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The Angels of the Ascension

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Holy Spirit could not have been more clear in revealing the role of the angels in the life of Jesus Christ. It was an angel who announced the Incarnation of the Son of God. It was angels who announced to the shepherds His birth in Bethlehem. It was angels who warned the Magi not to go back to Herod after their visit to the newborn Christ. It was angels who directed Joseph to take Mary to Egypt and return to Nazareth after the death of Herod. It was an angel who came to assist Christ after His temptations by the devil. It was an angel who strengthened the Savior in His agony in Gethsemane. It was angels who were at the tomb from which Christ had risen and who instructed the devoted women to tell the disciples that Christ was once more on earth, but now in His glorified humanity. As the climax to the angelic role in the history of Christ’s visible life on earth, it was angels, once more who appeared to the staring disciples who were still looking up to the sky after Jesus had ascended to His heavenly Father.

If we would place Christ’s ascension to heaven into historical context, we must combine two narratives in St. Luke the evangelist. In the closing verses of his gospel he simply tells us that Christ departed from His disciples, blessed them, and as He parted from them was carried up to heaven. After this short narrative, Luke ends his gospel with the word, “Amen.”

We know, however, that St. Luke continued where his gospel ended. He wrote the Acts of the Apostles as a continuation of his gospel. Thus he opens the Acts with a statement, “In the former book, I spoke of all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day on which He was taken up after He had given commandments through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom He had chosen.

It was again Luke, the physician turned historian, who tells us that Christ remained on earth in His visible glorified body for forty days. To reassure the apostles that it was really He and not, as they first suspected, a mere ghost, “While eating with them, He charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father (and) the Holy Spirit not many days hence.”

No sooner had Jesus given His last instruction to the disciples than He left them to return to the Father, but now in His glorified humanity, but as the Church tells us, with the wounds in His hands and feet and the open wound in His side. The story of Christ’s visible stay on earth would not be complete if the angels were not identified with His Ascension into heaven.

It is not surprising that St. Luke does not allow the Savior to ascend into heaven and say nothing more. Christ’s last discourse reveals how confused the apostles were after all the Christ has done to reassure them that the gospel was for real. That they were, forty days after Christ rose from the dead. The one who had been crucified, died and was buried was now walking and speaking and eating in the presence of His chosen ones. And what was on their mind? They asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” How dense can the human mind be? After all Christ had taught them for three years and all the miracles He performed, their minds were still on earth and on material things. The Jews were under Roman domination. Most of them expected the Messiah to be a military leader who would deliver the Chosen People from Roman bondage. Christ did not answer their question. Rather He told them to wait and pray because soon they would receive “power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you shall be witnesses - read ‘martyrs’ - for me in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth.”

These are the last recorded words of Jesus Christ during His visible stay on earth. He was giving His disciples of all ages the mission, which the Holy Spirit would enable them to fulfill. They were to proclaim His name to the ends of the earth and pay the price of their proclamation even with the blood of their lives. Having said this the author of the Acts continues:

He was lifted up before their eyes, and a cloud took Him out of their site. While they were gazing up to heaven, as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white garments and said to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, shall come in the same way, as you have seen Him going up to heaven.”

The angels in human form then disappeared. Following Christ’s instructions, the disciples returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives from which Christ had ascended into heaven. It was the fulfillment of His Agony in the Garden. Now they were to pray and wait, in the company of Mary, for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The Fathers of the Church are unanimous in teaching that as the mystery of the Nativity inaugurated the work of Christ so His Ascension completed it. Moreover, just as the angels were entrusted to communicate to Mary the first of these mysteries, so they were the admirers and messengers of the second mystery. St. Gregory Nazianzen described Jesus as “calling together the friendly powers to share His joy with them just as He initiated them to His Incarnation.” St. John Chrysostom is even more specific. He compares the role of the angels in the two mysteries:

When our Lord was born according to the flesh, the angels, seeing that He was being reconciled with man, cried, “Glory to God in the Highest.” Do you want to know how they rejoiced at the Ascension? Listen to the account of the bible, “They rise and descend continuously.” That is the behavior of those who want to contemplate a very special site. They want to see the unheard of spectacle of man appearing in heaven. That is why the angels are constantly showing themselves: when He was born, when He dies, when He rises into heaven.

Behind this lengthy quotation of St. John Crysostom lies the deep mystery of what the Ascension of Christ really means. It was not only the historical fact that Christ was reunited in body and thus glorified, ascended into heaven. His ascension is a manifestation of the exaltation of human nature. The Word of God assumed a human nature above all the angelic orders, which are naturally superior to the human race. Christ’s going to heaven, we may say, was the unheard of spectacle of the angelic hosts seeing God in human, and not angelic form. The angels had no illusion of what this meant. It meant that the angels were expected to practice the humility of adoring their God united with a created nature that was far below their own angelic dignity.

