Man, where man is cast out of the Garden of Eden. Other times it is man’s evil human pride, in which man thinks he is raised up like a god, that falls from heaven to earth.
Genesis 3:4 Expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods
Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be humble with the meek than to share plunder with the proud.
Ezekiel 28:1 The Prince of Tyre.
Thus the word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, say to the prince of Tyre: Thus says the Lord GOD:
Because you are haughty of heart, you say, ‘A god am I! I occupy a godly throne in the heart of the sea!’ And yet you are a man, and not a god, however you may think yourself like a god. Oh yes, you are wiser than Daniel, there is no secret that is beyond you. By your wisdom and your intelligence you have made riches for yourself; You have put gold and silver into your treasuries. By your great wisdom applied to your trading you have heaped up your riches; your heart has grown haughty from your riches therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you have thought yourself to have the mind of a god, Therefore I will bring against you foreigners, the most barbarous of nations. They shall draw their swords against your beauteous wisdom, they shall run them through your splendid apparel. They shall thrust you down to the pit, there to die a bloodied corpse, in the heart of the sea. Will you then say, ‘I am a god!’ when you face your murderers? No, you are a man, not a god, handed over to those who will slay you. You shall die the death of the uncircumcised at the hands of foreigners, for I have spoken, says the Lord GOD.
Thus the word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, utter a lament over the king of Tyre, saying to him: Thus says the Lord GOD:
You were stamped with the seal of perfection, of complete wisdom and perfect beauty. In Eden, the garden of God, you were, and every precious stone was your covering (carnelian, topaz, and beryl, chrysolite, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, garnet, and emerald); Of gold your pendants and jewels were made, on the day you were created. With the Cherub I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God, walking among the fiery stones. Blameless you were in your conduct from the day you were created, Until evil was found in you, the result of your far-flung trade; violence was your business, and you sinned. Then I banned you from the mountain of God; the Cherub drove you from among the fiery stones. You became haughty of heart because of your beauty; for the sake of splendor you debased your wisdom. I cast you to the earth, so great was your guilt; I made you a spectacle in the sight of kings. Because of your guilt, your sinful trade, I have profaned your sanctuaries, And I have brought out fire from your midst which will devour you. I have reduced you to dust on the earth in the sight of all who should see you. Among the peoples, all who knew you stand aghast at you; You have become a horror, you shall be no more.
Also read Ezekiel 31:1 Allegory of the Cedar.
Hell is total abandonment from God. Heaven is total unification with God. Thus hell is down and heaven is up.