Ascension: Against Gnostic and Fundamentalist Readings of the Ascension
Continuing from yesterday…
Jesus Ascended in His Full Humanity by the Power of His Full Divinity
Some people have the notion that the Ascension signifies the moment that Jesus shed his human nature and dissolved back into pure deity. In this view, we once again encounter the conviction that the Resurrection was just an audio-visual aid to prove to his thick disciples that Jesus still existed. But once they got that through their heads, according to this view, Jesus then supposedly dumped his humanity and went back to simply being God. A lot of science-fiction imagery from Organian Energy Beings on Star Trek (who have evolved beyond the need for physical bodies) to Yoda’s and Obi-wan’s dissolution into non-corporeal form in Star Wars helps along this fundamentally gnostic notion that “Higher” equals disembodied or de-humanized.
But, in fact, this is dead opposite of what the New Testament actually teaches about the Ascension. For, in fact, the Incarnation establishes, the Resurrection ratifies, and the Ascension triple-underscores the shocking reality that the union of God and man in Jesus’ human and divine natures is eternal. As Jesus himself says, “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man” (John 3:13). Precisely because the Son of God has descended into our human condition to become the Son of man in the Incarnation, the Son of man can now ascend back to Heaven, fully God and fully man.
Jesus, in his divine nature, is always in union with the Father. As he put it, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). His deity was veiled during the Incarnation, but always there. This is the point of the mysterious scene in the gospels when Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain and is transfigured there (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8). We are given a glimpse of the full glory of his deity as a reminder of who he is always and at all times. In a certain sense, his divine glory even remains partially veiled after his Resurrection. As the Catechism puts it, “[D]uring the forty days when he eats and drinks familiarly with his disciples and teaches them about the kingdom, his glory remains veiled under the appearance of ordinary humanity” (Cf. Acts 1:3; 10:41; Mark 16:12; Luke 24:15; John 20:14-15; 21:4) (CCC 659). His divine nature has, as it were, nowhere to go. There is nothing in all creation higher than his deity and so that divine nature cannot ascend.
But precisely because his human nature is in perfect union with his deity, he can, as man, ascend both in the sense of being divinized and glorified and even in the sense of changing his physical location—including, should he choose, to rise into the sky. Changing that location cannot, of course, bring him closer to God physically since God is omnipresent. But by the sign of movement toward the heavens and disappearance into the “cloud”, the Ascension communicates to his disciples the full glorification of Jesus’ humanity, not his shedding of it.
This is not, of course, to say that Jesus “flew away into outer space”. Remember: the Ascension is for our sake, not his. As St. Thomas tells us, “the received is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver”. Jesus’ Ascension is done in order to provide a sign intelligible to humans who thought, not in terms of outer space, but in terms of Old Testament imagery. The sign of Jesus in his full humanity being taken up into a cloud–also intelligible to the mind of any five-year-old–is “He ascended into Heaven”, not space. He returned to where he came from. He did not come from interstellar space and the apostles have no thought of such a thing. The “cloud” that receives him at the Ascension is not water vapor but the Shekinah—the glorious divine luminosity signifying the Presence of the same God who accompanied Israel at the Red Sea (Exodus 13:21–22), that awed Israel at Sinai (Exodus 19:16), and that came down on the tabernacle and the temple where God dwelt above the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant (Numbers 9:15-23; 2 Chronicles 5:13-14).