Of all the conundrums that have come to vex and confound us, there are three that continue uniquely to rivet the attention. Each provides a key to the great and enduring realities of the Christian life. What can we know (Faith)? What ought we to do (Charity)? And, finally, in whom may we trust (Hope)? If, in the evening of our lives, answers to the first two are still not to be found, it may be too late to begin inquiries about them. But in the light of Ascension Thursday, that stupendous feast we celebrate forty days after the Lord’s Resurrection, we have got the answer to the third and final question, although few of the faithful these days pay much heed to what it means.
Well, what does the Lord’s Ascension mean? This ultimate conquest of sin and death, does it even signify? It does indeed and the answer is nothing less than the blinding affirmation that we are bound for glory, destined to experience a land beyond the stars that will overflow with the radiance of unending bliss and transfiguring joy. Pope Benedict XVI put it very well when, thirty years ago in Dogma and Preaching, he described the Church’s celebration of the feast as “the expression of our belief that in Christ human nature, the humanity in which we all share, has entered into the inner life of God in a new and hitherto unheard of way. It means that man has found an everlasting place in God.”
Here, without doubt, is the supreme moment in the life of Christ, the final climactic event to the work of his Redemption. Face to face with the mystery intended from the beginning, which is nothing less than the Incarnate-Son sitting in glory alongside the Father, we too await a common destiny, that of God himself coming to confer the crown of everlasting life upon those who love him. It means that even as Christ belongs no more to a fallen and corrupt world, so also will we who cleave to Christ find refuge forever in the arms of God. Is it not passing strange, however, that so often this is the very thing most of us are unlikely ever to be thinking about at the moment? What a perverse silence has fallen upon us in the face of so triumphant a prospect!
One would think people already anchored to the event of the Lord’s Resurrection, accustomed therefore to be ready at a moment’s notice for the sudden return of the Bridegroom, would be the first to anneal themselves in hope. But in order for Christ to come back, crashing through the ceiling of the cosmos one final and triumphant time, he needs first to go away. Isn’t that, after all, the whole point of the Ascension? To return to his Father only after having first gathered up the shards of scattered humanity in order to present the whole redeemed actuality before the Throne of Victory? What else is there for us in the Lord’s end—but our beginning?
The Scriptures are wonderfully plainspoken about all this, by the way, telling us that, moments before the ascent back to the Father, thus completing the circuit begun thirty-three years before with that daring descent into the brokenness of our world, Christ leaves two promises in the care of the Church he will shortly fashion from his pierced and crucified side. “I go to prepare a place for you,” he first tells his disciples, “that where I am you too may be” (Jn 14:3). Followed by this sublime assurance: “I shall not leave you orphans” (Jn 14:18).
Two promises are thus made, one for eternity, the other for time. Both entrusted to those whom he loved to the very end. First there is the gift of everlasting life, then the capacity to endure even this life. Each locked in the treasury of Holy Church, Christ’s spotless Bride, whose keys unlock all the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Before taking leave of his disciples, in other words, Christ evinces this great anxiety lest they think he is merely tossing them to the four winds. Instead, he tells them, the disciples, including all who have been summoned to come after—yes, even unto the consummation of the world—that we shall be guided and shaped across the great and fearful sea of history by a very special wind, namely, the breath of God’s own Spirit, who will unfailingly impart enough comfort and counsel for us to overcome the world. “I am with you always,” he tells us, “until the end of the world” (Mt 28:19). The form or modality this being-with-you takes, of course, is no less than the Third Person of the Trinity, the One who from all eternity spirates the love of Father and Son. He is God’s presence within us, in our innermost being, even as he remains entirely transcendent to us.
All of which, of course, crucially depends on Christ being raised up in the midst of his astonished apostles, only to vanish in a cloud that seemingly carries him straight to the Father. Because until that moment of actual Ascension, truly the pivotal turning point in our relationship with God, the unleashing of the Holy Spirit may not take place. The release of the Spirit—that hovering and mysterious Presence who, in the exquisite imagery of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright / wings”—can only take place when Christ in his blessed humanity is raised to receive the praise and honor of the Father. Only then may the promised Pentecostal fire fall into the gap, the time-bound interval between Ascension and Parousia. Between the time of already and not yet, there necessarily falls the bright shadow of the Spirit, whose sending awaits the Ascension of the Son.
How well our ancestors in the faith understood this when they placed the Christ of the Ascension in the dome of their churches. Like a lance aimed at the heart of God, as someone once said of the art and impulse of the Gothic, here was the very point of the spear itself, thrust through the dome that opens onto the Godhead. Our ancestors realized with the certitude and intuition of real belief that an entirely new beginning has been struck, that the last days had surely come. That he who was the splendor of the Father, the effulgence of eternity itself—who had, indeed, first burst into the darkness of a fallen world—was now bathed in a light and warmth so incandescent as to illumine all creation.
What the feast of the Ascension means is that the One who had to leave us for a time, even to the extent of taking physical leave of those whom he most loved in the world, is thereby much closer to us now. It is simply not accurate to speak of the Ascension in terms of even the briefest of absences, as though Christ were in any way missing from the world he first suffered to redeem. Inasmuch as he holds the entire cosmos in his hands, Pope Benedict reminds us, “the Lord’s Ascension means that Christ has not gone far away from us, but that now, thanks to the fact that he is with the Father, he is close to each one of us forever.”
When we speak of heaven, therefore, we do so in terms of going home to Jesus, who remains at the deepest level the place we designate as heaven. And by thus entering into his life, mysteriously prolonged now in his Body the Church, we become citizens of that other world. “All the way to heaven, is heaven, ” Jesus tells Catherine of Siena. “Because I am the Way.” His having first gone there himself to prepare a place—that is what we mean by the Lord’s Ascension. From that lofty pinnacle above the careworn world, Christ is enabled thus to stoop once more to lead us by the hand, shepherding us to the place where, from all eternity, he will never tire of telling us how completely it shall burnish and perfect our Easter joy.