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He Ascended into Heaven and is Seated at
the Right Hand of the Father

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

It is very important to be convinced that Christ’s Ascension into heaven was an historical fact. As early as the beginning of the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven letters on his way to martyrdom in Rome. In these letters, he is at great pains to defend the historical facts of the events in Christ’s life, including His Ascension into heaven. The importance of Christ’s physical Ascension lies in the fact that He is now in heaven as the same identical Jesus who rose from the dead and for forty days appeared to his disciples. Equally important is the fact that this same Jesus who ascended into heaven is really on earth in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.

As we have been doing, this teleconference will have two parts. First, we will make a series of positive statements to express what we believe about the Ascension of Christ. Then we shall draw some practical implications for our spiritual life.

Our Faith in the Ascension of Christ

In the following synopsis of our faith, we will give a series of questions and provide short answers. The questions are basic to a correct understanding of what was both an historical fact and is a mystery of Christianity.

What were the heavens to which Christ ascended? They were not the sun, moon and stars. We commonly speak of the heavens as the physical world outside of and “above” our planet of earth. But the primary meaning of heaven in Sacred Scripture is something else. It is the place and state where angels and saints are now in celestial glory, and where we hope to reach after our temporal lives on earth. Another biblical meaning of heaven is the state of happiness of those who experience the presence of God. Consequently, the primary meaning of heaven, to which Christ ascended, is the abode of those who are living their eternal destiny in the beatific vision of God.

Did Christ ascend exclusively by His own divine power? No, whatever God does outside of His own Trinitarian life is always done by all three Persons working together in the world of creation. On these terms, therefore, the divine power which enabled Christ to ascend into heaven was the almighty power of all three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Was Christ, as God, ever absent from heaven? No, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was in heaven from the first moment that the angels enjoyed the vision of the triune God. The Second Person has remained in heaven ever since and will be in heaven into eternity. To be kept in mind is that heaven identifies the enjoyment of God by His glorified rational creatures. In this sense, the Second Person of the Trinity never left heaven, even when He became Incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary. We are here dealing with an unfathomable mystery. But it is not an unintelligible mystery. The Second Person became man indeed, but He never ceased being the object of the beatific vision to those who behold the face of God.

Does the Ascension mean the final elevation of Christ’s human nature into the condition of divine glory? Yes, we may legitimately speak of Christ’s glorification in three different ways and at three different times.

  • There is a profound sense in which Christ was glorified when He was raised on the cross on Calvary. He glorified His heavenly Father by conquering sin through the shedding of His blood for the salvation of the human race.

  • Christ was also glorified on Easter Sunday when He rose from the dead. He gave glory to His heavenly Father by rising from the grave, and thus fulfilling the mission which He had received from the Father to restore mankind to its friendship with God.

  • He finally glorifies the Father, and was in turn glorified by Him, by returning to the heaven from which He came.

We say in the Creed that the Second Person descended from heaven to the earth. This we call the Incarnation. But the same Second Person returned to heaven, now in the human nature which He had assumed, and thus fulfilled the final purpose of the Incarnation. God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. Since His Ascension, God will remain man in heaven through all eternity. In the Holy Eucharist, God lives among us, as man, until the end of time.

Was the concluding work of redemption, Christ’s resurrection from the dead? No, the concluding work of the redemption of the world was the Ascension. Why, because conclusion means purpose. The final purpose of the redemption was that Christ might bring the human race to its heavenly destiny. This heavenly destiny is a possession of God; now become man, in the company of the elect in heavenly glory.

Did the souls of the just go to heaven with Christ at His Ascension? Yes, this is the common teaching of the Church: that the souls of the just who were saved before the coming of Christ, were taken to heaven by Christ at His Ascension. Implied in this mystery is the fact that, while divine grace was conferred on the human race before the coming of Christ, heavenly glory was withheld from human beings until Christ died, rose, and ascended into heaven. Grace is the means of reaching heavenly glory; heavenly glory is the goal for which divine grace is the necessary means.

Is the Ascension of Christ the pledge of our own ascension into heaven? We do not ordinarily speak of our ascension into heaven. But we should. On the last day, the whole human race will rise from the dead. This means that the bodies of all human creatures will be reunited with our souls. But our destiny is not to remain on earth after the final resurrection. Our destiny is to see the face of God with our souls and to have our bodies share in this happiness. This bodily happiness after the last day depends on how faithfully we had served God, not only in soul, but also in body. More properly, we might say that on the last day, the just will be assumed into heaven, since our ascension, unlike that of Christ, will not be done by our own power, but by the power of God.

