Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Ascension of the Lord

Here is a piece that I wrote as a guest contributor for the blog Runs With Angels . . . Lives With Saints --

Today, Ascension Thursday*, the Church celebrates the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ to heaven, proclaiming, "Sing to the Lord, sing psalms to His name. Make a path for Him who rides on the clouds. Alleluia."

What can we learn from the Ascension? Is there anything important to take away from this other than the historical fact of the event?

Let's start with a prayerful, thoughtful reading of scripture. The Acts of the Apostles (1:1-11), gives this account:
In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day He was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom He had chosen. He presented Himself alive to them by many proofs after He had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While meeting with them, He enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for "the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."

When they had gathered together they asked Him, "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."
In the Gospel, Luke then reports,
As Jesus blessed them, He parted from them and was taken up to heaven. They did Him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy. (Lk 24:51-52)
From these passages, the question arises, what does it mean to say that Jesus was "taken up" to heaven, that "He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him from their sight" or, as it says elsewhere in scripture, that the ascended Jesus is "seated at the right hand of the Father"?

The presence of the cloud is telling here. It is not meant to be understood as a physical place. Rather, it is used in the same sense as are the cloud that signified the Lord's presence on Sinai and over the holy tent in the Old Covenant, and the cloud that came upon Jesus at the Transfiguration. That is, the presence of the cloud means the presence of God. Jesus being lifted up on a cloud does not mean that heaven is in some physical location up in the sky, but that heaven is "where" God is. And God, the "I am," is not bounded by space and time, but instead transcends space and time.
"[This] does not refer to some distant cosmic space, where God has, as it were, set up his throne and given Jesus a place beside the throne. God is not in one space alongside other spaces. God is God -- he is the premise and the ground of all the space there is, but he himself is not part of it. God stands in relation to all spaces as Lord and Creator. His presence is not spatial, but divine." (Pope Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth, Book Two, pp. 282-83)
Understanding now that, when we say that Jesus "ascended to heaven," that He was lifted up on a cloud to heaven, we mean that Jesus did not go to a "place," but that He went to God, what can we learn from the Ascension?

One thing we learn from the Ascension is that, in being lifted up to heaven, Jesus raised up the human body to heaven and, thus, raised up mankind to heaven. Jesus is not merely transcendent Spirit, He is both God and Man. His Resurrection was not merely a spiritual one, rather, His Body rose from the dead. And, in the Ascension, that glorified physical body entered into heaven to be eternally present "at the right hand" of God the Father. Jesus, in His ascended Body, enters that other plane of existence, that other level of reality which lies beyond the physical universe, such that not merely does the Spirit of God transcend space and time, but His Body does as well.

Likewise, human beings are not pure spirit, as are the angels, rather, we are both spirit and body. This bodily aspect is essential to the fullness of our being.

And in Jesus, God literally merged with mankind. God became man so that men and women might become like Him. Thus, in His Ascension, as we learn in the Assumption of Mary, we can glimpse the eschatological destiny of the faithful. If we remain in a state of grace when we end our earthly journey, our bodies too will be resurrected and raised up to new life in the presence of God. In the resurrection of the body, Jesus making "all things new," we too will have glorified bodies, not the weak, sickly, and fallible bodies we have now. Bodies that are capable of "ascending" with Jesus to be in the presence of God, bodies capable of entering into another dimension of being, that other realm of reality that transcends space and time.
"In Christ ascended into heaven, man has entered in a new and unheard of way into the intimacy of God; man now finds space in God forever. 'Heaven' does not indicate a place beyond the stars, but something more bold and sublime: it indicates Christ Himself, the divine Person that completely and forever takes on humanity, He in whom God and man are united forever." (Pope Benedict, Homily, May 24, 2009)
"He who took flesh and now retains his humanity forever . . . has eternally opened up within God a space for humanity." (Jesus of Nazareth, Book Two, p. 287) In the Ascension, a space being opened up within God, it is now possible for man to be with God and to enter into communion with God, not merely partially, not merely spiritually, with the physical part of us being separate and apart from Him, but to be with Him in the entirety of our being, both spirit and body. Thus, we see that the Ascension is not merely a farewell by Jesus, but is a culmination of the work of redemption and salvation that occurred at the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It is part of that redemption of man so that, in the resurrection of the body, we are not merely raised to live another life in this world as if a form of reincarnation, but are instead "lifted up" to live with God Himself in that other world that is the New Jerusalem.

But we can enter into that life with God in heaven, achieve that fullness of communion with God, only by ascending with Jesus. However, we do not have to wait until "the end" to begin that journey.

