Christians in many parts of the world are celebrating the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, deferred from the preceding Thursday. Today, we are once more called to ponder the 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.”
Even in presently sunny Ireland, it is difficult not to turn our eyes away from the carnage in Ukraine and the slaughter of the innocents in Texas and look to heaven for solace, for Jesus to come and save us. We may dote on films about superheroes and pagan heroes of ancient mythologies, but what we deeply want is a glimpse of Jesus returning in glory. But the men in white tell us not to look up into the sky. The mystery is much deeper than that and so is our mission.
The Ascension of Jesus is often taken as the penultimate climax of the Easter mysteries, a prelude to Pentecost — the coming of the Holy Spirit into a world still longing for redemption. But the final act, the return of Jesus in glory, is not yet. We live in hope.
According to St. Luke, the Ascension occurred between the Resurrection and the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which for Christians now celebrates the coming, the parousia of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, into the hearts and minds of the early disciples and of all disciples. But that lies ahead. Here, like those disciples on the hillside near Jerusalem, 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? Or are we still looking in the wrong place, or at least in the wrong way, as the mysterious men said.
The sciences of astronomy and cosmology have shown that the realm of space is vast, the habitat of thousands of billions of galaxies, stars and planets. The “heavens” described in scripture are not some physical location up above the ozone layer somewhere, on the moon or perhaps on some distant planet. Semitic descriptions are poetic, both symbolic and metaphorical, like the notion of sitting on a throne at God’s right hand – not if what we believe about God is true. God is not an old bearded man on a white throne, like some Jupiter of Roman mythology. God is the Creator of the universe, a pure and perfect spiritual power and presence, as even the old catechisms affirmed. God does not have arms and legs and toes and fingernails. That great artists may have portrayed God so does not make it true.
But Jesus, on the other hand (so to speak) is human – fully human. But we believe that his physical presence has been transformed by the Resurrection and Ascension.
The passage from 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 above the clouds, “up” on some other planet, or, much less, out in space somewhere. Belief in the Ascension affirms the Cosmic Lordship, 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.
To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos, but is no less present to us now and always in spirit and sacrament, the “mysteries” of Christian life .
The Ascension completes 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.
“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 everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention. When we look with the eyes of faith, or, as St. Paul had it, “having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” we see him in manifold ways, in the rising sun, the beauty of the rose, and, as the poet proclaims, through the features of human faces.
We may wonder, of course, what is Jesus waiting for? Why doesn’t he come soon, as we repeat directly and indirectly with our maranathas hidden in the movies and television cartoons about superheroes arriving to save us in the nick of time. Not because he is not ready. In his Spirit, he is here already. We believe that Jesus will also return as the Disciples saw him depart, but now, we are told, keep your eyes on what is happening around you, in your midst. There are hearts to mend, people to serve, a planet to save. Time to get on with it.