Ascension of the Lord: Where did he go, and why?

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Ascension of the Lord, Year A: June 5, 2011
Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47; Eph 1:17-23; Matt 28:16-20

We heard St. Paul write: May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened. And that is a good prayer on this day when we celebrate our Lord’s ascension. For it is sometimes said that we Western Christians—in comparison to our brethren who are Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholics—have a very impoverished understanding of what Christ’s Ascension means. In a sense, we react almost like a small child, who pouts and says, “Why did Jesus have to leave!”—without seeking to understand where he has gone and why. Or, it has been said, that we, in effect, banish him to the past, almost as if we are sealing him back in the tomb; as if he has no effect upon our lives but is simply someone locked in the past, no longer alive in the present.

But let us take our eyes off ourselves, and look after the ascending Christ, and ask: Where did he go? And why did he go?

On a very literal level, where did he go? For the disciples saw him lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. Where then would we expect him to be? Some of you may remember, back in 1961, the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev said—and instructed his government ministers to pass this around—that that first Soviet cosmonaut to go up into space had been up there in space and he hadn’t seen heaven or God anywhere. And this was supposed to prove atheism true. But of course we never expected to see heaven among the stars—but beyond them.

And, if we want to go into a little bit of headspinning sort of supernatural physics for a moment, we might listen to St. Thomas Aquinas [ST III, q.57, a.4, ad 2, as expounded here]—who observed that our bodies take up space, and that we need to be within a “containing space.” We are within the space of the universe, or indeed of this building, this room. But he said that Christ’s glorified body, after his resurrection—and also the glorified body enjoyed by the Blessed Virgin Mary, after her assumption—are now different. They have been transformed. They do have dimension, size, and form; but they do not need a “containing space.” This is somewhat like the universe, for we do not ask, What is the universe inside of; no, the universe is the space that we are within. And so Christ’s and the Blessed Virgin Mary’s transformed glorified bodies do not need a “containing space.” Heaven is a place because they are there. For, aside from them, all others there are God in his divine nature, the angels, the souls of the saints currently separated from their bodies—none of which have physical dimension. But, because Christ and the Blessed Virgin are there, their presence makes it a place.

So, then, when we ask, Where did Christ go?, the answer is not so much a location to which he went, but to whom he went. St. Paul wrote in our second reading that God the Father seated Christ at his right hand in the heavens. For this is the return of God the Son to God the Father. And when we consider it, not from our vantage point, but from God’s, then what we need to perceive and imagine is joy: tremendous, indescribable joy, on the level that only the Blessed Trinity could experience.

  • For God the Son had been sent forth on his mission from God the Father as the only Son. He had entered our world and taken on our human nature, becoming like us in all things but sin. He had lived his earthly life in perfect obedience and love to the Father—even to the point of death, death on a cross.
  • And then began the second stage of his journey, the return to the Father. For the Father raised him from the dead, the firstfruits of the Resurrection. And then, after 40 days, he ascended, returning to the Father. He returns; and he does not come alone! For, as Dominican Father Jean Corbon writes: He returns in the flesh, bringing with him the Father’s adoptive sons and daughters: “Look, I and the children whom God has given me!” [Wellspring of Worship, pp. 65-66] This is a matter of overwhelming joy for the Son and the Father.

And Christ’s Ascension blazes a trail that we are meant to follow. For, as Jesus told Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man.” [John 3:13] Only in his divinity could Christ do this; only in his divinity could Christ ascend past all heavenly creatures. And yet he fully retains his humanity, so that he is still and forever true man—one of us! One of us is seated above all angels and above all archangels, at the very side of God the Father. And here he has gone, we are meant to follow, leading all creation with us, in our great return to the Father.

The disciples had asked him whether he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel. And indeed he was inaugurating his Kingdom, though it was not the earthly kingdom the disciples imagined. It was no merely earthly throne that our Lord ascended on that day, but the heavenly throne, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, a throne of a kingdom that will never pass away, never be superseded, never be destroyed.

And when Christ sat down at the right hand of the Father, he did not sit down to rest, but to rule. For on the day of his Ascension, we might say, Christ began a whole new phase of his mission to redeem humanity.

  • For in St. Luke’s first volume, his Gospel, he wrote of all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up; and then in his second volume, the Book of Acts, he tells of the even greater things that he did and taught through his Church! And that continues on at this very moment.
  • His disciples had wondered whether he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel—whether he would be carrying out their agenda. But instead we heard him call them to cooperate with his agenda: to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.
  • They were hoping he would give them earthly authority in an earthly kingdom; but instead he would be giving them supernatural power when he would send his Holy Spirit upon them, just 10 days later.

And in this way he would be able to make himself present to them in way that he was not before his Ascension. For even as we recognize that, though his Incarnation, his humanity during his life on earth had enabled him to touch people, and walk with them, and speak with them in an amazing way—in a communion they had never had with God before—nevertheless, it also limited him in the same way that it limits us. For, like us, he could only touch a handful of people at any one time; he could speak to a crowd of no more than hundreds or thousands, at most, at one time. But once he had ascended to his heavenly throne, and sent the Holy Spirit upon the Church: then—now—he could speak to every heart at once; then—now—he could make himself present upon every altar and in every tabernacle in every church around the world; then—now—he can give his own body and blood, soul and divinity, to every one of his faithful as spiritual food.

And so it is that the Ascension makes the Mass possible: so that in the Mass we can touch that indescribable joy of the Father; so that in the Mass Christ can become present to us, the Lamb who was slain, upon the throne, upon this altar in our midst; and all the angels and saints who surround his throne, present with us, worshiping him. In the Mass, heaven touches earth. The Mass is a participation in that heavenly liturgy. It is an anticipation of heavenly glory, a pledge of the glory to come.

How aware of this are we, when we come to Mass? How aware of the wonders that Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father makes possible for us?

May the eyes of our hearts be enlightened, 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.

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