The Ascension Today

Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven by Colin Dye

Christianity moves. As we ponder so often in the Gospels, Christ gathers and sends out, he forms and confers a mission. The mystery of the Lord’s ascension into heaven manifests the grand vertical dynamism that comprehends all such horizontal movements. “He came down from heaven,” and he has now “ascended into heaven.” The entire life of the Church militant on earth occurs in the context of her pilgrimage to where her triumphant Head has gone before (Jn 14:3).

Classical paganism had a strong sense of circularity: One season inevitably follows another. Individual lives are only a moment within an eternal cycle of birth and death. The heavenly bodies perdure unaltered in their recurrent course. Even the divine Scriptures, speaking from the viewpoint of fallen humanity’s search for ultimate meaning, express this sentiment:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already, in the ages before us” (Eccl 1:9–10).

It is hard to imagine that these words have not, at some time, resonated with each one of us as we go about our busy, or our boring lives, seemingly powerless amid the succession of one thing after another.

Jewish, and especially Christian, faith slices through the tedium with a bolt of unexpected splendor. History, my history, has an order, an orientation beyond itself. I am not doomed to the vanity of being merely stretched out as an infinitesimal segment along an infinite time line. Time itself has a direction, and that direction is not only forward but up.

This reflection has been mixing spatial and temporal imagery. While this may prove an occasion for confusion, it may, in the end, turn out to be a good confusion, for we are trying to capture something of the world view of the New Testament, and of the classical Christian tradition following it. This world view cannot help synthesizing the downward and upward movements of God with his ordered plan for human history. Indeed, it must be so because the descent of Christ from heaven, and his return there, do not leave the world unaffected, but instead radically define its course.

And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (Jn 14:3).

At this point, we have to reckon with what may seem like an inconsistency in our religious language, indeed with the New Testament itself.1 At times, the spatial aspect is surely metaphorical, as in “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5:31). At other times, the language is quite literal:

As they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:9)

When we profess in the Creed our faith that Jesus “came down from heaven,” that “he ascended into heaven,” and—in the same breath—that he “is seated at the right hand of the Father,” are we, then, unduly mixing metaphorical and literal speech?

Christ “came down from heaven” by becoming incarnate. In this sense, “heaven” means the divine realm or the divine being itself. Medieval theologians called this the “heaven of the blessed Trinity,” a consideration to which we will return. Christ’s coming down means not that as God he leaves anything of divinity behind, just as his “emptying himself” (Phil 2:7) does not mean divesting himself of the divine nature, but instead clothing himself with human nature. Christ “came down” in that he began to exist as man. Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that

…by “the Father’s right hand” we understand the glory and honor of divinity, where he who exists as Son of God before all ages, indeed as God, of one being with the Father, is seated bodily after he became incarnate and his flesh was glorified. 2

But this latter explanation gives us a clue as to Christ’s ascension. If coming down from heaven means taking a human nature, and the Lord never gives up that human nature, then his return to the Father is a human return with a necessarily bodily dimension. Christ was not man before he “came down from heaven,” but he is man now and forever, and so it is as man that he has “ascended into heaven.”

Thus, in the ascension, there is real, physical movement upwards. The humility of becoming man that had to be described as a “descent” demands that the corresponding glorification of that humanity entail a real ascent (Jn 3:13). It is not by accident that the word “humility” comes from the Latin, humus, meaning “ground.” We human beings, raised up from the dust of the earth, cannot help associating the earth, in its physical lowness, with what we mean by “humiliation.” So, too, when we gaze up at the vast blanket of the sky, or study the remote stars, we find a natural symbol for the transcendence of God. The Lord who exalts our flesh, then, had to ascend into the sky so that we sublunary beings could see with our eyes the greatness into which he invites us.

What did that physical, upward movement mean to the classical Christian tradition? After all, their conception of the arrangement of earth vis-à-vis the sun and other celestial bodies was radically different from ours. To summarize the problem, we may make a few observations. First, despite a sadly still-common misconception, the ancient and medieval West did not consider the earth to be flat, nor did it consider the physical universe to be small. Second, on the Ptolemaic view, which was dominant throughout most of the Church’s history, the earth is spherical and is enclosed by larger concentric, transparent spheres in which the moon, sun, other planets, and stars are fixed. These larger spheres, nested one within another, possess their own rotational patterns. As quaint as such a view may seem to us today, it accounts remarkably well for the celestial phenomena that can be observed without advanced instruments.

Here we arrive at the central distinction between the older viewpoint and our own: They saw “up” as having an absolute value, a fixed point of reference. For us, however, even if we think of the sun as the center of our solar system, we also recognize that this same solar system is moving within one of the spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy, itself caught up amid countless galaxies within an expanding universe. Brought up with such images, we have only a relative conception of “up.” For the ancients or medievals, even if two people on opposite poles of the earth were to ascend, they would still be going toward the same spheres in the same sequence, ultimately to the outermost sphere of the so-called empyrean heaven. For us moderns, the only fixed commonality for two such people would be their point of departure. Lacking absolute directionality, we cannot envision their going toward the same place, as the ancients and medievals did, only away from the same place. Thus, whereas the older view could characterize motion by a fixed direction to-which as the ultimate point of reference, the modern view can only refer to the origin from-which.

