The Ascension of the Lord

The Ascension of the Lord – Supreme Glorification of Christ

A needle wound can be more harmful than a hammer blow, especially if it affects vital points. This comparison takes on perhaps more substance and expressiveness transposed to the field of doctrinal polemics. An example of this is St. Bernard’s refutation to the Jews who, on the height of Calvary, challenged Christ in His agony: “If you are the king of Israel; come down from the cross” (cf. Mt 27: 42; Mk 15: 32). The Founder of Clairvaux points out that this is a poorly conceived proposition for establishing Jesus’ divine origin, since the royalty—and even more, the divinity—of a being is proven, not by the act of descending, but rather by that of ascending. This was precisely what occurred with Jesus, forty days after His triumphant Resurrection. In this way, the Ascension of the Lord into Heaven is a feast of the greatest importance in representing the supreme glorification of Christ Jesus. He had asked the Father: “Glorify Thou me in Thy own presence with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was made” (Jn 17: 5); “Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son that the Son may glorify Thee” (Jn 17: 1). From this we understand the joy that the Church Fathers manifest when commenting on this glorification of the Lamb of God. “The glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ is completed with His Resurrection and Ascension. […] We have then, the Lord, our Saviour, Jesus Christ, first hanging upon a tree and now seated in Heaven. Hanging upon the tree, He paid the price of our ransom; seated in Heaven, He reaps what He purchased.”

“Ascension of Jesus” – Detail of the triptych of Blessed Angelico, National Gallery of Ancient Art, Rome

Death did not consign Jesus to obscurity

Indeed, this joy with the Ascension, which pervades the souls of the saints and is so clearly manifest in the text of the Divine Office and in today’s Liturgy, has a solid foundation, for in no other instance has someone, upon leaving this world, risen before the eyes of hundreds of witnesses and entered into Heaven by his own power.

Much to the contrary, after death, our cold and inert bodies descend into the bosom of the earth, and normally even our remembrance fades from the minds of those who remain. With Christ, precisely the opposite ensued, for not only the remembrance of His teachings, His actions and even His story were preserved throughout the centuries, but also the narrations of His witnesses were endowed with a super-human power to echo throughout peoples and across generations. The forty days that the resurrected Jesus remained among the disciples contributed to this. The disciples’ weakness certainly needed this powerful remedy, for the episodes surrounding the Lord’s Passion shook the psychological sensibility and even the very virtue of faith in all of them.

The human perspectives of the Apostles hindered their supernatural vision of the Messiah

The initial news of the Resurrection met with such a vacuum of incredulity in each of them that Thomas was only convinced when he touched the wounds. The logic of these reactions is comprehensible, since, human beings that they were, and formed in the perspective of a Messiah with strong political traits, they had become accustomed, over three long years, to a relationship made up of fatherliness and penetrating affection, and only in this manner could they feel protected, assimilated and transformed. This is why they desired to continue that relationship from the point where it had been interrupted by so ignominious a death.

However, the veils of mortal flesh hid from them the real vision of the divinity of the Saviour. It was indispensable to substitute this somewhat human experience for a superior one, in which they could grasp, so to speak, the reflections of Jesus’ glorious Soul in His sacred Body. In order to fulfil His redemptive mission, He had performed a miracle in detriment to His own qualities, breaking the laws that He had created. From the first instant of His conception, in the womb of the Virgin Mother, His most holy Soul enjoyed the beatific vision and, in consequence, His adorable Body should have been glorious. Yet if it had been so, He could not have suffered. For this reason, the disciples had become accustomed to an interpretation of the Son of God that was far from the one they would have in Heaven. The Apostles’ situation reached the apex of their being the only ones to receive the mortal Body of Jesus in the Eucharist, distributed at the Last Supper.

Why Jesus remained forty days with the Apostles, in His glorious Body

In this way, it can be seen to what point the longings of the Apostles and disciples after Jesus’ Passion were centred on a relationship that was, in a way, erroneous. The need for the Redeemer to remain with them for forty days in His glorious Body also becomes clear, for Jesus “did not want them to remain always carnal or loving Him with an earthly love. They wanted Him to be with them always, bodily, motivated by the same affection by which Peter feared seeing Him suffer. They considered Him their master, consoler and protector; a man, ultimately, like they themselves; and if they did not see anything else they would judge that He was missing, although He was present in all places with His majesty.”

On the other hand, confronted with the traumatizing remembrance of the days of the Passion, “it was now fitting to raise their minds so that they would begin to think of Him spiritually, as the Word of the Father, God from God, by Whom all things were made; this thought was hidden from them by the flesh which they saw. Yes it was fitting to confirm them in the Faith, remaining with them for forty days, but it was even more fitting to separate Himself from their sight so that He Who on earth was accompanying them as brother, would aid them from Heaven as Lord, and they would learn to think of Him as they did of God.”

