Today, Christians in many parts of the world celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, otherwise known and celebrated as Ascension Thursday. And there is something to ponder in that affirmation we make so often, “I believe… that he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
Apart from the disappearance of Jesus from the visible stage of history, the recurrent evangelical frenzy about his imminent return is easy to ridicule after the disappointment of yet another failed prophecy. But even eccentric, late nineteenth-century Christian fantasies testified to the enduring belief in the Ascension itself, however exaggerated and distorted that belief sometimes became. And still does at times of crisis and fear.
According to St. Luke, the Ascension occurred between the Resurrection and the Feast of Pentecost, which for Christians now celebrates the coming, the parousia of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, into the Church – into the hearts and minds of the early disciples and of all disciples. But that lies ahead. Here, like the disciples on the hillside, we are left wondering about Jesus’ “ascent into heaven.” Did he go up into the sky? Is he someplace up above the clouds, somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps? Or are we still looking in the wrong place, or at least the wrong way, as the angel said.
Centuries ago, perhaps even decades ago, the idea of an ascent up among the stars would not have seemed absurd. It framed the epilogue of many filmed “Lives of Christ” popular in the mid-twentieth century (which seemed to be shown annually in my grade school). Today, exploring a bewilderingly vast universe is as real in fact as it was once in the movies. Distant parts of the cosmos are as familiar to us as our old neighborhood thanks to the Hubble space telescope and its successors. So it’s far more important to understand clearly what that belief means.
To begin with, the account in the Acts of the Apostles does not claim that Jesus went into orbit like some ancient astronaut, but that a cloud hid him from sight. The Ascension was never a crude, physical doctrine that asserted that Jesus was hanging around in the air, or “up” on some other planet, much less out in space somewhere. Belief in the Ascension affirms the Cosmic Lordship, or we might say today, the Leadership, of Christ spiritually, but also sacramentally. It means that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead and exalted by God, has fully entered into the fundamental reality of Creation itself. Christ’s presence, St. Paul tells us, is now co-extensive with the universe. God, he says, “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” [Eph. 1:22-23]. There is no “where” that Jesus Christ is not present.
This is the famous pleroma passage, which one translation has as “the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts.” However we interpret it, clearly St Paul portrays Christ as universal Lord, majestic in triumph over every cosmic force and principle, over the angels and every spiritual power. To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos.
But the Ascension is also the Feast of Christ as Lord of Time, that is of history as lived time, not only past, but present and future: “Christ yesterday, today, and tomorrow” [Heb. 13:8].
There is more – and this is even more important. Paul writes to his Christian disciples at Ephesus that it is this same Christ Jesus who is the head of the Church, which is filled with his Spirit. And through that Spirit we are all members of the one body of Christ, the people of God. Christ is present to the world especially in the lives and works of those guided by and filled with his Spirit.
The meaning of the Ascension is the completion of the paschal mystery, the return of Jesus to the heart of God, the triumph of innocence over the guilt of the world, the final victory of life over death, of grace over sin. It is the culminating moment of the passage of Christ to the Father, but also of salvation history itself. Yet the Ascension is also preparation and prelude, the necessary movement prior to the “descent” of the Spirit, the beginning of the transformation of the world’s history and its very structure, a spiritual transformation leading to universal jubilation. That’s what the Church ultimately is.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “ it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” [John 16:7]. And, the text goes on, “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth…. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. …I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Jesus has not gone away anywhere. He is present anywhere and everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention. For we too often look in the wrong places or we simply look wrongly. When we see with the eyes of faith, or, as St. Paul had it, “having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” we see him in manifold ways. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,”
the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is–
Chríst–for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
So having celebrated the Ascension of Jesus, let us return with the disciples to that upper room to prepare for the advent of the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who will enlighten our minds and warm our hearts and lead us into all truth and all joy. Because we still have a lot of work ahead of us before Jesus returns in glory.