“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”
That question, uttered by the two angels to the disciples, is easily read over quickly or even misunderstood. The natural reaction, I think, is to conclude the angels were simply saying, “Look: Jesus is gone. There’s nothing more here to see. Go your way.” The impression is that Jesus, in ascending into heaven, had not only departed but created some sort of distance between himself and his disciples. We might even conclude that the disciples were sorrowful or confused, wondering, “What next?” But such conclusions are quite contrary to the real nature of the Ascension.
Pope Benedict XVI, in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” (Ignatius Press, $24.95), offers several insights into the nature and meaning of the Ascension. Referring to St. Luke’s account of the Ascension (Lk 24:50-53), he notes that after Christ “was taken up to heaven,” the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” He states, “The joy of the disciples after the Ascension corrects our image of this image. ‘Ascension’ does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos but, rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.”
Then, a bit later, the pontiff remarks upon the meaning of the “cloud” that took Christ up and out of the sight of the disciples. The cloud is meant to invoke several important events, including the Transfiguration (see Lk 9:28-36); the “overshadowing” of Mary by the Most High (Lk 1:35); and the cloud signifying the presence of God during the exodus (Ex 13:21-22; 40:34-35). The cloud, in short, evokes a profound mystery — the very reality of God. “It presents Jesus’ departure,” writes the pope, “not as a journey to the stars, but as his entry into the mystery of God. It invokes an entirely different order of magnitude, a different dimension of being.”
The dimension is referred to in today’s readings from Ephesians 1 and Mark 16 as God’s “right hand.” This position, St. Paul wrote, is “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion” — it is not part of this temporal world. And God, of course, is not limited by time and space, so we can say that Jesus did not “go away” in any temporal sense, but, as Pope Benedict insists, “now and forever by God’s own power he is present with us and for us.” And, paradoxically, this means Christ is with us in a new and continuing way.
This is heady and mysterious stuff. But what does it mean for us in the here and now? The answer was beautifully expressed in the fifth century by Pope St. Leo I, who wrote, “Since then Christ’s Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the body is raised, wither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven.” The Son of God, having united himself to humanity by becoming man, has opened the way for man to be united with him eternally in glory. This is the “hope” and the “riches of glory” and the “inheritance” referred to by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.
The Lord, Pope Benedict writes, is with us now; he comes to us: through his word and the sacraments, “especially in the most Holy Eucharist.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.