Today, we celebrate the sixth of the twelve articles of the Catholic Faith. The twelve articles are contained in the Apostles’ Creed (I Believe). This is the sixth article, “He (Jesus Christ) ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” The ascension reminds us that after the human and divine natures of Christ were united in the incarnation, they were never separated. It means that Christ did not dump his human nature after his saving death and resurrection.
At first glance, the Ascension seems a sad day. Christ in his human body is leaving the world. Ordinarily, we do not rejoice when someone that we love and admire leaves us. Why then do we celebrate the departure of Jesus with such excitement and rejoicing? The liturgy shows clearly that this is a joyful feast. It is because it is the fulfillment of the salvific mission of Christ. The Ascension is the final leg of the paschal mystery: the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven. The act of redemption by Christ was only completed when he ascended and returned to his Father.
Reflecting on the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, we may ask some inevitable questions: Did Jesus really rise up into heaven? Is heaven really up there above the sky? Were there really forty days between his resurrection, and his ascension? Where was he for those forty days? What about his words to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise”? Luke who is the author of the Gospel according to Luke is also the author of the Acts of the Apostles. At the end of the Gospel according to Luke, he gives us the impression that Jesus ascended into heaven on the very day of the resurrection, but in his later work, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke presents Jesus as ascending only after appearing to his disciples and instructing them during forty days after his resurrection.
A very important point to take note of is that these readings are not about historical information. The authors of these books use familiar images to pass across important and true messages. St. Luke begins the Acts of the Apostles by addressing Theophilus. The Greek name Theophilus means “One who loves God”. Probably, Luke was not having a particular person in mind when he wrote this book; it is very likely that he was addressing it to every person “who loves God”. It is therefore possible that he wanted to help those who want to know how the good news spread through the world and how the first Christian communities were formed.
Luke in Acts of the Apostles speaks of Jesus instructing his disciples for a period of forty days. In general, the number forty stands for a period of waiting or preparation for a great event. In this context, it refers to the preparation of the disciples. At that time, it was a common understanding that if a student was able to stay with his master for a period of forty days or forty years, he was empowered and authorized to repeat the teachings of his master. So, saying that Jesus was appearing and instructing his apostles for a period of forty days after his resurrection was Luke’s way of saying that the apostles were the authentic disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, and they had the right to speak in his name and spread his message.
What are the fruits of the Ascension? The ascension of Jesus bears two important fruits, which can be referred to as the two advents. The first advent is the coming of the Holy Spirit, while the Second Advent is the expected Second Advent when Christ will come again. Before his ascension, Christ said to his apostles, “It is important that I go. For if I do not go the advocate will not come, if I go I will send him to you.” After his ascension, two angels appeared to them to tell them that just as they saw him ascending to heaven, so he will come again at the end of the ages”. He will come again no longer as Savior, but as Judge and Lord of all.
If Christ had remained physically on earth, sight would have taken the place of faith. In heaven, there will be no need for faith because His followers will see; no need for hope because they will possess, but there will be need for love because love endures forever.
In the incarnation, Christ took human nature to suffer and redeem it. In the Ascension, he went up with the same body so as to exalt that body that was humbled in death. Through the ascension, Christ now pleads for us in heaven with the human nature common to the rest of us. He has to be one like us to be our ambassador. We are called not to gaze at the sky but to be his witnesses in the entire world. The work of Jesus is finished and he has handed over the baton to us, it is now our responsibility to diligently hand this baton to those coming after us. The question is; do we really take this responsibility seriously? Someone once said, “Everybody seems to be talking about leaving behind a safe environment for our children, but no one seems to be talking about leaving behind good children for our environment.”