This allows us to do away with another myth about the older cosmology, namely, that our forebears conceived of the earth in the center of the universe because they thought it was the most important. Hardly! If we misunderstand them along these lines, it is only because our fixed reference point is that of origin, but theirs was that of destiny. They thought of the earth as the center precisely because it was the lowest point in the universe. For the same reason, they conceived of hell at the earth’s core, the lowest of the low, the farthest one could be from the heavens. The whole point of their cosmology, especially as Christianized, was to ascend, to live one’s life with eyes fixed on what is above (Col 3:2). A reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy is enough to rid us of the misconception that geocentrism means a focus on the earth.

When Christ ascended, then, he went up. To the ancient and medieval mind, this meant his entrance into the most real, most noble and actualized space possible, the place that is the aspiration of all life below. Christ for them entered not only an afterlife but a sort of “over-life.” And here we confront what may be the most difficult question: Should we think of Christ as above us in some space congruous with our own? Is the place where he ascended—which must truly be a place in which he now lives as man with his risen body—part of the same physical universe as our own, spatially contiguous with it, even if extraordinarily remote?

If we have a sense that the Copernican revolution has shattered a naïve belief that Christ is literally, physically over us in some location that, with enough resources and time, we could eventually arrive at, we may take some comfort in the fact that the Church has always held that the place to which Christ ascended is mysterious. Indeed, it is not without reason that Scripture emphasizes that the ascended Lord is hidden from our sight (Acts 1:9). Jesus undoubtedly exists in a real place, not only in the “heaven of the blessed Trinity” but in some physical outgrowth of it that he has made fit for human corporeal existence, occupied already by himself, and by our Blessed Mother, but we cannot get there by traversing space. Only he can take us there, in our souls, when admitted to the vision of God, and in our bodies at the general resurrection.3 If the classical Christian tradition envisioned Christ as literally above the earth, based on the cosmology they presumed, they nevertheless agree with us, who presume a post-Copernican cosmology, that Christ’s current location is inaccessible to us, that it is in some mysterious way outside the domain of space as we know it.4 They, like us, knew that we cannot get there by local motion alone. “He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:10). Christ does not enter into some place within the pre-existing scheme of things, he himself prepares it. He creates and defines the heaven above all heavens by his ascension.

Christ is in heaven, his glorious ascent to the Father’s right hand accomplished (Heb 10:12). And yet not fully accomplished, that is, not fully realized in his Church. For while the King already sits on his throne, the train of his robe is still being gathered up (cf. Is 6:1). He rules the Church, but she has not yet been so definitively conformed to him as to share in his reign in a consummate way (Mt 19:28; Lk 22:29–30; 1 Cor 4:8; 15:24). Thus, the pilgrim Church casts her eyes upward, beholding her destiny, where her Lord already is. And, she prays for the coming of his kingdom, that, by the Spirit who descends upon her, earth may be increasingly likened to heaven. She knows that the Lord will come down once more in glory, that “from there he will come to judge the living and the dead” (Acts 1:11; 1 Thess 4:16).

Eschatological hope thus spurs on the Church in her mission, and frees her from undue anxiety. She cannot rest on her laurels because earth is far from heaven. Equally, she cannot despair because heaven already has room for earth.5 The Lord has not left her alone (Jn 14:18). He exists not only behind, in the past, and not only ahead, in the future (Rev 1:8). He remains above, ever-present, and he continues to give himself below in the Eucharist, our pledge of future glory. This bread of life, the true manna that comes down each day, communicates to the faithful on earth precisely the life that Christ now lives, which is the life above (Ex 16:14; Mt 6:11; Rev 2:17). It is a future life, to be sure, but it is a future life already begun, for we are living at the dawn of the last day (Jn 6:54; 21:4, 12).

And so, when the Church looks to the past, she is looking to her future, for her past and her future, like her present, are Christ, who is “the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb 13:8). Some see Christ as an outmoded teacher, a frozen and erstwhile figure, but Christian faith sees him as a bright rising sun on the horizon, a goal as well as a beginning, his message truly news and truly good. He is Alpha not only as past but as present, as the one through whom all reality is even now being made, the spring welling up in this moment. He is Omega not only as future but as present, as criterion and judge, who by the Spirit raises our world up to the Father. History’s meaning can be judged precisely because there is a standard outside and above all history. Thus, the Church professes Christ as the final Word, his teaching never to be rescinded, never to be superseded, for the Teacher is still present, even now casting down rays of light from above.

  1. C. S. Lewis’s analysis of the ascension in chapter 16 of Miracles, from which some of these considerations are drawn, is indispensable.
  2. CCC, 663, quoting St John Damascene, De fide orthodoxa, 4.2. Cf. The Roman Catechism: The Catechism of the Council of Trent, trans. John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan (Rockford, IL: TAN, 1982), 74–75.
  3. Thus, the Catechism remarks, “Only Christ can open to man such access that we, his members, might have confidence that we too shall go where he, our Head and our Source, has preceded us.” CCC, 661.
  4. See, for example, Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae IIIa, q. 57, a. 4.
  5. Joseph Ratzinger makes the point in the Epilogue to the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth that Christ makes a space for humanity in God. Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 2, trans. Philip J. Whitmore (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011).
Fr. Dylan Schrader About Fr. Dylan Schrader

Fr. Dylan Schrader is a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, and a student of theology at Catholic University of America.