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Retreat on the Credo
Faith in Christs Presence in Heaven
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The second, third, fourth and fifth articles of the Creed profess our faith in Christ's earthly visible presence. The sixth proclaims our faith in Christ's presence beyond this world in heaven. "He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty."
We consequently believe in two distinct mysteries: the ascension which took place in time and Christ's continued presence at the right hand of His Father which began in time but is destined never to end.
The Ascension. What do we mean when we say that Christ ascended into heaven? We mean that He literally left the earth forty days after the resurrection and entered into heaven body and soul. Christ ascended into heaven by His own power as God, but also by His own power as Man; because one of the qualities of a glorified person is to enable that human being to move the body at will. Won't that be great! All the passages of the New Testament affirm that Christ was elevated or raised; and therefore we may legitimately declare that He ascended. This does not mean that Christ had to physically move through thousands of miles of space until at long dreary last He made heaven. It does mean that Christ physically left the earth in visible form. By the way, whenever we speak of Christ having left the earth at the ascension, always invariably add in visible form. Because Christ did not leave the earth; that's what the Eucharist is all about. He therefore left the earth in visible form and He is now present visibly as the object of adoration and love of the angels and saints on high, visibly not only in spirit - as spirit can behold spirit, but visibly in body.
In St. Luke's account in the Acts of the Apostles, Christ had told His disciples they were to be His witnesses in Judea, Samaria and even to the ends of the earth. "As He said this, He was lifted up while they looked on, and a cloud took Him from their sight. They were still staring in the sky when two men in white were standing near them and they said, "Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky? Jesus, Who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same way you have seen Him go there."
The ascension therefore was a real historical event. It actually took place in the presence of the startled disciples. Why the ascension? Over the centuries the Church has reduced all possible reasons to four, why Jesus Christ ascended into heaven. Each of these reasons is also a lesson for us to learn; because the ascension is a powerful lesson in divine pedagogy.
First reason: humility glorified. St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians puts it this way. Christ, he told the Philippians was the infinite Son of God. The Philippians were having trouble with the manifestations of pride. To help them be more humble he recalled the mystery of the Incarnation, which is God's humiliation. God humbled Himself by becoming one like us. He not only became Man, but He chose to suffer even to death on the cross. That's Paul prelude to the reason for the ascension. "God raised Him high and gave Him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
The first purpose of the ascension then is that Christ might be glorified because He had humbled Himself. The ascension was God's reward for the descent. This moreover is the verdict of sacred history: God exalts the humble, He raises the lowly, He glorifies those who are little in their own eyes and who serve the Lord with patient resignation to the will of God. The desire for recognition, for acceptance and glorification is built into the human heart and may be said to be the strongest human desire after the desire for self-preservation. So we want to be glorified. The secret is to be prudent and patient, prudent in recognizing that the divinely ordained means for glorification are present humiliation, and the patience is wait for such publicity as we could never have achieved on earth, once we are glorified.
Second reason: our mediation continued. Christ ascended into heaven in order to continue His work of redemption. During His mortal life the Savior merited our salvation. (And we've got to use the right verbs here.) He merited our salvation. That part is finished; only a mortal human being can merit; Christ is no longer a mortal human being. But now, as St. Paul tells us, Christ is in the actual presence of God on our behalf. He redeemed us - past tense - by dying on the Cross; He now continues to intercede for us before His Father to obtain the communication or distribution or conferral of all the myriad graces He won for us on the Cross. Thus, the Mass today is effective only because Christ died on Calvary to win God's mercy, but also because Christ now in heaven is pleading for us that we may be worthy to receive the blessings merited for us in the Passion. Christ not only was our High Priest, He still is, and He is doing that mediation by intercession now in heaven.
Third reason for the ascension: the gift of the Holy Spirit. As the Savior told the Apostles at the Last Supper, He went to heaven so that He might send us the Holy Spirit. Because Christ went to heaven, we now possess sanctifying grace and the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Because He went, He sent us the Holy Spirit, Who is in us and penetrates our very being with the greatness of His love.
