The fruits of the Ascension benefit us at each moment, just as Jesus’ last blessing to the Apostles on the Mount of Olives extends throughout history to each one of us.
Gospel of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord
46 And He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I send the promise of My Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them. 51 While He blessed them, He parted from them, and was carried up into Heaven. 52 And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, worshiped Him, 53 and were continually in the Temple blessing God (Lk24: 46-53).
I – Supreme Glorification of Christ
A needle wound can be more harmful than a hammer blow, especially if it affects vital points. This comparison takes on perhaps more substance and expressiveness transposed to the field of doctrinal polemics. An example of this is St. Bernard’s refutation to the Jews who, on the height of Calvary, challenged Christ in His agony: “If you are the king of Israel; come down from the cross” (cf. Mt 27: 42; Mk 15: 32). The Founder of Clairvaux points out that this is a poorly conceived proposition for establishing Jesus’ divine origin, since the royalty—and even more, the divinity—of a being is proven, not by the act of descending, but rather by that of ascending. This was precisely what occurred with Jesus, forty days after His triumphant Resurrection. In this way, the Ascension of the Lord into Heaven is a feast of the greatest importance in representing the supreme glorification of Christ Jesus. He had asked the Father: “Glorify Thou me in Thy own presence with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was made” (Jn 17: 5); “Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son that the Son may glorify Thee” (Jn 17: 1). From this, we understand the joy that the Church Fathers manifest when commenting on this glorification of the Lamb of God. “The glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ is completed with His Resurrection and Ascension. […] We have, then, the Lord, our Savior, Jesus Christ, first hanging upon a tree and now seated in Heaven. Hanging upon the tree, He paid the price of our ransom; seated in Heaven, He reaps what He purchased.”1
Death did not consign Jesus to obscurity
Indeed, this joy with the Ascension, which pervades the souls of the saints and is so clearly manifest in the text of the Divine Office and in today’s Liturgy, has a solid foundation, for in no other instance has someone, upon leaving this world, risen before the eyes of hundreds of witnesses and entered into Heaven by his own power.
Much to the contrary, after death, our cold and inert bodies descend into the bosom of the earth, and normally even our remembrance fades from the minds of those who remain. With Christ, precisely the opposite ensued, for not only the remembrance of His teachings, His actions and even His story were preserved throughout the centuries, but also the narrations of His witnesses were endowed with a super-human power to echo throughout peoples and across generations. The forty days that the resurrected Jesus remained among the disciples contributed to this. The disciples’ weakness certainly needed this powerful remedy, for the episodes surrounding the Lord’s Passion shook the psychological sensibility and even the very virtue of faith in all of them.
The human perspectives of the Apostles hindered their supernatural vision of the Messiah
The initial news of the Resurrection met with such a vacuum of incredulity in each of them that Thomas was only convinced when he touched the wounds. The logic of these reactions is comprehensible, since, human beings that they were, and formed in the perspective of a Messiah with strong political traits, they had become accustomed, over three long years, to a relationship made up of fatherliness and penetrating affection, and only in this manner could they feel protected, assimilated and transformed. This is why they desired to continue that relationship from the point where it had been interrupted by so ignominious a death.
However, the veils of mortal flesh hid from them the real vision of the divinity of the Saviour. It was indispensable to substitute this somewhat human experience for a superior one, in which they could grasp, so to speak, the reflections of Jesus’ glorious Soul in His sacred Body. In order to fulfil His redemptive mission, He had performed a miracle in detriment to His own qualities, breaking the laws that He had created. From the first instant of His conception, in the womb of the Virgin Mother, His most holy Soul enjoyed the beatific vision and, in consequence, His adorable Body should have been glorious. Yet if it had been so, He could not have suffered. For this reason, the disciples had become accustomed to an interpretation of the Son of God that was far from the one they would have in Heaven. The Apostles’ situation reached the apex of their being the only ones to receive the mortal Body of Jesus in the Eucharist, distributed at the Last Supper.