Another thing that we can learn from the Ascension is that, in "ascending" to heaven, Jesus did not abandon us. Indeed, He did not even leave the Apostles or us.
"The departing Jesus does not make his way to some distant star. He enters into communion of power and life with the living God, into God's dominion over space. Hence he has not 'gone away,' but now and forever by God's own power he is present with us and for us." (Jesus of Nazareth, Book Two, p. 283)
As Jesus had assured them, "behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." (Mt. 28:20) That is why, instead of feeling sadness and grief, the Apostles were joyous after the Ascension.

But if Jesus is still with us, where is He, where can we find Him?

The most obvious answer is, of course, in the Eucharist, which is His Real Presence, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. That is where He may be found. In the Eucharist, we have not only spiritual communion with Jesus, as we might praying at home, we are capable of ascending to have full communion with Him in the totality of our being, body and soul, hence the name "Holy Communion." In the profoundly intimate encounter with Jesus that is receiving His Body into our body in the Eucharist, in the fullness of Love which is both unitive and fruitful, we are joined in a mystical fashion so as to become one in a communion of persons and to receive life.

Returning to a few points made above, our "ascending" does not mean simply rising up to some new physical location, but to entering into a different plane of existence that lies beyond and transcends physicality, a different dimension of being.
"[It] is not a matter of space travel of a cosmic-geographic nature: it is the "space travel" of the heart, from the dimension of self-enclosed isolation to the new dimension of world-embracing love." (Jesus of Nazareth, Book Two, p. 286)
Just as, in the Ascension, Jesus entered into the heart of the Father, so too do we ascend by entering into His heart. And we "ascend" to Him by allowing Him to enter into our hearts and finding Him there, by conforming our hearts to Him who is Love.

As St. Augustine writes in his Confessions, Book IV, ch. 12, we need only look for Him in our hearts,
Our Life Himself came down into this world and took away our death. He slew it with His own abounding life, and with thunder in His voice He called us from this world to return to Him in heaven. From heaven He came down to us, entering first the Virgin’s womb, where humanity, our mortal flesh, was wedded to Him, so that it might not be forever mortal.

He came “as a bridegroom coming out his chamber, rejoicing as a strong man to run a race." He did not linger on His way but ran, calling us to return to Him, calling us by His words and deeds, by His life and death, by His descent into hell and His ascension into heaven.

He departed from our sight so that we should turn to our hearts and find Him there. He departed, but He is here with us. He would not stay long with us, but He did not leave us. He went back to the place which He had never left, because He, through whom the world was made, was in the world, and He came into the world to save sinners.

To Him my soul confesses, and He heals it, because it had sinned against Him. O sons of men, how long will you be so slow of heart? Even now after Life itself has come down to you, will you not ascend and live?
In a sermon, Augustine further teaches,
While in heaven, He is also with us; and we while on earth are with Him. He is here with us by His divinity, His power and His love. We cannot be in heaven, as He is on earth, by divinity, but in Him, we can be there by love.

He did not leave heaven when He came down to us; nor did He withdraw from us when He went up again into heaven. The fact that He was in heaven even while He was on earth is borne out by His own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.

These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for He is our head and we are His body. No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: He is the Son of Man by His union with us, and we by our union with Him are the sons of God. . . .

Out of compassion for us He descended from heaven, and although He ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in Him by grace.
In conforming our hearts to His, in allowing Jesus into our hearts so that we might find Him there and thereby ascend with Him, making His Love our love as well, we join with Him in the work of salvation. Another point to learn in the Ascension is that, in loving Him so that we might ascend with Him, we must love others as He has loved us. We must be concerned not only with our own salvation, but must work toward reconciling others to God.

Before being lifted up, Jesus said to us, "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." We are called to be His witnesses, to spread the Good News and be a light to others in a dark world.
He who took flesh and now retains his humanity forever, he who has eternally opened up within God a space for humanity, now calls the whole world into this open space in God, so that in the end God may be all in all and the Son may hand over to the Father the whole world that is gathered together in him. (cf. 1 Cor 15:20-28). Herein is contained the certainty of hope that God will wipe away every tear, that nothing meaningless will remain, that every injustice will be remedied and justice restored. The triumph of love will be the last word of world history. (Jesus of Nazareth, Book Two, p. 287)


* The Solemnity of the Ascension is a Holy Day of Obligation. However, in most dioceses in the United States, the observance of the Solemnity is moved to next Sunday.

See also, Mass at Monte Cassino, Homily of Pope Benedict, May 24, 2009
Mass in Kraków, Poland, Homily of Pope Benedict, May 28, 2006
Installation in the Chair of the Bishop of Rome, Homily of Pope Benedict, May 7, 2005
The Ascension: A Mystery Announced Beforehand, General Audience of Pope John Paul II, April 5, 1989
The Ascension is the Fulfillment of the Mystery of the Incarnation, General Audience of Pope John Paul II, April 12, 1989
Jesus is Lord, General Audience of Pope John Paul II, April 19, 1989

cross-posted at Runs With Angels, Lives With Saints

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