Pope St. Leo the Great (c. 400-461), in a sermon on the Ascension, wrote: “Since then Christ’s ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised, whither 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.”
Fifteen centuries later, in his second volume of “Jesus of Nazareth” (Ignatius, $24.95), Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the central place of joy and delight in the Ascension, stating, “The joy of the disciples after the ‘Ascension’ corrects our image of this event.” What is in need of correction? The notion that Jesus has gone away and is now somehow distant from mankind. But if that were true, Pope Benedict notes, it doesn’t make sense of the “great joy” expressed by the disciples journeying to Emmaus after Jesus had blessed them, and then “parted from them and was taken up to heaven” (Lk 24:51-53).
Nor would it explain why the disciples immediately set about selecting a replacement for Judas (see Acts 1:12-26). Rather than being depressed and listless, the disciples were filled with anticipation and a growing understanding of their mission. The opening of the Acts of the Apostles does not shy away from showing that the disciples, even after the Resurrection, were still coming to grips with the exact nature of Jesus’ intentions for the Church and for the world. Between his resurrection and his ascension, Jesus spent about 40 days instructing the apostles. Yet they still asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
As the pope said, “Jesus counters this notion of a restored Davidic kingdom with a promise and a commission.” The promise is the gift of the Holy Spirit and of his own continual presence, as heard in the final words of Matthew’s Gospel: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” This promise of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled in a most dramatic and definitive way at Pentecost. It is also fulfilled at every baptism, confirmation and celebration of the Eucharist, for all of the sacraments “are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1116). And it is fulfilled in other ways as well, through the proclamation of the Word of God, through special charisms and through the many hidden graces offered to us.
The great commission is clear and succinct: to be witnesses of Jesus Christ throughout the world, making disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Triune God. Jesus did not ascend to “get away” or be silent, but so he can give himself continually and in perfect love to his bride, the Church. St. Paul pointed out that the Risen Christ is “far above every principality, authority, power and dominion,” having “put all things beneath his feet.” But the Church, he said, is Christ’s body, “the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” Christ especially comes to us and fills us when we receive the Eucharist, which communicates his love in a profound way (see Catechism, No. 1380).
The Ascension, then, is both a going away and a coming. “‘Ascension’ does not mean departure into a remote region of the cosmos,” said the pontiff, “but rather the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.