In more dioceses than not, the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated this Sunday. The liturgist in me regrets the move from Thursday, but here we are any way. Let’s ascend with the Lord, three days late!
This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago, for though Christ our head has ascended, we the members of His body are ascending with Him. Because He was ascended, we, too, have ascended. In my own life as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord, who is drawing me up with Him. This is not some mere slogan, but something I am actually experiencing. An old song says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love Lifted me when nothing else could help. Love lifted me!”
If we are faithful, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast, too. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.
I. The Fact of the Ascension – The readings today describe a wondrous event witnessed by the Apostles. By His own power, the Lord is taken to Heaven. In so doing, He opens a path for us, too. The gates of paradise swing open again. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in! (Psalm 24:7) In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:
A. The Reality – Imagine the glory of this moment! Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight … they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. Jesus had once said as a summons to faith, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62) He had also encouraged them saying, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51). So here is a glorious reality and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.
B.The Rescue – In the Ascension, it does not seem that the Lord entered Heaven alone. As we have remarked, in His mystical body we also ascend with Him. Consider this remarkable text that affirms that: Therefore it is said, When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier (just after his death) descended to Sheol, awakened the dead, and preached the Gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). Now for those He had justified came the moment to ascend, with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now-opened gates of Heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist, … and, one day, you! Yes, this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradise-like garden; they have entered Heaven.
C.The Rejoicing – Consider how this once captive train sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to Heaven. The liturgy today puts before us a likely song they sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord the most high, the awesome is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing this old gospel song: “I’m so glad Jesus lifted me!” as well as this old Motown song: “Your love is lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before!” More on this tomorrow from the Fathers of the Church.
II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – We have already remarked that, when Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). When Christ died, we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When He ascends, we ascend.
But, you may say, He is in glory while I am still here. How is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider a humorous example using our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and press the button for the top floor, the top of my head gets there before the soles of my feet, but the whole body will get there unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place. In an analogous way, so it is with Jesus’ mystical body. In Christ, our Head, we are already in glory. Some members of His Body have already gotten there. We who come later will get there too, provided we remain members of His Body. Yes, we are already ascended in Christ, our Head. We are already enthroned in glory with Him, if we hold fast and stay a member of His Body. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.
III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to Heaven to abandon us. He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). In ascending, without abandoning us, He goes to procure some very important things. Consider four of them:
A. Holy Ghost power – Jesus teaches very clearly that He is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: 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 (Jn 16:7ff). He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So the Lord goes in order that with the Father, He might send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, He will dwell with us even more intimately than when He walked this earth.
B. Harvest – Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s gospel is that he often intends double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is His crucifixion, but it also includes His resurrection and ascension. So, from His place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to Himself. He is also bestowing grace on us from His Father’s right hand to be His co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from His place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest. As He said in Scripture, Do you not say, “Four months more and then the harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying “One sows and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! It is the Lord’s work from Heaven in which we participate.
C. Help – At the Father’s right hand, Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links his ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12).
We must not understand asking in the name of Jesus as a mere incantation, for to ask in His name means to ask in accord with His will. Yet we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in His sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the puzzling and apparent victories of this world’s rebellion. In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor … so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from Heaven we have the help of the Lord’s grace which, if we will accept it, is an ever-present help unto our salvation.
D. Habitation – Jesus indicates that in going to Heaven, He is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff). Yes, Jesus has the blueprints out and the hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us that we may dwell with Him, the Father, and the Spirit forever.
Here, then, are the ways that Christ, by His love, is lifting us higher than we’ve ever been lifted before. Yes, love lifted me when nothing else could help; love lifted me.
Here’s a modernized version of the hymn: