In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:2-3)
The Ascension of Jesus Christ is not just a glorious finale of the story of human salvation. It is the glorious beginning. In His departure from earth, Our Lord came to man as never before. By the mystery of the Ascension, Jesus gave his Church a miraculous sign that He was not far, and that the human body that houses the human spirit is something that belongs with God. As Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote concerning the beautiful significance of Our Lord’s bodily Ascension, Christ’s “intercession consists in this that He perpetually exhibits himself before the eternal Father in the humanity which He had assumed for our salvation: and as long as He ceases not to offer Himself, He opens the way for our redemption into eternal life.”
Redemption exists for people living in the world, not merely for disembodied souls. It is outward yet inward, with defined margins and divine mysteries. Man requires bodily things to draw him to the divine—humanity is incarnate while longing for the Incarnation. Hence the Word Made Flesh operates in ways consistent with the principle of harmony between the physical and spiritual, and this is the harmony of the Ascension.
Though the Ascension of Jesus Christ was dramatic, it was not for the sake of dramatics. It served as a revelation of the nature of redemption. Christ ascended into heaven as eternal priest, where He saves man from sin without further immolation of Himself. The Resurrection and the Ascension were the last acts of sacrifice by God the Son, Who destroyed death by His death and opened paradise to the thief, to us—thieves all, in one way or another. The Passion and Death of Christ was the cause of our salvation, but the triumph is told in the Resurrection and in the transporting of that Victim and Victor in the Ascension to the ultimate place of honor at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. But there is more here than just an elevation and enthronement of the Son of God, Body and Soul. Just as the purpose of the sacrifice of the Cross was to bestow divine life upon man, the glory given to the Bestower of that life is communicated through Him to all who worship, work, and wonder in His Name. A common destiny with the ascended Christ awaits all who faithfully take up their cross and follow Him, even unto the heights of heaven.
This promise of extraordinary exaltation and supernatural splendor is not a matter of spiritual consequence simply, but a matter of material consequence especially. Though Jesus’ body was glorified at the moment of the Resurrection beyond the normal experience of nature as we know it, He retained a body that was still in some veiled way like the body He had. There was certainly a different bodily relation that Jesus possessed with flimsy things like space and time, but He was not outside of them. Though He did come and go at times like a specter, Jesus was sure to show His disciples that His body was not spectral. He invited the hands of His friends to touch and hold, their eyes to see and believe. He ate and drank with them. He was still flesh and bones. There was clear and careful intention in ascertaining this physical fact for the sake of the spiritual fact that was soon to follow.
The Ascension confirms and completes the miracle of the Resurrection in a way that goes beyond symbolism. It has a tangible dimension insofar as it deals with a tangible body. The body of Christ disappeared and then reappeared before disappearing again forty days later. But it did more than just vanish. It was moved. It went somewhere and, even now, is somewhere. It is this second disappearance, however, that gives some of modern sensibilities some pause, for it is in some ways stranger than the first. There is a gravity involved in the idea of a man rising from the grave. There is a levity involved in the idea of a man rising into the sky to disappear among the clouds. For many, there is a type of mythical fantasy or primitive whimsy involved in accepting an ascension to a heaven just out of sight on high where the Son of God will sit on a celestial seat at the right hand of God the Father. It is, perhaps, difficult to take such sanctity seriously.
But this role of holy physicality and improbability that can give rise to human incredulity and challenge the scientific thinker is precisely the point. Miracles are as factual and physical as they are spiritual, and their logic must be entertained as a matter of faith and as a matter of fact. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy:
I conclude that miracles do happen. I am forced to it by a conspiracy of facts: the fact that the men who encounter elves or angels are not the mystics and the morbid dreamers, but fishermen, farmers, and all men at once coarse and cautious; the fact that we all know men who testify to spiritualistic incidents but are not spiritualists, the fact that science itself admits such things more and more every day. Science will even admit the Ascension if you call it Levitation, and will very likely admit the Resurrection when it has thought of another word for it.
But in the meantime, is the Ascension too awkward an anecdote to have centralized in the canon of the Catholic Faith? It is, after all, only related in detail in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, though regularly referred to throughout the New Testament. Is it so important as an event that it is worth running the risk of running off the more mathematically minded? C. S. Lewis addresses this very question in Miracles:
Can we then simply drop the Ascension story? The answer is that we can do so only if we regard the Resurrection appearances as those of a ghost or hallucination. For a phantom can just fade away; but an objective entity must go somewhere—something must happen to it. And if the Risen Body were not objective, then all of us (Christian or not) must invent some explanation for the disappearance of the corpse. And all Christians must explain why God sent or permitted a ‘vision’ or ‘ghost’ whose behaviour seems almost exclusively directed to convincing the disciples that it was not a vision or a ghost but a really corporeal being. If it were a vision then it was the most systematically deceptive and lying vision on record. But if it were real, then something happened to it after it ceased to appear. You cannot take away the Ascension without putting something else in its place.
The Ascension required a Body, and it still requires bodies—and which is, therefore, a cause for much rejoicing. Though the Ascension of Christ is a moment of spiritual transcendence, it is also a mystery of material mysticism. In other words, the Ascension is just as much about the body as it is about the soul, which, given its glorious connotations, is a great comfort for those of us with bodies. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “The expression of our belief that in Christ human nature, the humanity in which we all share, has entered into the inner life of God in a new and hitherto unheard of way. It means that man has found an everlasting place in God.” The Ascension points out the way for all flesh. The whole point of the miracle of the Ascension is that it was a physical miracle involving a physical body that illustrated a relationship that is supernatural and eternal: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. (John 14:19-20)