Why Jesus remained forty days with the Apostles, in His glorious Body
In this way, it can be seen to what point the longings of the Apostles and disciples after Jesus’ Passion were centred on a relationship that was, in a way, erroneous. The need for the Redeemer to remain with them for forty days in His glorious Body also becomes clear, for Jesus “did not want them to remain always carnal or loving Him with an earthly love. They wanted Him to be with them always, bodily, motivated by the same affection by which Peter feared seeing Him suffer. They considered Him their master, consoler and protector; a man, ultimately, like they themselves; and if they did not see anything else they would judge that He was missing, although He was present in all places with His majesty.”2
On the other hand, confronted with the traumatizing remembrance of the days of the Passion, “it was now fitting to raise their minds so that they would begin to think of Him spiritually, as the Word of the Father, God from God, by Whom all things were made; this thought was hidden from them by the flesh which they saw. Yes it was fitting to confirm them in the Faith, remaining with them for forty days, but it was even more fitting to separate Himself from their sight so that He Who on earth was accompanying them as brother, would aid them from Heaven as Lord, and they would learn to think of Him as they did of God.”3
“I will not leave you orphans”
Jesus Himself had affirmed: “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. […] I go to the Father, and you will see Me no more” (Jn 16: 7,10). And, in fact, the Apostles never again saw Him, for when He entered Heaven, He ceased being present on earth in a natural way.
However, He had promised: “And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28: 20). And truly He is in our midst, in the Eucharist, behind the veils of the Sacred Species. Moreover, He never ceases to accompany us: “Rising up to Heaven, in no way does he abandon those whom He adopted.”4 These beautiful words of St. Leo the Great echo those of Our Lord: “I will not leave you orphans” (Jn 14: 18).
It consoles us to acknowledge how much this promise has been fulfilled throughout these twenty-one centuries, day after day, in the most varied ways. His Ascension could not have indicated that He was abandoning those for whom He had become Incarnate and died on Calvary. His return to the Father can only have resulted from His immeasurable love for each one of us. The Ascension transpired by reason of its expediency for Him, but also for our benefit. St. Thomas teaches us: “The place ought to be in keeping with what is contained therein. Now by His Resurrection Christ entered upon an immortal and incorruptible life. But whereas our dwelling-place is one of generation and corruption, the heavenly place is one of incorruption. And consequently it was not fitting that Christ should remain upon earth after the Resurrection; but it was fitting that He should ascend to Heaven.”5 And upon occupying a place in Heaven, in proportion to the Resurrection, “He did acquire something as to the fittingness of place, which pertains to the well-being of glory.”6 And citing Psalm 16: 11: “At Thy right hand are delights even unto the end,” St. Thomas applies the Gloss’ commentary to this verse: “I shall delight in sitting nigh to Thee, when I shall be taken away from the sight of men.”7
II – Benefits of the Ascension
We also have benefitted from countless gifts through the Ascension. According to St. Leo the Great, we began to know Jesus better from the moment in which He returned to the glories of the Father. “A better instructed faith then began to draw closer to a conception of the Son’s equality with the Father without the necessity of contact with the corporeal substance in Christ, whereby He is less than the Father (cf. Jn 14: 18), since, while the nature of the glorified Body still remained, the faith of believers was called upon to touch not with the hand of flesh, but with the spiritual understanding the Only-Begotten, Who is equal with the Father. Hence comes that which the Lord said after His Resurrection, when Mary Magdalene, representing the Church, hastened to approach and touch Him: ‘Touch Me not, for I have not yet ascended to My Father’ (Jn 20: 17). That is, I would not have you come to Me as to a human body, nor yet to recognize Me by carnal perceptions: I set for you higher things, I prepare greater things for you: when I have ascended to My Father, then you shall handle Me more perfectly and truly, for you shall grasp what you cannot touch and believe what you cannot see.”8
Strengthening of faith
St. Thomas Aquinas shows that, depriving us of His corporal presence, upon penetrating into eternal glory, Jesus Christ became even more amenable to our spiritual life.
