El Greco depicts the resurrection, the ascension and glorification of Christ all in one. The thin, stretched body of Christ rises like a rocket heavenwards. The guards shrink in terror. Christ’s body stretches heavenwards, straining towards its spiritual future, not rejecting what is human but seeking its spiritual completion. Christ becomes what we will become.
For John, likewise, ascension and glorification at the Father’s right hand are integral to the resurrection mystery. In John Jesus seems to reign from the cross. Also, the moment Judas leaves the Last Supper, John comments “now is the Son of Man glorified”. From this moment onwards victory is assured, if not fully savoured on our part.
Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, today’s first reading, paints a picture for us. Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus was “lifted up” by God to heaven and a cloud, symbolising the presence of God, took him from their sight. Luke has spaced out the mysteries of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and glorification. We watch and understand.
Is there a contradiction between these different presentations? Not really. One view is more theological; going to the essence of what ascension means. The other is more catechetical; trying to explain spiritual realities in ways we can grasp. Thus the ascension becomes another of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to strengthen the faith of the disciples.
The letter to the Hebrews offers a third way to understand the Ascension. Hebrews compares Jesus’ Ascension into heaven with the Jewish high priest’s entry once-a-year into the Holy of Holies. Just as the high priest took the blood of calves and sheep and entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the Ark of the Covenant with the blood, so Jesus through his sacrificial death has entered heaven and taken his seat at God’s right hand.
Three points to ponder
(1) My human body defines me and is God’s gift. Christ, human like us, has ascended to heaven bodily. He has placed “our human nature, which he had united to himself” at the Father’s right hand. Christ’s ascension assures that our human bodies will one day follow and reach their full and glorious heavenly potential.
(2) Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost. Jesus, no longer among us in human form, missions the Holy Spirit to be with his Church and with each of us individually. Next Sunday’s feast will be enhanced in our community when the bishop receives 17 students into full communion with the Church.
(3) With the help of the Holy Spirit our mission is to tell the world about the Good News of Jesus Christ!
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Ian Tomlinson SJ