Ascension: Against Gnostic and Fundamentalist Readings of the Ascension

Published May 19, 2021

Continuing from yesterday…

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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”.[1] 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).


[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.84.i.

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More tomorrow…

9 Responses

  1. Fulton Sheen explains the ascension in this way: the world continued to spin, but Jesus stood perfectly still, no longer subject to the laws of time and the velocity in which the earth was spinning. It was the apostles that moved away from him.

    1. Goes to show that Bishop Sheen understood relativity very well. Just goes to show what frame of reference you are using!

      1. “what frame of reference”

        I’m not entirely sure what you mean (but I think I do), and I no longer feel confidence in what people call conservative or liberal.

        It has broken me so much. But in a good way.

        Pax Christi my friend.

  2. “frame of reference” is what you measure things against. Does the earth stand still and the universe revolve around it? Sure, you can measure everything from that point of view. I just makes your calculations a lot more complicated, which was what Copernicus said when he posited a solar-centre for the solar system. But of course, the sun is no more stationary than the earth … depends on your frame of reference.

    I was only making a fairly pathetic physics-geeky type of joke, I’m afraid – not thinking of moral relaivism.

    Some Catholic friend once said that, when it comes to the conservative/liberal spectrum, he was far to the left of the most fervent Communist, and far to the right of the most extravagant Fascist; he was a Catholic.

    1. Political Christianity (classically understood) is fiscally progressive and socially conservative, and you don’t really have this political tradition in the English-speaking world, which leads to all kinds of confusion. There’s no tradition of Christian Democracy like there is in continental Europe and Latin America. Maybe there was some in British Labour early on (“more to Methodism than Marx”) but that’s long gone.

    2. I’ll have to think about that “far to the right of the most extravagant Fascist” part.

      For the time being, instead of feeling that I am in any camp, I mainly rely on a more refined b.s. meter, which can (mostly) only be acquired with age.

      I confess that a few months ago I played some dirty pool with my very matriarchy 85-year-old mother. I very dramatically stated that I was going to pray to Padre Pio and the Little Flower, so that my plans would prevail over her plans. Heh heh. (Just to keep it real, I really did.) If she gets extra sassy again, I’ll up the ante and tell her that I’m doing a novena to Our Lady of Fatima. That’ll cool her engines.

      1. I very dramatically stated that I was going to pray to Padre Pio and the Little Flower, so that my plans would prevail over her plans.

        Did it work?

  3. So far so good.

    The point of contention makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It’s too soon to see how it goes. Someday I might write it all down. It is tragically hilarious, and involves what is now our (away from home) bedroom in a wing of her house. My father gave it to me when he was dying of cancer. He brought it up–not me. He didn’t care about all of the wars he had fought in there anymore. It had been his favorite retreat where he wrote books and papers and articles. It housed thousands of books, a couple of guns, all of his various degrees and honors upon the wall…and termites, black mold, a leaky pipe that caused the palm roots outside to aggressively invade..the leaky skylight with mold between the two panes…rat traps still bated with peanut butter…

    Over the years my husband has repaired the leaks, replastered the ceiling, refurbished the leaky skylight.

    Oddly enough, my mother still pined for it all –to stay the same. Her entire 11 bedroom home has become a museum and memorial to his memory. It didn’t matter if black mold was underneath the carpet due to that leaky pipe that had persisted for years. Everything we changed became an affront to her and his memory.

    One of the last acts of treason was the repair of the warped wooden subfloor. It required that the thousands of books in bookcases resting upon that floor– (including Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter —needed to be moved. This time I played my cards right, so I could dutifully report that I didn’t throw a single book away. They were housed beneath the large altar in the presidio style chapel, in a big old armoire, and a closet…

    If I was a betting woman, I’d say that 50% of the problem stems from my only brother who wishes everything was his. On his last outburst I said, “what. (?) We are improving your real estate, how can that hurt you?” But envy is the worm that never dies. It was becoming too much “ours”.

    My mother suddenly gave me a *letter* (she is famous for her letters when she is displeased) even though we were living on the same property at the time –asking me to put back everything the way it was before. It didn’t matter that my husband had spent tens of thousands to repair everything, including a substantial portion of her roof as well. It doesn’t matter that her room is 5x larger and could house all of those books more easily.

    She couldn’t see what she was asking–IS asking.

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