The Ascension of the Lord: As One Chapter Closes, Another Opens

Jesus' Ascension to Heaven by John Singleton Copley, 1775

The Ascension by John Singleton Copley, 1775

Jesus’ ascension into heaven is one of the most significant moments in his life – and in ours. It brings to a conclusion the earthly life of Jesus, but it also opens up for us the earthly life of the Church. He ascends in his visible body to make way for his mystical body.

The Ascension of the Lord is important because of what it says to us. We profess that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, the Word become flesh. He grew up in a family as one of us, he taught us and he died for us. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead with a real physical human body – a glorified body – which he invites his Apostles to touch.

In his earthly life, Jesus was Emmanuel, “God with us,” as present and visible and audible as a next-door neighbor. But with his ascension forty days after his rising, he has completed that chapter. God’s presence in Jesus – in his natural human body – has come to an end.

So where has Jesus’ body gone?

In the Ascension we see that Jesus has returned to the Father in glory. In ascending in the body, he has brought the salvation of humanity to a new level, so to speak. He has lifted up and “divinized” human flesh.

Yet Jesus does not leave us alone, he does not leave us orphans. Before his Passion, the Lord promised that the Father would send the Holy Spirit to dwell with them (John 14:16 et seq.). Before ascending, he again says that the Spirit will come and give them the grace, the power to do what he asks of us. This happens ten days later, at Pentecost, and through this indwelling of the Spirit, Christians become Christ-like. Indeed, it is more accurate to say that we become one with Christ. The Spirit gives us the life of the God-man who has divinized the human body in his glorious ascension to the Father.

Nothing could be more transformative than this “divinization” of a human life. Though we are imperfect and finite, God in his mercy lifts us up to share in his divine life. This means sharing in the divine mission of Jesus as well.

In the mystery of the Ascension, we celebrate also our own willingness to take up Christ’s work of salvation. We are to be witnesses to everything he revealed.

Before returning to the Father, Jesus tells his disciples that it is now their turn to live the life of Christ in the world. His words are directed to you and to me as well: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature,” he says in Mark’s Gospel (16:15). In the Acts of the Apostles, we find him saying, “You will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Saint Matthew tells us how Jesus said to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:19-20).

The Ascension is not the end, but a new beginning. As one chapter closes, another opens. Jesus’ risen body is with the Father in glory and on earth the body of Christ will be his Church, alive in the Holy Spirit.

Immediately after Jesus ascends, suddenly two angels appear and say to the disciples, “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” (Acts 1:11). In effect, they are told, “Don’t just stand there – do something! You have your commission. Do what you’ve been told to do.” We have been commissioned to be missionary disciples to deliver the Good News to every creature.