Today is the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, where we remember Jesus’ final return to the Father in Heaven, as recounted in Acts 1:9 – an event further testified to in 1 Timothy 3:16 and 1 Peter 3:22. Further on in Acts, Saint Peter, in one of his addresses, affirms that Jesus was ‘exalted at the right hand of God’ (2:33), and uses this fact as confirmation that He has fulfilled the promises made regarding the Messiah in Psalm 110. The fact that Jesus is now at God’s ‘right hand’ is something that, apart from the scriptural testimony, we also receive as an article of the Faith via the Apostle’s Creed, which says that Jesus is now ‘seated at the right hand of the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead’.
So, it would seem that the Ascension is a vital part of Christian belief – yet it is something that often becomes sidelined in discussions of salvation history. Part of this is undoubtedly because modern exegetes have become embarrassed by language which apparently describes Jesus as being literally enthroned next to the Father – an issue which, to my mind, does a great disservice to the majority of believers, who have no problem in accepting Scripture’s use of pictorial language such as this, or of entering into its essential meaning (i.e.; that Jesus has departed from our spatio-temporal world, and returned to the heavenly realms from whence he came, raising up with Him the human nature that He assumed in the Incarnation; the ‘right hand’ language representing His eternal subordination to the Father).
Another reason however, may be that in Scripture itself the Ascension is seen as continuous with the Resurrection, something particularly noticeable in Saint John, who presents it as something both present and yet to come. This can be seen most clearly in Jesus’ exchange with Mary Magdalene, where He says ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ (John 20:17). This, I would submit, is how Saint Luke sees things too, given that in the twenty-fourth chapter of his gospel and the first chapter of Acts, he alternates between present and future versions of events, the latter often filling in the details of the former.
Saint Augustine seemed to share this view of the Ascension being continuous with the Resurrection, but was also very keen to affirm its role as the seal of the whole process, as something without which the previous events would have been to no avail. In a homily given on the Feast of the Ascension* he says:
‘This is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing…and his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.’
What Saint Augustine says here resonates with the passage in Ephesians 4:10, where Saint Paul says that ‘He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ – i.e.; that by ascending into Heaven, and taking our human nature up with Him into the heavenly places, He completed the process of redemption by reclaiming His place as rightful sovereign of the universe, so that He might be present to us in a different way. If He had not so returned, the process would not have been completed, and as Jesus said in John 16:7, ‘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’.
By taking up our human nature with Him into the heavenly realms, Jesus also ensured that in the fullness of all things, human beings would be restored to their rightful and intended place as vice-regents of God’s creation (c.f.; Genesis 1:26-27). Saint Augustine, in another homily on the Ascension, affirms this point thus:
‘He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: “No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.”
These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for he is our head and we are his body. No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: he is the Son of Man by his union with us, and we by our union with him are the sons of God. So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.’
Sermo de Ascensione Domini, Mai 98, 1-2, PLS 2, 494-495.
In the Incarnation, the Word of God united our human nature to His divine person, and in the Ascension this union was completed, our humanity being forever enjoined to God through our baptism, so that, as Augustine says, ‘we by our union with him are the sons of God’. The Ascension is thus truly a seal and guarantee of our redemption – the confirmation that He who entered into the depths of our experience has torn down the veil between God and man, and insofar as we fulfil our baptismal vows and commit ourselves to Him, that we are even now partakers of His heavenly glory.
*Frustratingly, although I have taken this quote from a reputable Encyclopaedia of Christian Doctrine and History, and have found it cited in many other places, I cannot find an actual reference for the homily in question. I would be grateful if anyone knows of one!