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 Christs 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 Christs life, including His Ascension into heaven. The importance
of Christs 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
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 Christs human nature into the condition of divine glory? Yes, we may legitimately speak
of Christs 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,
Christs 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
- 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 Christs 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 Gods right hand.
(Col. 3:1). Our Lords 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 hearts 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 Saviors 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 Christs Ascension
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 Gods 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 Christs
Ascension into heaven, we must not forget the Saviors 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