The poor Ascension, I don’t think any other feast of Our Lord’s life is quite as neglected.
We all love Christmas because Jesus comes to us, Easter because Christ rises from the dead and comes back to us, and Pentecost because the Holy Spirit descends to us from heaven. But the Ascension when Jesus leaves us? Why would he do that to us!?
Yet Jesus said it was better for us that He leaves us. (Jn 16:7) He said that the Son of Man must ascend and be lifted up “that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:13-15) Even if we don’t, Jesus seems to take His Ascension pretty seriously.
There are at least nine reasons why the Son of God ascended to the Father, yep nine.
1. To Enter His Glory
Until His Ascension, Christ wasn’t truly glorified. When He rose from the dead, He had a glorified body. Still, His glory remained “veiled under the appearance of ordinary humanity.” (CCC #659) This is why, among other reasons, He says to St Mary Magdalene,
“Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn 20:17)
The Fathers saw in St Mary Magdalene the symbol of the Church. Thus, the Church was not to hold Christ but to rejoice in His Ascension. For with His Ascension, however, Christ truly enters into His divine glory and the Paschal mystery is complete. Only with the Ascension is Christ indeed “exalted to the highest place” (Php 2:9).
2. To Intercede for Us
In the Old Covenant, the high priest had to enter the Holy of Holies to make intercession for the people. In ascending to the Father, Christ enters the true Holy of Holies, exalted above the heavens, seated at the right hand of God, in order to intercede for us. He intercedes to save us from condemnation. (Rom 8:33; Heb 7:25)
Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. (Heb 7:25-26)
He also intercedes to grant us mercy and grace in all our troubles and weakness.
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God… who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:14-16)
3. To Prepare a Place for Us
Christ ascended to prepare for our ascent to heaven. Without the Ascension, we couldn’t enter heaven because we, the Body of Christ, can only go where He, our Head, has gone before us. Where the head goes, the body follows.
In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (Jn 14:2-3)
So close is the relationship between us and Christ that St Augustine could say that “no one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ… not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.”
4. To Send the Holy Spirit
Christ ascended to the Father so that He could send the Holy Spirit upon the Church and into our hearts. This one is the BIG one. Without the Spirit sent by the ascended and glorified Christ, we would have no Christian life of which to speak. We couldn’t know Christ or be united to Him in any way. The whole Christianity thing would be kaput. Jesus tells His disciples that,
“It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (Jn 16:7)
It was also important that the resurrected Christ leave before the Spirit descended. Otherwise everyone would be like, “Wait, Jesus is in Jerusalem but there’s also this crazy stuff going on in Antioch and Athens and God forbid, Australia too… Who’s really in charge here!?” No one wants the Son and Spirit pitted against each other. In fact, so important is this reason that everything from here on is basically an elaboration of what it means for the ascended Christ to send the Spirit. But hey, why stop now?
5. To Establish His Church
We speak of His descent at Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. In truth, it’s more nuanced than that. There are many “constitutings” of the Church that reveal more and more about Her in Christ, beginning at the Incarnation and including Jesus’ Baptism, Calling of the Twelve, Last Supper, Death and Resurrection. The Ascension is also an establishing of the Church because it marks the end of Christ’s earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church’s. For example, at the Ascension, the Apostles begin the essential task of the Church: to watch and pray for His return.
And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-12)
It’s also after the Ascension and before Pentecost that the Apostles show the first self-awareness of being a Church: they gather to pray and to elect a replacement for Judas, St Matthias. We might miss just how remarkable it is that the Apostles, at the instigation of St Peter, do so. After all, up to this point, Jesus Himself appointed the Apostles and even the Seventy-Two (Luke 10:1-23). Now, the Apostles understand that the authority of Christ’s own mission has fallen upon them.
6. To Give Gifts
The Ascension is also associated with the gifts given to the Church. Usually we think of spiritual gifts in relation to Pentecost. And indeed, St Paul writes that receive grace “given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift”, that is the gift of the one Holy Spirit. He goes on,
St Paul specifically refers to the gifts of leadership within the Church in connection with the Ascension. This, I think, is a reminder that these gifts — “some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” — which exercise great power in the Church derive their power from becoming captive to the victorious Christ.
Therefore it is said,“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers… for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.
7. To Increase our Faith
The Ascension isn’t just important for what Christ does by and through His Ascension, but also for our relationship to Him.
With His Ascension, Christian faith comes to the fore. As Christians, we walk by faith and not by sight because faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) We who have never seen Christ in flesh have a different sort of faith from those who saw Him and witnessed His miracles. It’s easy to wish we could walk with Christ like the Apostles did but actually, our faith is more blessed because we don’t.
The Catechism of the Council of Trent says that because of the Ascension, “the merit of our faith was greatly augmented.” After all,
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (Jn 20:29)
These are the words Christ speaks to St Thomas after he said that he wouldn’t believe unless he saw and touched the wounds of Christ. We often imagine St Thomas actually touching Christ’s wounds but Scripture says he simply saw the wounds. True belief, however, is always believing with the heart.
For a man believes with his heart and so is justified… (Rom 10:10)
This is why, when the Holy Spirit comes, he will “convince the word… of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more.” (Jn 16:8, 10) This is our righteousness by faith: that we believe in Christ with our hearts because we can “see God after the Spirit.” (St Augustine, Sermon 93 on the New Testament)
8. To Uplift our Hope
The Ascension also gives us great hope. We’ve touched on this but it’s worth repeating. In knowing our Saviour has gone before us, we have have the incredible hope to follow Him. St Leo the Great wrote,
Since then Christ’s Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised, whither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly-beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven… (St Leo the Great, Sermon 73)
Or to put it another way, the glory of the Head is the hope of the body. This is “Christ in you” — and you in Christ — “the hope of glory.” (Col 1:27) It’s no surprise then the Ascension brings huge joy.
While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:51-53)
I suspect St Peter remembers this very moment when he wrote later to the churches,
Without having seen Him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. (1 Pe 1:8)
9. To Direct our Love Above
Christ’s Ascension also helps us love heavenly things. St Paul urges us,
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Col 3:1-2)
Love is a movement toward the good, always seeking closer unity with the beloved. If Christ is above, as St Paul says, then our minds are directed above as well. When we focus on Christ, our Treasure in heaven, our hearts are in heaven too.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Mt 6:21)
If our hearts are directed towards God and toward heavenly things, we will love all the more because God is love. We will put on the heavenly virtues: “compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience.” (Col 3:12) We will more forgive each other and “above all… [we will] put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:14)
Unless our hearts are directed above, we cannot love as Christ loves and if we do not love, we do not know God. (1 Jn 4:7-8)
So there you have it, nine reasons why Christ ascended to the Father. If we focus only on His physical presence, we might still be like “O Jesus, why, o why — WHY!!! — did you leave us? But the Ascension reveals that Christ never left us. He left our physical sight — but only so we could see Him better. He left our physical grasp — but only so He can touch our hearts all the better. He left — but only to draw us closer to Him.
No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (Jn 3:14-16)