“I will not leave you orphans”

Jesus Himself had affirmed: It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. […] I go to the Father, and you will see Me no more” (Jn 16: 7,10). And, in fact, the Apostles never again saw Him, for when He entered Heaven, He ceased being present on earth in a natural way.

However, He had promised: “And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28: 20). And truly He is in our midst, in the Eucharist, behind the veils of the Sacred Species. Moreover, He never ceases to accompany us: “Rising up to Heaven, in no way does he abandon those whom He adopted.” These beautiful words of St. Leo the Great echo those of Our Lord: “I will not leave you orphans” (Jn 14: 18).

It consoles us to acknowledge how much this promise has been fulfilled throughout these twenty-one centuries, day after day, in the most varied ways. His Ascension could not have indicated that He was abandoning those for whom He had become Incarnate and died on Calvary. His return to the Father can only have resulted from His immeasurable love for each one of us. The Ascension transpired by reason of its expediency for Him, but also for our benefit. St. Thomas teaches us: “The place ought to be in keeping with what is contained therein. Now by His Resurrection Christ entered upon an immortal and incorruptible life. But whereas our dwelling-place is one of generation and corruption, the heavenly place is one of incorruption. And consequently it was not fitting that Christ should remain upon earth after the Resurrection; but it was fitting that He should ascend to Heaven.” And upon occupying a place in Heaven, in proportion to the Resurrection, “He did acquire something as to the fittingness of place, which pertains to the well-being of glory.” And citing Psalm 16: 11: “At Thy right hand are delights even unto the end,” St. Thomas applies the Gloss’ commentary to this verse: “I shall delight in sitting nigh to Thee, when I shall be taken away from the sight of men.”

Benefits of the Ascension

We also have benefitted from countless gifts through the Ascension. According to St. Leo the Great, we began to know Jesus better from the moment in which He returned to the glories of the Father. A better instructed faith then began to draw closer to a conception of the Son’s equality with the Father without the necessity of contact with the corporeal substance in Christ, whereby He is less than the Father (cf. Jn 14: 18), since, while the nature of the glorified Body still remained, the faith of believers was called upon to touch not with the hand of flesh, but with the spiritual understanding the Only-Begotten, Who is equal with the Father. Hence comes that which the Lord said after His Resurrection, when Mary Magdalene, representing the Church, hastened to approach and touch Him: ‘Touch Me not, for I have not yet ascended to My Father’ (Jn 20: 17). That is, I would not have you come to Me as to a human body, nor yet to recognize Me by carnal perceptions: I set for you higher things, I prepare greater things for you: when I have ascended to My Father, then you shall handle Me more perfectly and truly, for you shall grasp what you cannot touch and believe what you cannot see.”

In the Eucharist, Jesus is truly in our midst, behind the veils of the Sacred Species

Strengthening of faith

St. Thomas Aquinas shows that, depriving us of His corporal presence, upon penetrating into eternal glory, Jesus Christ became even more amenable to our spiritual life.

First, “in order to increase our faith, which is of things unseen. Hence Our Lord said in the Gospel of John that the Holy Spirit shall come and ‘convince the world…of justice’, that is, of the justice ‘of those that believe,’ as St. Augustine says: ‘For even to put the faithful beside the unbeliever is to put the unbeliever to shame.’ Wherefore He goes on to say: ‘Because I go to the Father; and you shall see Me no longer, for blessed are they that see not, yet believe. Hence it is of our justice that the world is reproved, because you will believe in Me Whom you shall not see.’”

In this regard, St. Gregory expresses his conviction: “With her readiness in believing, Mary Magdalene profits us less than Thomas in doubting for a long time, because the latter, in his doubting, demanded to touch the scars of those wounds, and with this removed any pretext in us for wavering.”

Growth in hope

Secondly, “to uplift our hope,” since, “for by placing in Heaven the human nature which He assumed, Christ gave us the hope of going thither; since ‘wheresoever the body shall be, there shall the eagles also be gathered together,’ as is written in Matthew. Hence it is written likewise in Micah, ‘He shall go up that shall open the way before them.’”

Enkindling of charity

Yet a third reason, according to St. Thomas, makes the Ascension more beneficial to us than the physical presence of Our Lord, and this refers to charity. In the sequence of this same question of the Summa, the Angelic Doctor, in demonstrating the advantages for this virtue, quotes St. Paul: “Hence the Apostle says: ‘Seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God; mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth,’ for as is said, ‘Where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.’” After discoursing on love as a property of the Holy Spirit and regarding the great necessity that the Apostles had of it, he concludes with this citation of St. Augustine: “You cannot receive the Spirit while you persist in knowing Christ according to the flesh. For when Christ distanced Himself corporeally, not only the Holy Spirit, but also the Father and the Son were spiritually present in them.”