Meditations on the Ascension of the Lord

After Christ rose from the dead and before he ascended to heaven, he made different appearances to certain of his followers for 40 days, and “spoke of the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Several years ago, I heard one evangelical, Protestant pastor say, “I’d love to have those teaching tapes.”

Many Christians would love to have everything he said and did written down during this brief window of time. We may not have everything we want from those 40 days but we have everything we need.

In Acts 1:6-11 his followers ask him if he is going to restore the kingdom of Israel at this time, and he answers that it is not for them to understand the times and seasons the Father has ordained for such events. He then tells them that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit is given them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

After he said this, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight and into heaven. While his followers were gazing into heaven, two men in robes asked them why they were doing this and then predicted that Christ would come again in glory the same way he left. The earliest creeds reveal he will come back “to judge the living and the dead.”

Since there are seven Sundays in Easter, this essay will explore seven different things to meditate on concerning the Ascension of the Lord. This is by no means an exhaustive list but merely a conversation-starter:

In Acts 1:1, Luke, the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, describes the Gospel of Luke as setting forth all that Jesus began to do and teach. This strongly implies that Christ continues to act and speak after his Ascension through his Church, the pillar and ground of the truth (I Timothy 3:15).

The Ascension of Christ reminds us that between this glorious event and the Second Coming we have work to do. It’s easy to forget this in our workaday worlds of balancing checkbooks and taking out the trash, of punching time clocks and the tyranny of the urgent.

What does this look like? In one of his post-Resurrection appearances, Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21): we are to imitate Christ in his life, death, and resurrection (Philippians 3:10).

As Fathers Trigilio and Brighenti point out, when the Mass is celebrated in Latin today, the last words the priest or deacon speak are “Ite missa est.” This has been mistranslated as “Go, the Mass is ended.”

A much better translation is: “Go, the [congregation] is sent.” The people are told, in so many words, “You’ve celebrated the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist; now go forth to be my ambassadors (II Corinthians 5:20) in all the earth; be that bread that is broken for a hungry world.”

When Christ ascended, he “entered, not into a sanctuary made by human hands…but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24; CCC 662). There, as a merciful High Priest, he ever lives to make intercession for us, and is the center of the liturgy that honors the Father in heaven (Hebrews 7:25; 9:11).

The Ascension of the Lord causes us to meditate on the reality that we have a compassionate High Priest who knows what we are going through in this Vale of Tears and is interceding for us as we cast all our cares on him (I Peter 5:7). This is captured in the famous “Footprints” poster that adorns the walls of millions of homes.

We complain that, during our hardest times, we only see one set of footprints on the beach of our lives and assume that God abandoned us during these trials. However, we come to find out that there was only one set of prints because he was, as a merciful High Priest, carrying us with his prayers, during our furnace of affliction. Such a compassionate Priest bids us to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Ephesians 4:11-13 reveals that, when Christ ascended, he gave gifts to men (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers)  “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

Now I must admit that I have done my fair share of complaining about bad priests and even wrote in another magazine about local parishes that are “saddled with a ‘progressivist’ priest, a Zeitgeist puppet with his groovy grab-bag of feel-good religion and social justice bromides.”

Celebrating the Ascension should be a time of deep gratitude to Christ for good priests (and other gifts in the lay priesthood) who are faithful to the Magisterium and are, as Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch emphasize, “…promoting unity in the Church by (1) preserving doctrinal purity, (2) warding off false teaching (4:14) and (3) sanctifying people in truth (John 17:17-19).”

In the Ascension, Christ sits down at the right hand of his Father, inaugurates the Messiah’s kingdom, and fulfills Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7:14: “And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (CCC 664).

How does this vision square with the apostle Paul telling us in II Corinthians 4:4 that the devil is the god of this world? With the secularization of American culture, wars in the Middle East, and North Korea threatening to bomb major American cities with nuclear missiles?

Since there is no time in heaven, Daniel’s vision and the Ascension show us a future reality that the cosmos is heading towards as God’s plan unfolds. It reminds me of a story from my youth.

Being born and raised 18 miles east of Los Angeles, I grew up a devoted fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. When I was in college, some games were still tape-delayed.

Just before the Lakers were about to play a critical game 6 against the 76ers, my parents, a few hours before the tape-delayed game was about to be broadcast, let the cat out of the bag in telling me that the Lakers had won game 6 and were the new world champions.

I watched the game later that night with perfect calm because I knew the Lakers had already won. If you’ve read the New Testament and especially the Book of the Revelation, you know how this story ends. We win.

We should celebrate the Ascension of our Lord in such a spirit. In doing this we embrace the theological virtue of Hope.

This is easier to accomplish when we realize that in the Ascension we are given a dual-citizenship. We are in Christ; he is in us. He is seated at the right hand of the Father; therefore, we are also “seated in heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6) and “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). From this position we can see the turbulent events of the day through a heavenly lens and the analogy of the tape-delayed game comes alive.

Because of the Ascension that seats us in heavenly places, we can look at life through the prism of heaven and make important decisions in the light of eternity:

Let’s say a father and husband has a big decision to make by Monday morning. He has been offered a promotion at work that would mean a substantial raise with more authority and prestige in the company. It would also mean more traveling, longer hours, and a lot less time with his wife and three small children.

Because he is seated in heavenly places, he can look at the decision with an eternal perspective and see things through the lens of sacrificial love and what it means to truly gather up treasure in heaven. It’s a no-brainer: he decides he doesn’t want to sacrifice important relationships on the altar of money and achievement and declines the offer.

As new creatures who have risen with him in Baptism and are seated in heavenly places because of his Ascension, we are called to live consistently with this new identity: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth… Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:2,5).

It’s no coincidence that biblical imagery portrays the victorious believer as someone who “will mount up with wings as eagles” (Isaiah 40:31) rather than an earthworm that is singularly devoted to the dirt. We have, after all, ascended with him and are called to reflect that glorious reality.

By

Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is a frequent contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. A self-confessed “mediocre fishermen,” he is known to wet a line now and then in the creeks, rivers, and lakes of northeast Washington.

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