Should we say that Christ merited heavenly glory? Yes, again we are dealing with a mystery. To merit means to earn reward from God for the performance of good moral actions in the state of grace. Christ had a human will. He freely chose to perform the human acts which are described in the gospels. As St. Luke tells us, Christ grew in wisdom and grace. His growth was the reward which He earned from the heavenly Father for the morally good actions which He so generously performed. But Christ earned not only wisdom and grace here on earth. He cooperated with illuminations and inspirations that He received. This cooperation with the will of His Father earned for Him the heavenly glory which He finally attained with His Ascension into heaven.

How is Christ, now in heaven, preparing a place for us? As He promised, Christ went to heaven to prepare a place for us who are still striving here on earth. The important word in this statement of faith is the word “prepare.”

  • Christ is preparing a place for us by pleading as the eternal priest, before the throne of His Father, for the graces we need to finally reach heaven.

  • He is preparing a place for us, because in heaven, He is awaiting our joining Him, where He is in eternal glory. This is no mere figure of speech. We may say He is eagerly expecting us to come to that heavenly home to join Him in the company of the angels and saints.

  • Christ is not preparing a place for us as though He still has to do something to organize or build so that we might join Him. He has done all He could to provide us with the light and strength we need to reach heaven. It is we who need to be prepared. From heaven, He is giving us all the assistance we need to reach our heavenly destiny. Our cooperation with His grace is absolutely necessary. Christ is giving us the grace, but we must provide the effort. If we do, then heaven will be ready to receive us.

The Implications for Our Spiritual Life

What we have just said opens the door to our responsibility, if we wish to join Christ who is waiting for us. After all, the kingdom which He entered is the same heavenly kingdom to which we also are destined. It is a kingdom precisely because, in the words of St. John, it is the New Jerusalem, the city on high. Heaven is a community. It is a society. It is therefore a kingdom in which Christ is the King, and those in heaven are assembled in a community of angels and saints. We may say that with Christ’s Ascension, heaven became a Kingdom. Why? Because then heaven receives its king. Whatever else we know about heaven, we should remember it is not a place of solitude. It is a place where families and friends and those whom we have known and loved on earth will be with us and we with them in the company of the Divine Community of the Holy Trinity.

On the last day, Jesus will call the saved to possess the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. But this kingdom must be earned. The price is very high. It is nothing less than the practice, if need be, of heroic patience with those whom God puts into our lives. We must endure people here on earth if we expect to enjoy the heavenly company in eternity.

Strange as it may seem, Christ, now in heaven, retains in His glorified body the wounds He received during His passion on earth. There are many reasons for this, but especially three.

  • The wounds of Christ were the condition for His meriting the glorification of His body. What does this tell us? It tells us that the sufferings we experience on earth are the promise of our glorification in heavenly beatitude. There is a law of divine justice. No pain, no joy. The more pain; the more joy. How we need to remind ourselves that the sufferings of this life are the providential assurance of happiness in the life to come.

  • The wounds which Christ received on earth and retains now in heaven are in His body. Like Him, we are to expect the suffering, not only in soul, but also in body, as a condition for meriting an eternal reward not only in the beatific vision, but in the glorious pleasure of a transfigured body.

  • When the risen Christ showed the doubting Thomas the wounds in His glorified body, He was teaching us perhaps the most difficult mystery of our faith. It is through suffering that we are sanctified. It is especially through the wounds we experience from others that we hope to be rewarded in eternity. Not a small part of this reward is to meet the people who have reached heaven because we had loved them so mercifully here on earth. Remember, no one gets to heaven alone. We either help others reach the celestial kingdom, or we shall never attain it ourselves.

Divine revelation tells us, “Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). This is no mere exhortation. It is a sacred duty. The things that are on earth are visible, tangible, audible, palatable, and perceivable by our senses. They are the things that the world tells us are what really matters, things perceived by the senses, which the world considers the only things important. Our English vocabulary identifies “nonsense” as whatever is worthless. We say something “does not matter to me.” The implication is that only things perceivable by the senses are real, and only what is material has any value. Talk about a materialistic culture!

Heavenly things, on the other hand, are not perceived by our bodily eyes, ears, taste or touch. Yet, we know they are more real than the world of space and time. They are the things of the spirit. But we must do violence to ourselves even to pay attention to, not to say think about, communicate with, and make what is spiritual the principal object of our life. What does our faith tell us? Unless we pay attention to “heavenly things” while still on earth, we shall never reach these “heavenly things” in eternity.

