The Ascension of the Lord
I've always been inquisitive. Like a small child, first discovering the ways of the world around him, I frequently find myself asking the question, why? A child might wonder why the sky is blue, or why we have to eat vegetables. I tend to ask the question more in the context of our faith.
Religion often deals with the mysterious. God and the supernatural are, by definition, above the limits of our human understanding. But that does not make them irrational. Far from it. Faith is a window into great truth. God is the author of reason, and so above all else, any true religion should make sense. It is always a good thing, therefore, to ask why we do what we do and believe what we believe.
The world God created should make sense. Our place in the world should make sense. God's action in the world should make sense. Thinking about the question why often leads us to greater truths about the nature of reality.
One of my big why questions as I first learned about the Catholic faith had to do with the Ascension of the Lord. Why did Jesus leave?
Think about it. The whole Christian religion hinges on the fact that Jesus is the divine Son of God. His resurrection from the dead is the miracle that proves it. The Apostles are witnesses to this miraculous event, and the faith quickly spread throughout the world through their testimony. The Resurrection is the core event of our faith. This is why St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians that if Jesus has not been raised, then our whole faith is in vain and we are the most pitiable of all creatures (1 Cor 15:14). Everything hinges on this fact: Jesus has risen from the dead -- not like Lazarus, who was brought back to life only to die a second time -- but risen forever. Jesus has conquered death.
So why can't you or I take a plane to Jerusalem to go and see Him? Why isn't He still walking the earth today? If Christ has risen from the dead, never to die again, why can't you or I be witnesses to the Resurrection? It's because Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after He rose from the dead. Forty days. That is all the time the world had to be in the presence of the Risen Christ.
What I wanted to know was why? Why did Jesus leave? Why not stay, so that Christians in future generations could see Him, learn from Him, and more deeply believe in Him?
Having been a Christian now for almost two decades, I have come to understand there are many answers to that question.
The Virtue of Faith
One has to do with the virtue of faith. In the letter to the Hebrews, we are told that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb 11:1). When I'm having dinner with my wife, I don't need to have faith in her presence. I can see her sitting across the table. Unless I have some reason to suspect my eyes are playing tricks on me, I know she is there.
The truth of the Resurrection is not like that. I cannot see the Risen Christ. Believing in Him requires faith, which is a virtue. This is why Jesus told Thomas, the last Apostle to witness the Resurrection, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (Jn 20:29). They will be blessed because they have the virtue of faith. So perhaps Jesus ascended to heaven so that we might grow in this virtue, and so be more blessed.
The Promise of the Spirit
Jesus Himself offers the Apostles a reason for why He must leave them. In the days leading up to the Ascension, Jesus warns the disciples that He must soon depart, but assures them that it is good and necessary. In John's gospel, Jesus says, "It is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you" (Jn 16:7).
Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit. In that same passage, Jesus says, "when He comes, the Spirit of truth, He will guide you to all truth" (Jn 16:13).
Jesus did send the Holy Spirit down upon the Church ten days after His ascension, on Pentecost. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then the Holy Spirit is the soul of that body. Just as the soul gives life to the body, the Spirit gives Divine Life to the Church. So Pentecost is rightly considered the "birthday" of the Church.
Why did Jesus have to ascend to the Father in order to send the Holy Spirit to us? Why couldn't both the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity occupy the world at the time? I don't know. These things are great mysteries. Nevertheless, the Lord Himself clearly states that He ascended to heaven in order to send us the great gift of the Holy Spirit.
Christ Was a Pilgrim
In the final analysis, however, I believe there is one very fundamental reason why Jesus ascended into heaven, and it is this: the world is not His home. He doesn't belong here.
That the infinite and eternal Creator God would humble Himself to become man, and enter into His own creation, is a wonder. It only shows that there is nothing our God would not do to be with us. But He doesn't belong here. He is God. The world cannot contain Him. And so when the work He came to accomplish was completed, it is only fitting that Christ would ascend back into heaven, to His proper place.
And here is the ultimate good news of the Ascension. When the Son of God returned to heaven, He did not leave His humanity behind. Jesus, true God and true man, ascended into heaven as true God and true man. Human nature is now a part of the divine Godhead in heaven.
What this means for us, brothers and sisters, is that this world is not our home, either. Not any more. Like Christ, we are pilgrims in this world, on our way to a better place.
Before He left them, Christ assured the Apostles that there are many rooms in His Father's house, and that He was going to prepare a place for them. "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be" (Jn 14:3).
An old Christian adage says that God became man so that man might become like God. And the more we become like God, the less we will feel at home in this world. This is why Christians claim to be "in the world, but not of the world." This is why we expect persecution. This is why we no longer seek solace in worldly pleasures. We cannot get too comfortable here, because like Jesus, this is not where we belong.
Our Lord has gone before us. Here we stand, like the men of Galilee, looking up into the sky, our eyes fixed on heaven, our eternal home. We long to be there with Jesus, and we have faith that He will one day return, to bring us home with Him to share in His glory.