Why an Ascension?
We know from the Resurrection narratives that while Jesus possesses a body that is in some sense physical and in continuity with the body that was buried on Good Friday, it is also a glorified and divinized body which manifests the powers of the New Creation. He can, for instance, appear and disappear at will. Locked doors are no obstacle to him. He possesses “indestructible life” and he “will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Hebrews 7:16; Romans 6:9). So a natural question is why any Ascension was needed at all? If he must return to his Father, why not simply disappear or fade away into whatever transcendent dimension he was going to? Indeed, if he is God, why does he need to go anywhere since presumably he is omnipresent and one place is as good as any other as far as being with his Father goes. And, some ask, are we seriously to believe that Jesus flew away into interstellar space and sat down on a literal decorated chair at the right hand of a Father who has no literal right hand?
To begin with, let us recall that God is never under any necessity. He never has to do anything. What he does he chooses to do and what he does in revelation he does for our benefit, not his. That means that the Ascension, like the rest of the drama of redemption, is also for our sake, not his. It is a sign meant for his Church to read. It points to something. But what?
Our primary clues come from the language of the New Testament, which, significantly, links the Ascension with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church. Jesus, for instance, tells us, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Likewise, Paul links the Ascension to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that creates and sustains the Church as the body of Christ:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Ephesians 4:4–16).
The Ascension as Process and Culmination
When we speak of the Ascension, most people have in mind the event experienced by the apostles and commemorated by the Solemnity of the Ascension forty days after Easter, the stuff related in Acts 1:1-11. But, in reality, the New Testament seems to describe something far more mysterious at work in the Ascension than simply Jesus leaving earth and returning to Heaven at the end of his forty days of Easter appearances.
Scripture, in fact, speaks of Jesus being “lifted up” or “raised up” as a sort of process or continual movement throughout the Passion and into Easter, culminating in a final moment of ultimate glorification on Ascension Thursday.
So, for instance, Jesus speaks of his crucifixion using “Ascension language” when he says, “[A]s Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15) and “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he” (John 8:28) and “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).
He likewise uses “Ascension language” to speak of his Resurrection:
“You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” (Matthew 26:31-32)
And John, like Luke, telescopes the Ascension right into Easter Day. For he tells us the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Christ on Easter morning:
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-boni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20:16-17)
Jesus, curiously, has “not yet ascended” on Easter morning. But by that evening he confers the Holy Spirit on his disciples (cf. John 20:22), thereby making clear that he has now, in some sense, ascended since he has already told them that the giving of the Spirit will not happen till he has ascended. And yet, very obviously, he is still with them and will appear to them for forty more days. This is a problem if the Ascension is conceived of as a single event at the end of the Resurrection appearances. But if it is seen as a process reaching from the Passion, through Easter and on to culmination in the moment of the Ascension, it comes into focus.