First, “in order to increase our faith, which is of things unseen. Hence Our Lord said in the Gospel of John that the Holy Spirit shall come and ‘convince the world…of justice’, that is, of the justice ‘of those that believe,’ as St. Augustine says: ‘For even to put the faithful beside the unbeliever is to put the unbeliever to shame.’ Wherefore He goes on to say: ‘Because I go to the Father; and you shall see Me no longer, for blessed are they that see not, yet believe. Hence it is of our justice that the world is reproved, because you will believe in Me Whom you shall not see.’”9
In this regard, St. Gregory expresses his conviction: “With her readiness in believing, Mary Magdalene profits us less than Thomas in doubting for a long time, because the latter, in his doubting, demanded to touch the scars of those wounds, and with this removed any pretext in us for wavering.”10
Growth in hope
Secondly, “to uplift our hope,” since, “for by placing in Heaven the human nature which He assumed, Christ gave us the hope of going thither; since ‘wheresoever the body shall be, there shall the eagles also be gathered together,’ as is written in Matthew. Hence it is written likewise in Micah, ‘He shall go up that shall open the way before them.’”11
Enkindling of charity
Yet a third reason, according to St. Thomas, makes the Ascension more beneficial to us than the physical presence of Our Lord, and this refers to charity. In the sequence of this same question of the Summa, the Angelic Doctor, in demonstrating the advantages for this virtue, quotes St. Paul: “Hence the Apostle says: ‘Seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God; mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth,’ for as is said, ‘Where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.’”12 After discoursing on love as a property of the Holy Spirit and regarding the great necessity that the Apostles had of it, he concludes with this citation of St. Augustine: “You cannot receive the Spirit while you persist in knowing Christ according to the flesh. For when Christ distanced Himself corporeally, not only the Holy Spirit, but also the Father and the Son were spiritually present in them.”13
III – The Narration of St. Luke
The above considerations will facilitate our analysis of the text of today’s Gospel.
God’s omnipotence and wisdom in guiding history
46 “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.”
These words of our Divine Redeemer, before ascending to Heaven, were not meant only for the Apostles, but for all those He calls to carry out a mission among souls. They are words with a certain order and interrelation, and should be understood in this way.
Once again, we see revealed in Holy Scripture the omnipotence and the utter wisdom of God in guiding history. It came to pass because it was written and, in turn, it was foreseen and announced because it was so to happen, by a most perfect and supreme determination of God. This verse invites us to a moment of meditation and admiration.
Let us contemplate the superlative designs of the Supreme Being Who regulates everything in an incomparable manner, using for His glory not only the virtue of the good, but even the malicious collaboration of the wicked, the vacillating will of the lukewarm, the volubility of the undecided, the voluptuousness of the impassioned, the blindness of the haughty, and the uncontrollable delirium of the tyrants. Nothing fails to contribute to His honour, praise and glory; of everything He reaps advantage with such equity as to never jeopardize even slightly the free will of all concerned.
Let us adore Divine Providence and present our gratitude to Him, as well as reparation for all of the offenses which at each moment rise to His throne. We will thus be numbered among the good and God will use our disposition of soul and our good action for His greater glory. And let us beseech Him, through the intercession of His Most Holy Mother that we may never belong to the ranks of the wicked, who make their dispute with God over His power the aim of their existence. What does it avail them to attribute inexistent or even real capacities to themselves, if these absolutely do not belong to them, having been conferred by the Being Whom they attempt to overthrow? And what advantage do they gain in letting loose their passions and evil instincts in order to persecute virtue and those who practice it?
The behaviour of the devils and the malevolent Jews during the drama of the Passion was so stupid and counterproductive that if they could have known its effects beforehand—namely, the work of Redemption—they never would have wished to contribute to its accomplishment.
From all of these actions and situations, God knows how to extract elements for His glory. But some will be destined to the happiness of Heaven and others to eternal torments.
Metanoia: essence of conversion
47 “And that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
Before ascending to Heaven, the Redeemer offers them no political advice, nor does He insinuate anything along the lines of re-conquering the power of Israel. On the contrary, His words aim at a strictly moral, religious and penitential course of action in the name of God.