The ascension of Christ was more than just the raising of a human body above the earth and above the clouds. Surely Christ did not physically travel the millions of light year miles from earth to heaven. Throughout the scriptures, we are told to raise our minds and hearts, to lift up our spirit, to rise above the things of this world. This aboveness is not only or even mainly a spatial elevation. It is in the deepest sense of the word, a transportation from the world of space and matter and size and weight and bulk and quantity. Christ’s ascension into heaven is the Holy Spirit’s way of telling us that, already on earth, we should be living in the heavens above.

All the creeds of Christendom affirm the fact of Christ’s Ascension. We believe on faith that He ascended into heaven in body and soul. He ascended into heaven by His own power, as God in Divine Power and as man in the power of His transfigurate soul. We further believe that Christ’s transfigured soul transfigured His body.

In the modern world of skepticism, our first duty is to resist the temptation of rationalism, which denies the doctrine of the Ascension. As early as the second century, a heretic by the name of Celsus explained the Ascension as a borrowing from pagan mythology. Our first responsibility, therefore, is to accept the Ascension as a historical fact. The body of Christ actually rose from the ground; it actually rose to the skies. The disciples were eyewitnesses of the event. St. Luke tells us that Christ “was lifted up before their eyes, and a cloud took Him out of their site.”

There are two kinds of truths in our Christian faith. There are revealed mysteries like the Trinity or the Real Presence. We accept these mysteries with our intellect without comprehending how they are true. We rely on the wisdom and truthfulness of God to accept them by humility of mind. Other truths of our faith are historical facts, like Christ’s visible life in Palestine, His Sermon on the Mount, His passion and death and Resurrection. His Ascension into heaven is therefore both a historically verifiable fact and a revealed mystery of faith. We can say that the Ascension is part of authentic history. But this historical event has a depth of meaning that transcends our natural ability to fully understand. What we are not saying is that the fact of Christ’s Ascension is something we merely believe. No we know it. It took place. Anyone who denies the facts of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension should deny all the facts of recorded history.

The angels chiding the disciples for standing there looking up at the sky is a message to all of us. There is work to be done. The disciples staring up at the heavens is also a warning to us. There is such a thing as staring in wonder at the marvels of God’s providence, without trying to understand what the Lord is telling us.

Humanly speaking the disciples thought to themselves, “Well, this is it. It was great to be in the company of the Master for three years. But now He is gone.” That is why the angel reminded them of what they had heard more than once from our Lord. There is a second coming of the Savior. His first coming was to suffer and die for our salvation. His second coming will be for our glorification. In the meantime, the disciples were to put into practice all that Jesus had instructed them. There is such a thing as accumulating a treasury of grace from God, storing it in a warehouse and then wondering why we received the grace in the first place. Grace is given to us to be put to use. Between Christ’s first and second comings, there is our task to follow Christ faithfully and patiently and sufferingly here on earth, in order to be ready for His second coming when He calls us to our heavenly destiny.

St. Luke’s introduction to the angelic message of Christ’s Ascension is a manifesto of what we, like the disciples, are expected to do. We are to proclaim Christ crucified and glorified to a world that desperately needs His teaching. We are promised nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit to be martyrs, as St. Luke’s Greek makes it clear, to witness to the Savior even at the price of our blood. But we ourselves must, first of all, be convinced. Only convinced people can convince others. Only convinced believers have the courage of living a martyr’s life and, if need be, dying a martyrs death. We must believe with deep, unqualified, unambiguous conviction. We must be absolutely certain that the same Jesus who walked and talked and ate and slept like a man was Infinite God who assumed a human nature to teach us how we are to live.

Christ’s Ascension into heaven was a prelude, to coin a word, to His decension from heaven back to earth. When He comes again, as the angels foretold, we must be prepared. Our preparation to join Christ, in His body and we in ours, spells out all the meaning there is to our life on earth. Provided we unite ourselves with Jesus crucified. We shall join Him, the ascended Lord, who is Jesus glorified.

Mary, mother of Jesus, your divine Son ascended into heaven by His own divine power. Soon after you were assumed into heaven to join Him in the body which you first gave Him at His conception at Nazareth. Teach us the only lesson we really have to learn here on earth, to always do what He tells us to, so that we may join Him and you on our assumption day at the end of the world. Amen.

Dallas Carmelites, Conference #16, Thursday 2/29/96, 2:30 PM

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

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