Ascension: Weaning and the Transformation of Our Relationship with Jesus
Continuing from yesterday….
Perhaps the best thing to do is take Jesus at his word and look at his behavior in his Resurrection appearances. Mary Magdalene’s perfectly natural response to seeing Jesus alive appears to have been to “hold” him. Jesus gently but firmly has to command her to let go of him. Her hope is to continue the earthly relationship exactly as it had been before and his very clear message is that this will be impossible. He must go away.
Similarly, in Matthew 28:9-10, the women meet the risen Christ and take “hold of his feet” with the same result: he sends them away, back to the disciples rather than inviting them to stay there and cling to him in mere prolongation of their former earthly relationship. In the same way, Jesus demonstrates the same movement away from the apostles in the only Resurrection appearance to them that Matthew records. Like Luke, Matthew telescopes Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost into a single moment and gives us a curious “Ascension and Pentecost scene without the Ascension and Pentecost” as the risen Christ declares that he now holds all power over heaven and earth (pure Ascension language) and sends the apostles away in the power of the Holy Spirit with the promise that he will be with them to the end of the age (pure Pentecost language).
Likewise, in Luke 24:13-35, the disciples on the Emmaus Road, not yet realizing who Jesus is, ask him to stay with them. He remains with them just long enough to take bread, bless it, break it and give it to them—in other words, to celebrate the Eucharist—and then “their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:31). When they recall the incident later, they will, with enormous significance, describe it as the moment “he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). In other words, it is through the Eucharist that their relationship with him shall continue. It is there that he is really present henceforth.
In short, what the gospels and Acts consistently describe is a series of Easter appearances in which Jesus appears to have gone through a process of, as it were, weaning the Church from its earthly relationship with him in order to prepare his disciples for an entirely new order of relationship. He offers himself to them and assures them of his bodily resurrection, demonstrating both that the body he has is in continuity with his earthly body (proven by the empty tomb, his eating and drinking with them, and the wounds of his Passion) and also that this body is glorified and partakes of a new and divinized existence, demonstrated by his power to appear and disappear and enter through locked doors. But at the same time, he steadily scotches any hope his disciples might have of a merely endless mortal existence, precisely because his kingdom is not of this world.
The climax of Jesus’ dashing of all hopes of a never-ending earthly relationship comes at the moment of the Ascension itself, when his apostles make one last request based on such hopes, saying, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The old dreams of merely endless prolongation of earthly relationship, but now spiced up with political power and a new Davidic kingdom with an immortal King Jesus leading the troops into battle against earthly enemies is something humans keep pestering God to give them, and the apostles are no exception. Every antichrist in history has promised his followers Heaven on earth, with perfect enjoyment of power and earthly pleasure. It is the ultimate idolatry and always leads to horror. Jesus utterly kills that dream with his reply and presses home yet again that his relationship with them, while it will absolutely continue—to the “close of the age”, in fact (Matthew 28:20)—will be of an entirely different order than it was while he was here in his mere mortal flesh:
It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).
The kingdom they fantasize about will conquer their enemies, not by force of arms or any human means, but by the power of the Spirit.
Precisely the same transformation of relationship is taught in the last—and unique—appearance of the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road to Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-19). When the risen and ascended Jesus appears to Saul, he does not say to him “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” He says, “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul sees the risen Christ—and then immediately ceases seeing him or anything else until Ananias is sent to baptize him and open his blinded eyes. Once again, the risen Christ moves away so that the believer can encounter him through the Spirit-filled Church and the sacraments. Jesus identifies himself completely with the Church, a mystery Paul will spend the rest of his life unpacking in his meditations on the Church that he alone in the New Testament will habitually call “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Henceforth, our relationship with Jesus will, as Paul notes, be mediated to us through one another and through the sacraments as we become his Body, the Church, by our participation in his Body, the Eucharist.