This conversion, which in its essence is a change in mentality metanoia, had already been intensely stimulated by the Precursor. John the Baptist arose as a voice crying out in the wilderness, so that all would make straight the way of the Lord. The Redeemer leaves the same legacy to His own, before the Ascension. For conversion to be real, mistaken criteria must be replaced with true ones. Saul’s conversion was the work of a moment, when he fell from his horse, and even so, he underwent a three-year retreat in the desert to make it irreversible, as well as profound and efficacious. Commonly, it happens slowly, after the brilliance of the first ‘flash,’ so to speak, through which, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the soul recognizes the beauties of the supernatural paths and then resolves to tread them with resolute firmness. Without this conversion, the Mystery of Redemption is practically useless and the Gospel profits us nothing. Given our rational nature, our intelligence and will base their actuation—in an explicit or implicit manner—on principles and maxims which direct the powers of our soul. It is upon this wellspring that the effort of conversion is concentrated. Finally, it is a matter of substituting self-love, which is shown in attachment to creatures, for the love of God.
It is within this perfect visualization of the uprightness of the practice of the Law of God and His holiness that the efficacious request of pardon for sins blossoms. In this contrast, the penitent becomes fully aware of the very great mercy announced by Jesus, before His departure for Heaven. Neither the revolted Angels nor the men who died in sin received this immeasurable gift which, at that moment, was offered to us by the Son of God Himself.
Beginning in Jerusalem, the Church, born from the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was destined to preach the Good News of the Gospel there, and then throughout the world. It had been thus prophesied in the Old Testament, and on this occasion, Jesus Christ Himself commanded it.
The Apostles’ testimony strengthens our faith
48 “You are witnesses of these things.”
Yes, our faith is strengthened by the eyewitness of the Apostles, the seventy-two disciples and the many others to whom the Saviour made Himself visible after the Resurrection. What human advantages—temporal or eternal—did they gain in sealing with their own blood facts which represented derision for their compatriots and folly for the Gentiles? This is an irrefutable argument in favour of the objectiveness of their narrations.
Role of the delay before the coming of the Holy Spirit
49 “And behold, I send the promise of My Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Jesus is referring to the Third Person of the Trinity, Whom He would send, according to the promise made by the Father, that is, the “power from on high.” It is the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the love between the Father and the Son, Who will come down upon them, so that they would be submerged in Him, penetrated and clothed by Him, and thus transformed, they could discharge their mission of witnesses. The Apostles “will be prepared with the great renovating and strengthening force of Pentecost. They will receive the Holy Spirit, of Whose sending the Evangelist John spoke in the Last Supper discourses.”14
The order not to leave Jerusalem under any pretext meant that they were to await Pentecost in order to begin preaching. They understood that they should spend this time in meditation, for it is in such circumstances that He acts more profoundly.
St. John Chrysostom comments in this regard: “Further, lest any should say that abandoning their acquaintances they went to show themselves—or to exhibit themselves, as it were, with ostentation—to strangers, therefore the signs of the resurrection are displayed first among the very murderers themselves, in that very city wherein the outrageous assault burst forth. For where the crucifiers themselves are seen to believe, there the Resurrection is most clearly demonstrated.”15
On the other hand, St. John Chrysostom continues: “But as a general does not permit his soldiers who are about to meet a numerous enemy, to go out until they are armed, so also the Lord does not permit His disciples to go forth into the conflict before being prepared by the descent of the Spirit.”16
And why did the Holy Spirit not come down upon the Apostles immediately? “It was fitting that our nature would present itself in Heaven and that the alliances could be forged, and then that the Holy Spirit would come and the eternal festivities would be celebrated,”17 opines Theophylactus.
Jesus’ final blessing extends to us
50 Then He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them.
“This blessing them with uplifted hands signifies that it becomes him who blesses any one to be furnished with various works and labours in benefit of others. For in this way are the hands raised up on high,”18 comments Origen.
Jesus proceeds as the priests of the Old Covenant, in this gesture of blessing them. The priesthood in Christ began at the moment of His Incarnation (cf. Heb 10: 5-10), but, although it had a beginning, it will never end, for He is priest in æternum. The priestly dignity, action, virtue and fruits of the sacrifice of Christ will be before the Father eternally. Because of this, His blessing at this moment extends also to us. Let us receive it to our advantage, as we contemplate this last farewell proffered by Jesus from the height of the Mount of Olives.