We speak in theology of there having been two missions from God, otherwise known as two sendings, two ways in which God was sent by God. What was the first sending, known theologically as the first mission? That was the sending of the Second Person by the First in visible form, otherwise known as the Incarnation. But that was only the beginning. What was the second sending? This time it was the Second Person sending the Third, except this time the sending, unlike the first, was invisible. It is only because Christ went to heaven that we have received the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Incarnation began with the Holy Spirit descending on Mary to make the first mission possible; the Incarnation was completed by the same Holy Spirit and descending again on Mary. She was, needless to say, the most important person in that upper room in Jerusalem. In fact, the Church's tradition tells us He first descended on her while Peter, John and the others watched and probably thought to themselves: I wonder if we'll get the Spirit too? They did.
But in order for the Holy Spirit to be sent in the plentitude with which He came on Pentecost and has been on earth ever since, Christ had first to go to heaven even to justify the verb "to send."
Fourth reason. Christ ascended into heaven in order to prepare a place for us. Listen to what He tells us in the Gospel of John. "There are many rooms in My Father's house; if there were not, I should have told you. And after I have gone and prepared a place, I shall return to take you with Me; so that where I am you may be too." There are two second comings. The first at what we call death. It shouldn't be called death; it should be called life. And the second coming at the end of time. Christ's ascension therefore is a prelude to our own, He first and we later. But His going to heaven is the precondition of our getting there with Him, because it is from heaven that we receive the graces we need to reach heaven.
The second part of the sixth article of the Creed tells us we believe that Christ having ascended into heaven is now seated at the right hand of the Father. What does this mean? It is of course symbolic language drawn from the ancient biblical writers, in which a person who has power such as a king or monarch enjoyed was seated at His right hand. It means that the Savior not only as God, because He was always equal to the Father as Son, but Christ also as Man is exalted above all created things and participates in the power and glory of the Divine Majesty. It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of this much overlooked mystery of our faith.
Once God became Man He remains Man. The Incarnation began but it will never end. Jesus Christ yesterday, today and, with emphasis, forever. But more still. Once the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity assumed a human nature, God now dispenses all His graces through this humanity. There is no other way to God. When Christ identified Himself as the Way He was affirming what we are here describing. "No one comes to the Father but by Me." That human nature is the bridge between us and heaven.
Let's look a little more closely to find out what this means. How did God work His stupendous miracles during His visible stay on earth? Always through the humanity of Christ. It was a human voice that told the blind, "Bath your eyes and see." It was a human voice that called out to Lazarus, "Come forth." It was human hands that touched the lame, the blind and the paralytics.
How did Christ work the sublime miracle of changing bread and wine into His own Body and Blood? By the way, one of the great proofs of Christ's divinity. But How did He do it? By taking into His human hands bread and wine and pronouncing with human lips, "This is My Body; this is the chalice of My Blood." And it's those words pronounced now by human lips that effect the same change.
How did Christ communicate to the apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins in His name? Was it not the Man Jesus telling them, "Receive the Holy Spirit" and then breathing on them with human breath to signify the transferal of divine power?
How does Christ now effect the marvelous changes in men's souls, the conversion of sinners, the sanctification of souls and the advancement of God's kingdom throughout the world? It is always and uniquely through the humanity that God assumed and that is now said to be seated at the right hand of the Father. Christ at the right hand of the Father is the King of the universe, not only as God, which He always was, but as Man, which He became by the ascension.
But there is one more important thing we must add before we close the meditation. So Christ being at the right hand of His Father constitutes Him as King; but how effective is Christ's kingship? As effective as we allow it to be. Our faith in Christ, that this Man is God, that this Man in heaven is our Lord, that this Man is really present united with the divinity in the Eucharist, that this Man identifies human beings with Himself, so that what we do to them we are doing to Him, and what we do for them we are doing for Him, this faith in practice determines the degree of His power in our souls. There is radically only one act of faith that a Christian must make, which includes all the rest, and that act of faith is that Jesus the Man is Christ our God. To believe that and act on our faith is to tap the resources of Omnipotence. Sure Christ is almighty, but His power, as we note even from the account of the Evangelists, remember? in some places He could not work miracles, remember? because of the people's lack of faith. It is our faith which, humanly speaking, determines how much of this divine omnipotence Jesus Christ will exercise in our lives and through us in the lives of all whom we touch.
Lord Jesus, seated at the right hand of Your heavenly Father, increase our faith in Your power so that we may dare to do whatever You ask of us. Deepen our love for You especially in the Eucharist where You are really present and in the members of Your Mystical Body whom You want us to serve. Help us, dear Savior, to so please You now on earth as to be one day with You at Your right hand in the kingdom You have prepared for those who believe in You. Amen.
Conference transcription from a retreat
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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