The Ascension of the Lord
Last week I was privileged to be able to preach the homily at the Mass where seven young children from our parish received their first Holy Communion. In that homily I expressed wonder at the fact that the Almighty God would choose to become something as humble as food for us to consume. I shared the story of asking my eight-year-old daughter (one of the first communicants) why she thought God would do that. Her reply was profound in its simplicity — “So he can be close to us.”
Now, as we celebrate the Ascension of Christ into heaven, we may very well ask, “If Jesus wants to be close to us, why did he leave?“
Well one thing is certain: Jesus wants to be close to us. God wants to be close to us. Christ’s ascension into heaven is not an abandonment of the human race. In fact Jesus, who always keeps His promises to us, said emphatically that He will be with us always (Mt 28:19).
A Sacramental Presence
One of the reasons for the ascension is precisely so that Christ can be with us in a more far-reaching and profound manner. What I mean by that is that while Jesus walked the earth in His humanity, His presence was limited by that same humanity. Having ascended into heaven, God’s incarnational ministry continues in the Church. Christ is now present to us whenever and wherever the sacraments are celebrated, God’s word is proclaimed, and two or three are gathered in His name.
Pope St. Leo the Great put it this way in the 5th century:
And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit; it would remain unshaken by fetters and imprisonment, exile and hunger, fire and ravening beasts, and the most refined tortures ever devised by brutal persecutors. . .
The truth is that the Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity. A more mature faith enabled their minds to stretch upward to the Son in his equality with the Father; it no longer needed contact with Christ’s tangible body . . . [T]he faith of those who believed in him was now summoned to heights where, as the Father’s equal, the only-begotten Son is reached not by physical handling but by spiritual discernment.
Jesus didn’t leave us when he ascended into heaven any more than he left the Father when he became incarnate in the world. He is now more present to us in a spiritual way that enables him to be present across the globe, in different times and places, to each one of us who comes to Him.
Where He Is We Will Also Be
Christ’s Ascension shows us the ultimate end of his mission of redemption. Yes, God wants to be close to us. But the point of the Incarnation was not so that he could be with us on earth, but so that we could be with him in heaven.
When Jesus ascended into heaven, he did so with all his divinity and all his humanity. He didn’t leave his human body and soul behind to be buried and decay in a tomb. No. He took his glorified humanity with him, and in so doing shows us the final end of our own humanity.
Jesus says in John’s gospel where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow later (Jn 13:33) and I go to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you with me so that where I am you also may be (Jn 14:3). Our Lord goes ahead of us to prepare for us a place in heaven. Of course Jesus couldn’t stay on earth forever. Neither can we. This passing world is not our home. We were made for something beyond this world.
We see our Lord’s promise fulfilled most perfectly in his Blessed Mother. Consider the mysteries of the rosary. These meditations recount for us the story of redemption. They begin with the Joyful mysteries starting with the Annunciation of the Lord’s incarnation by the angel Gabriel to Mary. They pass through the events of Christ’s life including the Luminous mysteries where the kingdom of God is announced. Then we come to the Sorrowful mysteries recounting the Lord’s passion and death. But the story does not end there.
In the Glorious mysteries we meditate first on the Resurrection, and secondly on the Ascension. But the Ascension is not the end of the story. There are three mysteries yet to come. Next the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost (the birthday of the Church). The Spirit binds us all to Christ’s Body and animates the Church, as our human soul gives life to our bodies. Through the Spirit we are made members of Christ, and our membership in his Body persists even through death, uniting us to his Resurrection — and yes, to his Ascension.
And so in the next Glorious mystery we see Mary being assumed into heaven, body and soul, at the end of her life. She rises to heaven not by her own power, like her Son, but because she is drawn to heaven by him. Immaculate Mary, being perfectly united with her Son, enjoys now the fulfillment of his promises to us, and so shows us our final destiny — to live forever with Christ in heaven.
And not just to live with him, but to reign with him. This is the final Glorious mystery, Mary’s Coronation. She is crowned by her Son as Queen of heaven and earth. She shares in his reign. But all of us united in Christ are called to share in this reign, because we are members of Christ, and Christ is King.
St. Paul tells us this is the destiny of those who remain in Christ. So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir (Gal 4:7), heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ (Rom 8:17), and if we endure we shall also reign with him (2 Tim 2:12).
To Be With Jesus
Jesus wants to be with us. This will always be true. God loves us so much that he became incarnate so that he could be with us in our lowly humanity. But he loves us too much to leave it at that. God loves us so much that he lifts us up to be with him in his exalted divinity.
He goes to prepare a place for us, so that where he is we may also be. Our life in this world is a pilgrimage. We are all on a journey. Christ’s Ascension shows us our destination. Mary is our map and our guide. By following her, may we all come to the place Christ has prepared for us in his Father’s kingdom.