The Ascension of Our Lord
This coming Thursday the Church will celebrate the Ascension of Christ (see the liturgy schedule in this bulletin). St Luke, in the opening chapter of his Acts of the Apostles, writes this account:
He [the Risen Christ] 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. . . 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).
Forty Days . . .
One of the appearances of the risen Jesus turned out to be his last. During forty days 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”, says St. Luke. Enshrouded by a cloud, he was “taken from their sight”. The Gospels make plain that this was a definitive “departure”. “As he blessed them, he “parted from them (literally, 'he exited') and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). They were no longer to expect his appearances to continue. His presence with them would be in a new and different way.
The Man Jesus . . .
Jesus, Mary's Son, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, ascended. That is to say, the Ascension is not to be understood as a “spiritual” abandonment of his truly human existence. The ascension is not an undoing of the Incarnation, in which the Eternal Son of God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). It is in his risen humanity that he ascends to the Father's “right hand in the heavens” (Eph. 1:20 ). The apostles will continue to address him in prayer and praise by his human Hebrew name. He is “the one Mediator, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). And “at the Name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:11). Our Lord does not cease to be our brother.
Why is this truth so important? Because it is our humanity that he came to share. It is our human nature that he “takes with him” into heaven. It is a truly human “place” he is preparing for us (John 14: 2, 3). For what is heaven? Heaven is the place where God and his human creatures can dwell together.
Love Ascended: The Marks of the Cross . . .
You will remember that in his appearances over forty days, the Risen Jesus confirmed his identity to his disciples by showing them the signs of his suffering. The risen Christ was still marked by the signs of his self-offering on the Cross. It is a great blessing that Christian art has preserved this striking memory in depicting the Ascension—that Jesus ascends with the marks of the nails and the spear and the thorns. He is ever the Ascended Crucified one. His resurrection and ascension are indeed his victory over the cross, but he does not leave the cross behind. Rather, the signs of his suffering love are lifted up as the means of the world's salvation. In heaven he is forever known as the “lamb slain from the foundations of the world” (Rev. 13:8). And this is our salvation, that the long-suffering sacrificial love of God now rules eternally “at the right hand of the Father”.