Forty days after Jesus has risen from the dead he ascended into heaven and seated at the right hand of God the Father. This is one of the great events in the history of salvation. The great event of Ascension, whose feast the Church celebrates today. The “forty days” of Luke (Acts 1:3) correspond to the biblical symbolism of the number forty: a period of time sufficient for the attainment of the desired purpose. The event closes the period of the Easter appearances.
The Gospels of Mark and Luke and the Acts of the Apostles report the mystery of the Lord’s Ascension. The witness of St. Luke makes it clear that the primitive tradition of the Church included a visible Ascension of the Lord, well separated in time from the Resurrection and not to be confused with the exaltation to heaven on Easter day. Luke describes the last departure of Christ, who had already ascended to his Father, come back several times to converse with his disciples, and now departs until the parousia. For Luke, the Ascension is important in relation to events still to take place: the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the interval before the day of the final restoration (Acts 3:21). In Acts, the risen Lord explains that the period before the manifestation of the kingdom in the world is the time of the Holy Spirit and of the missionary Church (1:8).
What are the meanings and significance of this event for us?
The first meaning of the Ascension is that Christ in his human nature passes to the state of glory with his Father and the Holy Spirit: The risen One enters the heavenly intimacy of God. Christ’ ascension, therefore, marks the definitive entrance of Jesus’ humanity into God’s heavenly domain, whence he will come again (cf. Acts 1:11; cf. CCC 665). This is signified by “the cloud” (Acts 1:9), a biblical sign of the divine presence. The Ascension is included in the mystery of the Incarnation as its concluding moment. As in the Incarnation he laid aside his glory as eternal Son, so in the Ascension he now receives back divine glory, which has its impact on his human nature and ours. Jesus spoke several times about his having to be lifted up – on the cross – so that believers might have eternal life (cf. Jn 3:14, 8:28, 12:32); and the lifting up on the cross is the special sign and definitive foretelling of this other “lifting up” by his ascending into heaven.
“After the glory of his Ascension he will be seen as judge on the Last Day, and even now he judges all things, and at the end of the world he will come as judge of humanity,” said St. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407). The Ascension appearance to the Apostles is, therefore, the starting point of the parousia. The full right to judge human actions and consciences definitively belongs to Christ as Redeemer of the world: The Father “has given all judgment to the Son” (Jn 5:22). He did not come to judge, however, but to save, to “give eternal life to all those you [the Father] have entrusted to him” (Jn 17:2).
We know for a certainty that Christ will come again at the end of time. We confess this in the Creed as part of our faith. However, we know “neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25: 13) of his coming. We do not need to know it. Christ is always imminent. We must always be on the watch, that is, we should busy ourselves in the service of God and of others, which is where our sanctification lies.
The second meaning of the Ascension is the beginning of the kingdom of the Messiah, which realizes the prophetic vision regarding the Son of Man in the Book of Daniel: “To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (7:13-14). Christ’s elevation to the right hand of the Father signifies his sharing as man in the power and authority of God. This sharing is manifested in the sending of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who brings about conversion of hearts (cf. Acts 2:37). In the power of the Spirit, the Apostles can now call Jesus Lord (cf. 1 Cor 12:3). After this event the apostles became witnesses of the kingdom [that] will have no end.
Jesus Christ is Lord because he possesses fullness of power in heaven and on earth. This is a kingly power “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…he has put all things under his feet” (Eph 1:21-22). At the same time, it is priestly power, as the Letter to the Hebrews explains at length, commenting on Psalm 109 (110), 4: “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:6). Christ’s eternal priesthood implies the power to sanctify, so that he becomes “the source of salvation to all who obey him” (Heb 5:9). As Lord, too, Christ is Head of his Body, the Church. “He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:22). Christ also is Lord of the entire universe. “He who descended is also he who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:10) (cf. 1 Cor 15:26; Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 45).
“Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, precedes us into the Father’s glorious kingdom so that we, the members of his Body, may live in the hope of one day being with him for ever” (CCC 666). St. Leo the Great, preaching on the mystery of the Ascension in Rome in 450, declared: “Since the Ascension is our uplifting, and where the glory of our Head shall go, there the hope of the Body is called, let us then rejoice exceedingly with fitting joy…For this day, not only are we made sure heirs of paradise, but in Christ we have already reached the heights of heaven, and obtained more abundant gifts through the ineffable favor of Christ than we lost through the envy of the devil.”
Finally, “Jesus Christ, having entered the sanctuary of heaven once for all, intercedes constantly for us as the mediator who assures us of the permanent outpouring of the Spirit” (CCC 667). Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life (Jn 11:25), opens to humanity access to the Father’s house by means of his cross and Resurrection. The Letter to the Hebrews assures us that Jesus Christ, the unique priest of the new and eternal covenant, “entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands … but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (9:24); “he entered …[through] his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (9:12); and “When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). Jesus Christ goes to the Father’s house to lead us there; without him, we could not enter. Now God himself is our “place” after this life, is the “last thing” of the creature.
“Left to his own natural powers humanity does not have access to the “Father’s house,” to God’s life and happiness (Jn 14:2). Only can Christ can open to man such access that we, our Head and our Source, has preceded us” (Missale Romanum, Preface of the Ascension; cf. CCC 661).
Given all these things we can be sure that in the last day when Christ comes in glory “he will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all thing into subjection to himself” (Phil 3:21). Hence at all times strive to “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 things that are on earth” (Col 3:1-2). “Begin a new life according to the Spirit, once and for all renouncing sin and everything that leads us to sin, loving only God and everything that leads to God” ( St. Pius X Catechism”, 77).