The Feast of the Ascension marks the completion of Christ’s work of salvation. Having accomplished his mission on earth Jesus returns to his rightful place at the side of the Father. Even though he no longer lives with us the work of God continues in the world with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles which we celebrate in a week’s time.
You might think that there is something a bit peculiar about the Ascension, something a bit strange about the image of Christ rising vertically to the heavens. The words used in the Acts of the Apostles are that ‘he was lifted up while they looked on until a cloud took him from their sight.’
Even though during his life on earth we know that Jesus could perform miracles and seemingly, after the resurrection, could even appear and disappear at will, the idea of him rising vertically up into the sky is hard to credit. I was once amused at hearing a friend of my father describe the Ascension as, ‘The Feast of the Vertical Take-Off.’
I’ve actually seen rustic sculptures in Bavaria amusingly showing a pair of feet poking out of a cloud in an effort to depict the Ascension. However it is portrayed, the Ascension of Jesus is a historical fact. Whether Jesus actually made a sort of vertical take-off or whether he disappeared in some other way, he had to return to his rightful place with the Father in heaven.
Once his work was accomplished and this included a few post-resurrection appearances, so that there was no mistake that he had actually risen, and some last-minute farewell words, Jesus had to return to the Father. He wasn’t going to die again and so there had to be a mechanism which would permit him to return to heaven; and rising through the clouds is as good a way as any.
The important thing for us is that Jesus has accomplished the work of salvation and it is now our role to get on with making that salvation a reality for everyone in the world. If we think of the Nativity as marking the beginning of Jesus’ work then the Ascension marks its completion and according to me these two feasts ought to be celebrated with an equal amount of joy and feasting.
Sadly, in the liturgy, the Feast of the Ascension ends up being treated as a minor event. Some years ago, when it was a Holyday of Obligation, the Ascension was generally one of the worst attended of them all.
Today in England and Wales the feast has been transferred to the nearest Sunday so at least it is marked by more people who listen to the account of the Ascension in the scripture readings and have its meaning and purpose explained to them by the priest. Nevertheless, the Ascension doesn’t seem to be regarded with the same importance as Pentecost or Corpus Christi which generally occur around the same time.
In our liturgy today we try to celebrate the Ascension with a certain solemnity and we sing appropriate hymns which draw our attention to the importance of the feast.
It is vital to realise that this was a bodily return to heaven. Jesus is not like us who leave a cadaver behind while our souls fly up to God. The significance of the feast is that Jesus returns to the Father with his body intact. We should note that this body is his risen body and although it bears the marks of the Crucifixion in his hands, feet and side it is not exactly the same as our bodies since we know that in this body Jesus was able to appear and disappear at will.
The important point here is that Jesus retains his humanity. As we know Jesus is both fully human and fully divine and the biblical account of the Ascension affirms that Jesus holds on to his humanity, it is not something that he adopts at his birth and leaves off at his death.
The fact that Jesus returns to the Father with his humanity intact tells us that our own humanity is fit for the Kingdom of God. We realise that heaven is our true destiny and that on that final day of days we too will be reunited with our bodies. At that point, we speak of them as glorified bodies because we will be then living in a new and non-physical spiritual realm, nevertheless we understand that they will be recognisably human, identifiably ourselves.
The disciples were told by the angels who appeared immediately after the Ascension, ‘This same Jesus will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there.’ By this we understand that on the Last Day Jesus will return and sit in judgement as a recognisable human person. We will all gather before him on that great day of days in order to face the final and general judgement.
What this means is that the Ascension is the ultimate affirmation of the importance of our bodily existence. Christ adopts our human form, he lives with us, he dies and rises from the dead and with this body he returns to the Father. Jesus remains both human and divine ever afterwards. We in our turn, are on the Last Day reunited with our bodies in a glorified form and are enabled to live with God forever in heaven.
So, you can see that this lovely Feast of the Ascension is celebrating some important things. What it means has great significance for each one of us. The events of the first Ascension Day mean that our humanity is fully recognised and sanctified by God. Despite all that has happened, despite the fall of man, regardless of all the sinfulness, we are now redeemed and the way to eternal life is opened up for us. And this eternal life is not just for a spiritual part of ourselves but it is for the whole of us, for our bodies and for our souls.
It is also instructive to look at the actions of the disciples as Jesus was withdrawn from them. It says in the text that they were still staring into the sky when the angels came to give them an explanation.
I have often heard it said that this is how we should live our lives in the post-Ascension world, with our eyes fixed on heaven. Well, maybe not both our eyes on heaven, as we need one eye to see the things on earth, the things that are in front of us.
What we need perhaps is one metaphorical eye still gazing up at heaven while we live out our lives here in this world. We need to keep one eye on our final destination to make sure that we do not lose sight of it. We ought always to make sure that we keep an eye on our final goal.
Where Jesus has gone we will surely follow and it is vital for us to keep the desire to attain that goal, to be with him for all eternity, as well as throughout the entirety of our lives here on earth.