Blessed John Paul II
The “announcements” of the ascension examined in the previous catechesis shed light on the truth expressed by the earliest creeds in the concise words: “He ascended into heaven.” We have already observed that we are dealing with a mystery which is an object of faith. It completes the mystery of the Incarnation. It is the ultimate fulfillment of the messianic mission of the Son of God who had come on earth to redeem us.
Nonetheless, it is also a fact which can be own from the biographical and historical data concerning Jesus, which are contained in the Gospels.
Let us refer to the texts of Luke, and first of all to the last verses of his Gospel: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven” (Lk 24:50-51). This means that the apostles had a sensation of “movement” of the whole figure of Jesus, and of an action of “separation” from the earth. The fact that Jesus blessed the apostles at that moment indicates the salvific meaning of his departure. As in the whole of his redemptive mission, his departure included and gave to the world every spiritual good.
This text of Luke, considered in isolation from the others, would seem to suggest that Jesus ascended into heaven on the very day of the resurrection, after his apparition to the apostles (cf. Lk 24:36-49). However, if we read the entire account, we see that the evangelist wishes to synthesize the final events of Christ’s life, for he is anxious to describe Jesus’ salvific mission which ended with his glorification. Luke records further details of those final events in the Acts of the Apostles, which completes his Gospel. In it he resumes the narrative contained in the Gospel, in order to continue the history of the origins of the Church.
Time and place of the ascension
We read at the beginning of Acts a passage in which Luke presents the apparitions and the ascension in greater detail: “To them [the apostles] he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). This gives us an indication about the date of the ascension: forty days after the resurrection. We shall see shortly that it also informs us about the place.
As regards the question of time, one does not see why it should be denied that Jesus appeared repeatedly to his disciples during forty days, as stated in Acts. The biblical symbolism of the number forty, understood as indicating a period of time completely sufficient for the attainment of the desired purpose, is accepted by Jesus. He had previously withdrawn for forty days into the desert before beginning his ministry, and now appeared for forty days on earth before ascending definitively into heaven. Undoubtedly time in relation to the risen Jesus is a different standard of measure from ours. The risen one is already in the eternal now which is without succession or variation. However, inasmuch as he still operates in the world, instructing the apostles and establishing the Church, the transcendent now is inserted into the time of the human world, by once again adapting himself to it through love. Thus the mystery of the eternity-time relationship is heightened by the permanence of the risen Christ on earth. Nevertheless, the mystery does not cancel his presence in space and time. Rather it exalts and raises to the level of eternal values what he does, says, touches, institutes and determines: in a word, the Church. Therefore, we say once again: I believe, but without in the least glossing over the reality of what Luke has told us.
Certainly, when Christ ascended into heaven, this coexistence and nexus between the eternal now and earthly time is dissolved, and there remains the time of the pilgrim Church in history. Christ’s presence is now invisible and beyond time, like the action of the Holy Spirit in souls.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus “was taken up into heaven” (1:2) on the Mount of Olives (cf. 1:12). It was from there that the apostles returned to Jerusalem after the ascension. Before this happened, Jesus gave them their final instructions. For example, “He charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). This promise of the Father was the coming of the Holy Spirit: “You shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5); “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” (Acts 1:8). Then it was that “when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).
The Mount of Olives had been the place of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane, and it was the last point of contact between the risen one and the small group of his disciples at the moment of his ascension. This happened after Jesus has repeated the announcement of the sending of the Spirit, by whose action that small group would be transformed into the Church and launched on the pathway of history. The ascension is therefore the final event of Christ’s life and earthly mission. Pentecost will be the first day of the life and history “of his body which is the Church” (Col 1:24). This is the fundamental meaning of the fact of the ascension, beyond the particular circumstances in which it took place and the context of the biblical symbolism in which it can be considered. Continue Reading