Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, February 18, 2018

MsgrLiptak_TNQ. What, specifically, are we to believe concerning Jesus’ Ascension? The paintings of Christ ascending upon the clouds is only symbolic of the reality, I know. But what is the reality?

A. First, it is important to state that the Ascension of Christ is an article of faith. Don’t we say as much in the Creed recited every Sunday at Mass, as well as in the Apostles’ Creed? (The Nicene Creed reads, "He [Christ] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father"; see Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 659-667. The Apostles’ Creed reads, "He ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty"; see "Treasury of Prayer," in The Vatican II Sunday Missal.)

Both of these ancient Creeds reflect the data in all four Gospels, together with St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, which reveal that Jesus’ post-Easter appearances eventually come to an end. Indeed, St. Paul declares that he was the very last to see the risen Lord prior to the Ascension; specifically, "And last of all He [Christ] was seen by me also…" (1:15, 8)

The Catechism, Nos. 659 sqq., cited above, helps us to understand this mystery of Jesus’ Ascension. For further theological insights, Pope Benedict XVI, in his latest book, Volume II of Jesus of Nazareth, published this year (2011), is immensely helpful.

Pope Benedict explains that the Ascension, which marks Jesus’ departure, does not mean his leaving us "into a remote region of the cosmos, but, rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy."

The fact remains that the disciples were convinced that the ascended Christ is "now present to them [and to us today] in a new and powerful way."

Pope Benedict explains that the language which the New Testament Scriptures uses suggests that the "place" toward which Jesus ascended was not a nebulous "cosmic" scene because God "is not in one space alongside others." Rather, God is the premiss as well as "the ground of all the space there is," yet he himself "is not part of it." In other words, God relates to "all spaces as Lord and Creator. His presence is not spiritual but divine." Thus, the Biblical expression of Christ’s sitting at the right hand of God means "participating in this divine dominion over space."

All of which means that the risen Lord Jesus, having returned to the Father’s right hand, is nonetheless close to us. The pathway, however, is "not a matter of space travel of a cosmic-geographical nature: it is the ‘space-travel’ of the heart…"

Again, the theology surrounding Christ’s ascent into heaven is complex and profound. But it is so spiritually enriching that it never simply amounts to no more than a theoretical exercise of the mind.

This theology helps us comprehend that the Ascension does not signify that Christ has "gone away," but rather that "he is present with us and for us" – in Pope Benedict’s words, Christ’s "going away" is really a "coming" into our very midst, accessible in faith to all who seek him.