Today’s solemn feast of the Ascension of Jesus brings to its climax the season of Easter, for with Jesus’ ascension, the Easter event takes on a dramatic new meaning and provides a new source of joy for the Christian community in particular, and objectively for the whole human race.
Jesus is not only the first fruits of the new order established by the paschal mystery, the first “new” man risen from the dead to die no more, and thus a sign of hope for all mankind, that death really is not the final word, the final destiny of man. All of this is true, of course, and we as men and women of faith rejoice in our belief that what has happened to Jesus, his victory over death, was accomplished for our sake, to make possible for each and every one of us to share in that same victory one day by rising triumphantly from the dead and living with Jesus forever. If we are Christians in fact and not just in name then we believe all this and stake our lives on this faith, and if we do not do that, then as Paul says we are indeed the most pitiable of persons.
But Christian faith does not stop, cannot stop at this level, at the level of belief that man has conquered death in and through Jesus risen from the dead. Today’s feast of the ascension lifts our minds and hearts far above this beautiful truth of our faith. Indeed it elevates our faith to the very heights of God where the resurrection of Jesus terminates, where he rises or ascends as man into the very heart of the Triune God, to God’s “right hand” which means that Jesus, as man, is now sharing in the fullness of divine life and power as both Son of God and Son of Man. The Feast of the Ascension prevents us from simply focusing on the horizontal dimension of the mystery of the resurrection – what it means for us, for our final destiny. The ascension raises our minds to heaven where we glimpse what God has really accomplished in Jesus, and through Him, for us.
The Ascension confirms for us that our humanity has a destiny in God, that where Jesus has ascended we are to follow, though we share this destiny only in Him and through Him. The humanity of Jesus, which we share as members of the new humanity raised up in baptism, is now seated in full power in God. Jesus, in his humanity, in our humanity since we are all one race in Christ, now enjoys the full glory of His divine person. Before his resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ body was not fully sharing in his divine glory. Otherwise he could not have suffered and died, for us. Now he cannot suffer or die anymore, for his body now shares the full glory of his divine person. That is why we adore him, now in body and soul as the Eternal Son of God.
The angels themselves are forever astounded as they witness this ascension of his humanity far above any angelic creature to the very throne of God. The angels wonder at this and give glory to God. How then can it be that we mortal men are not equally astounded and filled with an everlasting joy to see our humanity raised so high that that we cannot fully comprehend just exactly what has happened here to the Lord.
Oh how man wants to avoid this astounding truth. How can it be that God and man are so united in one person, Jesus the Lord, that God can truly be said to have walked this earth, suffered and died and rose again, and that in this same one person humanity has now ascended to the very throne of God! But that is our faith, and we dare not stop short because we are unable to comprehend its full truth. Nor can we cease to ponder this mystery as we walk this earth and proclaim its good news for man. Nor must we ever deny its significance indirectly by focusing only on what it means to us, for us, that we too will be raised from the dead, that we too will have a share in his Glory and rule with him who alone sits at the Father’s right hand. No, we must focus primarily on what it means for Him, for our brother and our Lord and God to have risen to these heights, and only secondarily on the further truth that he now draws a whole train of faithful men and women behind him into the glory of this mystery.
The first apostles were tempted to stop short and focus only on the earthly implications of his rising in glory: ““Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Oh how little they understood even after 40 days with the Risen Lord. They were still looking for an earthly Kingdom to come out of this glorious event of the resurrection of the Lord. But soon he would send the Spirit as he promised and they would begin to understand that His kingdom was not of this world, only because it was so much greater than any earthly power; he was going to sit at the very right hand of God, which means the universe was under his dominion and all creation, including the highest angels. When would they understand – when will we?
Jesus simply replies that their concern should be to spread this good news to the ends of the earth till the end of time. And how our hearts should rejoice if only we ourselves realize what this good news really is. Paul prays that Christians may come to understand the true heights Jesus has ascended to, and the heights of the Christian destiny: Speaking of Jesus, Paul says He is “Seated … at His right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named.”
And as for us, Paul simply prays that we “… may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.”
The riches of his glory, which is our inheritance, is beyond our ability to imagine let alone understand – Jesus is drawing us up to heights we cannot even begin to appreciate without faith, and would we choose to limit this hope Paul speaks of to something purely temporal, earthly, human, no matter how elevated on this earth?
When we do begin to realize what this Ascension means for Jesus, and for us, how it changes our whole perspective on the meaning of our life in this
world. When we really believe that Jesus, our brother and our God has truly ascended to the heights beyond which there is nothing higher – the throne of God – then it will astound us that this same Jesus has loved us so much, that he has destined us to ascend with him to heights above the angelic world!
This is indeed the stuff of which the world thinks fairy tales are made. But this is truth and not fairy tale, and you and I really are the lowly who have been loved, are loved, so greatly loved by the very Prince of Light and beauty and Truth, that first he set aside all of His glory for a while and came into our world to die for us, and loved us so much that he has ascended to the Father and draws behind him a whole train of believers who love him in return and want only to be with Him who has loved them unto death. In this sense, belief in the true meaning of the Ascension not only raises our hearts and minds to Heaven where Jesus awaits us, but transforms our existence on earth because we now know how much we are loved by the Son of God.
It is this knowledge of faith that ultimately drives the evangelization mission of the Church in this world – that others may come to know the majestic truth of Christ and his love for them. This is our proclamation to the world today: Jesus Christ is risen and has now ascended to the very throne of God as the God-man; he has gone before us, for us, and he has done so because God so loves us that he wants us to be where He is. That is the ultimate truth about man and his true worth, and this truth comes not from us but from the One who made us so that we might enjoy eternal life in Him. The Church’s mission today and every day is grounded in this truth, to proclaim this truth and to live by it until He returns in glory to take us to Himself, forever.