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The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 13)

The Ascension
He presented himself alive to the apostles by many proofs after he had suffered, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. . . . 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. (Acts 1:3, 6-9)
On the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and dead. (Apostles' Creed)
During the forty days, according to the gospels, the risen Jesus appeared to his apostles and other disciples. He established their faith and restored them to his fellowship. He taught them to understand the Holy Scriptures. He gave them their mission and established Peter as shepherd of his flock. He then was visibly “lifted up”, “taken from their sight”. This deliberate act of Jesus, like all his actions, reveals who he is, what his will for us is, and what it means that he is our Savior and Lord.
Lifted up. Commentators never tire of pointing out that this description expresses a pre-Copernican view of the universe – that we moderns can't think of heaven as “up” in the same way as the apostles did. They are right, of course, but the observation is as superfluous as it is obvious. After all, we still speak of the sun rising and setting. More importantly, just as in A.D. 33, directional terms naturally speak to us symbolically. A man's influence may still rise or fall; an artist may be at the height of her powers. You or I may fall from grace, and get up again. And so on. So it is that Jesus is raised up “above” the realm of our historical existence, so as to be the Lord of history.
He ascended into heaven. No, not the clouds, not literally “beyond the blue,” even if the clouds and blue sky are creatures that will never stop speaking to us of that hoped-for realm. “Heaven” is that place, that spiritual domain where God enters into loving communion with us. Even now, by Grace, through the sacraments, heaven may open to us. But this opening is but a foreshadowing of the fullness of heaven. Heaven is wherever Jesus makes himself known to us. And this is what will make heaven heavenly, that we will see and know Jesus “face to face” (1 John 3:1-3).
And is seated at the right hand of the Father almighty. Once again, the symbol (whether in biblical Hebrew and Greek, or modern day English) is clear to us. To be the “right hand” of another is to be the instrument of the other's action, the wielder of the other's authority. Throughout the Gospels, we hear Jesus say that his only desire is to do the will of the Father, that his words and his work are the words and work of the Father. While the Father has placed all things into the hands of the Son (John 4:23-29; 10:27-30). How does the Eternal Father rule over his creation? – Through the Son at his “right hand”.
If it is the Crucified One who rules at the “right hand” of God, then the divine almightiness is not what we are prone to think it is. It is not the sheer bending of human will and events to God's will. Rather, it is the influencing of all things in such a way that human freedom is not simply overpowered but perfected and won over to the divine will. This influence is what the Scriptures and the Church mean by “Grace”.

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