Jesus prepares the path for us to rise to Heaven
51 While He blessed them, He parted from them, and was carried up into Heaven.
This magnificent scene was an unheard-of event. Elijah had also gone up, but he was taken up in a chariot of fire, and not by his own strength. Christ, on the contrary, “ascended into Heaven by His own power; first of all by His divine power; and secondly, by the power of His glorified Soul moving His Body at will.”19 The Apostles and disciples had already seen Him walk upon the waters, enter the Cenacle despite its closed doors, and escape from the multitudes, but never ascend into Heaven. But they were not unaware of where Our Lord was going; they had already heard of this destination from the lips of the Master Himself. With the Apostles we should believe that, by His Ascension, Jesus “prepared the way for our ascent into Heaven, according to His own saying: ‘I go to prepare a place for you’, and the words of Micah: ‘He shall go up that shall open the way before them.’ For since He is our Head the members must follow whither the Head has gone: hence He said in the Gospel of St. John: ‘That where I am, you also may be.’”20
Where the true source of joy is found
52 And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and worshipped Him.
This act of worshipping Jesus in His Ascension signifies complete acknowledgment of His majesty. Peter had already prostrated before Him on the occasion of the miraculous catch of fish (cf. Lk 5: 8ff).
The walk from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem is only the distance of a Sabbath journey, and the Apostles made it, understandably, with “great joy.”
This same elation would later accompany them when they would leave the tribunals in which they were condemned for preaching Jesus’ name. Thus did the Apostles learn—and teach us—where the true sources of joy are: in the fulfilment of God’s will, which at times is accomplished most directly through the path of the cross.
Link between the Old and the New Testaments
53 And were continually in the Temple blessing God.
Just as St. Luke begins his Gospel with Zechariah’s duties in the Temple, he finishes it alluding to the Apostles’ assiduous attendance to all the acts of cult practiced in the Old Law. The Holy Church did not separate from the Synagogue in an abrupt and violent manner. The Temple had been an intimate part of Jesus’ life, and those who were to receive the Holy Spirit, with humility, veneration and piety, prepared themselves by going to the house of prayer, from which the Master had twice expelled the vendors. They considered the Temple from a very different perspective than did their compatriots. The viewpoint of the Apostles was part of the inheritance left by the Son of God; His own vision.
Mary’s continual prayer
Now a word about Mary. Undoubtedly she interceded before God to inspire them to remain in prayer in the Cenacle. The stature of her humility was the same as that of her faith, virginity and grandeur. She prayed at the foot of the Cross, on Calvary; now we find her in deep recollection. After the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures will not mention her again; in all probability, she lived the rest of her days in deep prayer, as the incomparable model of a Christian Woman.
May she obtain for us all the graces we need to follow her paths and virtues. ◊
Taken from New Insights on the Gospel, by Msgr. João Clá Dias.
1 ST. AUGUSTINE. Sermo CCLXIII (De Quadragesima Ascensione Domini), n.1. In: Obras, vol. XXIV: Sermones (4º) 184-272 B. Madrid: BAC, 2005, p.750.
2 ST. AUGUSTINE. Sermo CCLXIV (De Ascensione Domini), n.2. In: Obras, op. cit., p.760.
3 Idem, ibidem.
4 ST. LEO THE GREAT. Sermo LXXII, c.3: ML 54, 392.
5 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiae, III, q.57, a.1.
6 Idem, ad 2.
7 GLOSS, apud ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. op. cit., ad 1.
8 ST. LEO THE GREAT. Sermo LXXIV, c.4: ML 54, 398-399.
9 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. op. cit. ad 3.
10 ST. GREGORY THE GREAT. Homiliæ in Evangelia, L.II, hom.9 [XXIX], n.1. In: Obras. Madrid: BAC, 1958, p.677.
11 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, op. cit., ad 3.
12 Idem, ad 3.
13 ST. AUGUSTINE. In Ioannis, tract. XCIV, n.4-5. In: Obras, vol. XIV. Madrid: BAC, 1957, p.508-510.
14 TUYA, OP, Manuel de. Biblia Comentada, vol. II: Evangelios. Madrid: BAC, 1964, p.934.
15 ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, apud ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Catena Aurea. In Lucam, c.XXIV, v.45-49.
16 Idem, ibidem.
17 THEOPHYLACTUS, apud ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Catena Aurea, op. cit.
18 ORIGEN, apud ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Catena Aurea, op. cit.
19 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiae, III, q.57, a.3.
20 Idem, a.6.