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The Ascension: a Mystery Announced Beforehand

General Audience — April 5, 1989

—    Redemptive value of the ascension

In the most ancient creeds the article on Christ's resurrection is followed by that on his ascension. The Gospels tell us that the risen Christ appeared to his disciples on several occasions and in different places for forty days before withdrawing himself fully and definitively from the laws of space and time in order to ascend into heaven. Thus he completed the "return to the Father" already begun with the resurrection from the dead.

In the present reflection we shall see that Jesus foretold his ascension (or return to the Father) by speaking of it to Mary Magdalene and the disciples during the paschal and prepaschal days.

On meeting Mary Magdalene after the resurrection Jesus said to her: "Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (Jn 20:17).

On several occasions during the paschal period Jesus made that same announcement to his disciples. He did so especially at the Last Supper: "When Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world to the Father...knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God..." (Jn 13:1-3). Jesus certainly had in mind his death which was already near, and yet he was looking beyond that and spoke those words in the perspective of his proximate departure, of his return to the Father through the ascension into heaven: "Now I am going to him who sent me" (Jn 16:5); "I go to the Father, and you will see me no more" (Jn 16:10). At that time the disciples had no clear understanding of what Jesus had in mind, all the more so since he spoke in a mysterious way: "I go away and I will come to you," and then he added: "If you loved me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I" (Jn 14:28). After his resurrection the disciples would understand these words as a prophecy of his ascension into heaven.

If we examine briefly the content of the announcements quoted, we note especially that the ascension into heaven was the final stage of the earthly pilgrimage of Christ, Son of God, of one being with the Father, who had become man for our salvation. However, this final stage remains closely linked with the first, namely, the "descent from heaven" in the Incarnation. Christ "came from the Father" (Jn 16:28) into the world through the Incarnation. Now, after the conclusion of his mission, "he leaves the world and goes to the Father" (cf. Jn 16:28). His "ascent" is as unique as his "descent." Only he who came from the Father in the manner of Christ can return to the Father in like manner. Jesus himself makes that clear in his conversation with Nicodemus: "No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man" (Jn 3:13). Only he and no one else has the divine power and the right "to ascend into heaven." Left to ourselves and our own resources we cannot gain access to the "Father's house" (Jn 14:2), to a sharing in the life and happiness of God. Only Christ can open the way to the Father: he, the Son who "descended from heaven," who "came from the Father" for this very purpose. Here we have a first result of our analysis: the ascension is included in the mystery of the Incarnation as its concluding moment.

The ascension into heaven is therefore closely connected with the economy of salvation which is expressed in the mystery of the Incarnation, and especially in Christ's redemptive death on the cross. In the conversation with Nicodemus mentioned above, Jesus himself, in referring to a symbolic and figurative event in the Book of Numbers (cf. 21:4-9) states: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up [that is, crucified], that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (Jn 3:14).

Near the end of his ministry, shortly before the Pasch, Jesus clearly repeats that it is he who will open to humanity access to the "Father's house" by means of his cross: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (Jn 12:32). The "lifting up" on the cross is the special sign and definitive foretelling of the other "lifting up" by his ascension into heaven. John's Gospel sees this exaltation of the Redeemer already on Golgotha. The cross is the beginning of the ascension into heaven.

1.  Redemptive value of the ascension

We find the same truth in the Letter to the Hebrews where we read that Jesus Christ, the unique priest of the new and eternal covenant, "entered not into a sanctuary made with hands...but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf" (Heb 9:24). He entered "through his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption"; "He entered once for all" (Heb 9:12). He entered as the Son "who reflects the glory [of the Father] and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Heb 1:3).

This text of the Letter to the Hebrews and that of the conversation with Nicodemus (Jn 3:13) coincide substantially in affirming the redemptive value of the ascension into heaven as the culmination of the economy of salvation. This is in accordance with Jesus' own fundamental principle: "No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man" (Jn 3:13).

Other words of Jesus at the Last Supper refer to his death, but in the perspective of the ascension: "Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, but...where I am going you cannot come [now]" (Jn 13:33). Later, however, he said: "In my Father's house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?" (Jn 14:2).

The discourse is addressed to the apostles, but is directed well beyond their circle. Jesus Christ goes to the Father—to the Father's house—to lead us there, because without him we could not enter it. Only he can open access to all: he who "descended from heaven" (Jn 3:13), who "came from the Father" (Jn 16:28) and now returns to the Father "through his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption" (Heb 9:12). He himself stated: "I am the way...no one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn 14:6).

For this reason Jesus also said on the eve of his passion: "It is to your advantage that I go away." It is to your advantage, it is necessary and it is indispensable from the point of view of the eternal salvific economy. Jesus explained this fully to the apostles: "It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you: but if I go, I will send him to you" (Jn 16:7). Yes, Christ must end his earthly presence, the visible presence in the world of the Son of God made man, so that he may remain in an invisible way, by virtue of the Spirit of truth, of the Counselor-Paraclete. He therefore promised repeatedly: "I go away, and I will come to you" (Jn 14:1-3, 28).

Here we are in the presence of a twofold mystery: that of the eternal divine predestination, which determines the ways, the times and the harmonious flow of the history of salvation according to a marvelous plan which is unfathomable to us; and that of Christ's presence in the human world through the Holy Spirit who sanctifies and vivifies. It is the mystery of the Son's humanity acting through the Holy Spirit in souls and in the Church—a truth clearly taught by Jesus—which remains shrouded in the translucent obscurity of the trinitarian and Christological mystery, and demands our humble and wise act of faith.

Christ is visibly present in the Church also in a sacramental manner. The Eucharist is at the heart of the Church. When Jesus for the first time announced its institution, many "took offense" (cf Jn 6:61) because he spoke of "eating his body and drinking his blood." It was then that Jesus retorted: "Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending where he was before? It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail" (Jn 6:62-63).

Jesus is speaking here of his ascension into heaven. When his earthly body is put to death on the cross, the Spirit "which gives life" will be manifested. Christ will ascend to the Father so that the Spirit may come. On Easter day the Spirit will glorify Christ's body in the resurrection. On the day of Pentecost the Spirit will descend on the apostles and on the Church. By renewing in the Eucharist the memorial of Christ's death, we may participate in the new life of his body glorified by the Spirit, and in this way prepare ourselves to enter the "eternal dwellings" where our Redeemer has preceded us to prepare a place for us in the "Father's house" (Jn 14:2).