We are told, “You must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.” (Col. 3:1). Our Lord’s Ascension has a profound meaning in the lives of all true believers. They are not to expect perfect happiness here on earth, nor complete satisfaction of their desires this side of eternity. They must look for, in the sense of seek, the satisfaction of their heart’s desires in their eternal future, and not in the temporal present. They must have their eyes fixed on the world to come, even while they are still living in the world of now. This is the secret of happiness already here in this life. Our spirit must constantly look forward, in hope, beyond the reaches of time, to the heavenly destiny for which we were made. But now, the most important conditional sentence in human literature: Our happiness here on earth depends on how seriously we live up to what we believe.

St. Luke tells us what happened on the first Ascension Thursday. It was a double dialogue, first between Jesus and His disciples, and then between the disciples and two angels.

They who had come together began to ask Him, saying, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
But He said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or dates which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth.”
And when He had said this, He was lifted up before their eyes, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. And while they were gazing up to heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white garments, and said to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven shall come in the same way as you have seen Him going up to heaven” (Acts 1:6-11).

In the first dialogue between Christ and the disciples, they asked Him a strange question, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” After three years of His public ministry, His passion, death and resurrection, they still had their eyes fixed on the restoration of the earthly kingdom of the Jews. It was as though they had never heard the Savior say that His kingdom was not of this world. It is still the dream of the once chosen people who are looking forward to a Messiah who will establish an earthly Israel.

The Savior’s answer to the disciples is a powerful reminder of the grave duty we have to evangelize the non-Christian world. He was speaking to all of us when He told His followers on Ascension Thursday, “You shall be witnesses for me…even to the ends of the earth.” How we need to remind ourselves of the grave responsibility we have to share our faith with those who have never believed in Jesus Christ. Remember, too, that when our Lord told the disciples that they were to be His witnesses, He really said, “You shall be my martyrs.” The original Greek of St. Luke is explicit. To proclaim Christ to an unbelieving world is to expect, dare I say look forward to, being a martyr. By definition, a martyr is one who either actually dies for professing His Christian faith, or is willing to die as a living martyr for the Savior, who died on the cross as the First Martyr of Christianity.

How the modern world needs martyrs! This is the message of Pope John Paul II. The Catholic Church in the modern world will survive only where there are still zealous believers who are willing to pay, even with their lives, to proclaim Jesus Christ.

The second dialogue between the disciples and two angels is also very revealing. The disciples were asked why they were standing there looking up into the sky. The key word is “standing.” In effect, the apostles were told they had work to do. As we have just seen, they were to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. It was really an angelic reprimand, to carry out the commission which the Lord had given them to preach the Good News to all nations. We do not ordinarily think of the apostolate in terms of mobility, yet that is what Jesus told His apostles. They were not to stand regretfully gazing at the heavens to which Christ had ascended. They were to travel to the farthest reaches of the globe. Certainly one man fulfilled this directive to the limit. It was St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles whose disciple recalled this admonition of the angels after Christ’s Ascension into heaven.

As a member of the Society of Jesus, I know the order given to us by St. Ignatius. He tells us to “travel to various places, wherever there is hope of God’s greater glory and the good of souls.”

I remember a recent conversation with the Catholic archbishop of Moscow. He sadly told me how many planeloads of Catholic tourists fly into Russia on a sightseeing tour. They visit all the “shrines” of Communism and spend hours walking through the Kremlin. “Some even come to pay me a visit here in the chancery. But how few stay in Russia to share their faith with our people.”

On the other hand, the archbishop told me, by now several thousand members of non-Catholic sects, many with their whole families, fly into Russia to “convert” our poor people to whatever cult they are promoting.

As we close this conference on Christ’s Ascension into heaven, we must not forget the Savior’s closing injunction to the disciples. He told them and, through them, is telling us, to witness to Him to the very ends of the earth. As we hope to join Jesus in body and soul in heaven, we better make sure that we have exerted, even exhausted ourselves in sharing our faith with everyone who entered our lives.


“Dear Lord, you told us, ‘Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will in turn disown him before my Father in heaven’ (Mt 10:32-33). Our final judgment will depend on how courageously we have proclaimed your name to everyone who enters our lives. Give us the strength never to be slaves of human respect. Give us the wisdom and courage to witness to you here on earth, so that you may witness to us on the last day.”

Copyright © 1997 by Inter Mirifica

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