HE ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON May 16th, 2010
John17:24 “Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory.”
In many churches throughout the world, today is celebrated as the Ascension – the day that marks the ascension of our Lord into Heaven. It is technically last Thursday – the 40th day after Easter.
St Luke says in Acts 1:3, “To them he presented himself alive after his Passion by many proofs, appearing to them 40 days.” For forty days the risen Lord appeared to his disciples, and then he ascended into Heaven and promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke goes on to describe how a cloud took Jesus from their sight on the Mount of Olives. This spot is marked today by a Russian church and a small shrine.
Despite the biblical record, modern scholars try to suggest that the Ascension was not actually historical, but part of what they call the Resurrection Event. ‘Event,’ being a favorite word of liberal scholars! It suggests something not quite specific.
But, of course, such an interpretation begs the question, how did Jesus finish his earthly life? Did he navigate between Earth and Heaven in some sort of resurrected and ascended body during those forty days? Was he not quite what he seemed to be? Or, perhaps more to the point, is the Ascension another myth to avoid the hard questions?
Of course I am suspicious of such conjecture – because it usually comes from those who do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead in his physical body. That all his appearances were of some angelic being or demigod.
The fact is, Jesus did rise from the dead in his physical body. He appeared to the disciples for forty days. They ate and drank with him and they touched him. Though it was a different type of body – a resurrected body. He could appear and disappear without physical constraints. And when it was time for him to return to his heavenly home, he did it physically.
I know that the image of Jesus ascending in a cloud is a bit old hat. I had trouble with this myself when I was a teenager. It seems to be almost in the realm of fairy tale and not in accord with modern scientific thinking. But, how else could Jesus leave this world? He couldn’t go sideways like an actor on stage. And he certainly could not have gone down!
There was no other option – he had to go up, and the reason is obvious. Jesus is both God and man. His life on earth, as man, gives us a sign to show what is to come, as well as our hope for that life to come.
Jesus lived his life on earth for just thirty-three years. He was crucified and rose from the dead. All this was for our benefit. Now he ascends in bodily form – the same body that suffered and died and rose. This is so that we will have hope. It is so that we, human frail beings, will also share that same existence and that same glory.
He took his humanity with him – and thus humanity is raised to Heaven with him. We, who are less than perfect, have a promise from the perfect one, who also understands us in our human failings.
In John 17:24 Jesus says, “That they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory.” This is the promise of Ascension Day – that we will be with him and behold his glory.
This doesn’t make it any easier to believe, of course. In fact, the Ascension defies logic from human understanding. But it is perfectly logical to those who understand that Jesus conquered death.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Lord of life – and with God, nothing is impossible. That, of course, was the same promise that was given at the beginning of it all – given by the Aarchangel Gabriel, to Mary when she questioned how she could be the mother of Christ. Gabriel said, “With God, nothing is impossible.”
In Matthew’s account of the Ascension there is an interesting slant on the Ascension.
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age’.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
But some doubted. Yes, even some of the apostles doubted. But what did they doubt? Surely not what they had just seen? They couldn’t doubt that, because seeing is believing. What they doubted was who Jesus really was. That’s what they hesitated to believe – who this person is who they could see before them.
We think that the opposite of doubt is faith, but it is not. The opposite of faith is personal opinion. That is why some people don’t believe the Catholic faith or the basic Christian doctrines – because they have a different opinion. The end result of having your own opinion about the faith is that right and wrong depend entirely own your situation and how you feel. Faith depends not on our personal opinion, but on divine revelation. The meaning of the Ascension is powerful when one accepts it as divine revelation. For the Ascension bridges Heaven and Earth.
You notice how in John 17:20-26 Jesus moves firstly from a consideration of the Church on Earth – “That they may all be one, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” – to a consideration of the Church in Heaven – “Father I desire that they also may also may be with me where I am.” So as Jesus prays, He already is bridging the gap between Earth and Heaven, This draws on the theme in John 14 that Heaven is our homeland. This is a two pronged thrust of the gospel.
Though some of them did doubt – nine days later, on Pentecost Day, they were changed men through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Church celebrates the Ascension with great joy – for it is the natural conclusion of the Resurrection. Without the Ascension there could be no Pentecost outpouring. From then on, these men were fearless in their proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus.
Even though Jesus was removed from their sight, their faith remained constant and their hope remained firm. And so the Gospel spread. Even jail could not prevent it, as we see in Acts 16.
St. Leo the great said, “No-one can be justified by faith if Salvation is to be found in those things alone which are open to our gaze.”
The visible presence of Christ passed over into the Church and the Sacraments. He did that so that faith might not be grounded on sight, but on tradition and doctrine.