Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Ascension of the Lord: Why Did Christ Leave Us?

The Ascension of Jesus

This past Thursday, May 14, was the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord in the Roman Catholic calendar.  Although the United States Bishops decided some years back to allow this event to be observed liturgically on the following Sunday, in an apparent effort to make it "easier" for Catholics to actually show up for Mass to celebrate it, several dioceses still observe the Ascension on the traditional Thursday, some 40 days after Easter Sunday.  I don't live in one of those areas, but history tells us, via Sacred Scripture as well as Apostolic Tradition, that the Ascension happened 40 days after Easter, and that's good enough for me, so I observe the Ascension in my personal prayer of the Divine Office on the actual day.  If I wanted to be completely consistent with traditional practice, of course, I would also treat Ascension Thursday as a Holy Day of Obligation, but I haven't quite gotten there yet, and in this diocese it wouldn't be the liturgy of the Ascension, anyway.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it!  But, as noted, for most of the USA, Sunday, May 17 marks the liturgical observation of this key event in Salvation History.

I have to admit that in the early stages of my spiritual journey into the Catholic Church, it never occurred to me to ask "Why do we make such a big deal out of the Ascension?" It was clearly an important event since it is described in some detail by St. Luke not once but twice, once in his Gospel and again in the Acts of the Apostles, and is also referred to at the end of St. Mark's Gospel.  It's also one of the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, so that is another reminder of its importance.  But I don't recall anyone during my Candidate period bringing up why it is important.  If anyone had asked me about it, I likely would have said something along the lines of "Isn't it just obvious that Jesus would go back to Heaven after his Resurrection?  He started the Church and hung around for a while to make sure enough people knew of the Resurrection, so then it was time to go home."

Well, actually, it's not necessarily that obvious to a lot of people, and looking back now, ten years later, I sort of wonder why I didn't think to ask why the significance of the Ascension is more than just "OK, Jesus went back to the Father.  Let's get working on that 'make disciples of all the nations' stuff."  In fact, once you do ask that first question, it more or less inevitably leads to another, more fundamental question: "Why did Jesus go back to Heaven when he did?  Why didn't he just stay on Earth until he converted everybody?"  That's a line of questioning I hear from time to time in my service as an RCIA catechist, from Inquirers and others who clearly are more astute at this stage of their journeys than I was.  So the first time it came up, I had to do my research to be able to give a coherent answer.  I should not have been surprised when it turned out that there is a ton of theology relating to the Ascension.

What follows here is a quick summary of what I have learned about the theology of the Ascension, with specific attention primarily to the question of why Christ ascended when he did, rather than staying among his people on Earth for some longer period. There is more, of course, much more, but a thorough treatment of the overall topic would require a book, maybe more than one.  I can't hope to do the topic justice in any form, but I can relate my superficial layman's understanding in case it might prove beneficial to someone else who happens to read this.

The first place I looked was Sacred Scripture itself, specifically Chapter 16 of St. John's Gospel, wherein Jesus at least partially explains to the Twelve why he has to leave them.  This discourse actually occurred on the night of the Lord's Supper, before Jesus went to Gethsemane, but it seems to apply more to his ultimate Ascension than merely to his impending Crucifixion and death.  It also is the only thing close to an explanation Jesus himself gives for his action, though there are other places in Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, which can be applied to understanding both the reason for the Ascension and its layers of meaning for the world.

Here is the passage from John 16:

 Jn 16: [5] But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, `Where are you going?' [6] But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.
[7] Nevertheless I tell you the truth: 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. [8] And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: [9] concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; [10] concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; [11] concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. [12] "I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. [13] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. [14] He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [15] All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (Emphasis added.)
So, Jesus tells the Apostles (and us!) that he has to leave or else the Holy Spirit, who "will guide you into all the truth", will not come.  Well, OK, we sure do need the Holy Spirit for a lot of reasons, but you'll notice that Jesus still doesn't really say why this is the case.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a fairly short section (659-667) dealing with the general theology of the Ascension, and as is typical, it is both packed with information and beautifully written.  To see the whole text together with the footnotes, go here, the marvelous online searchable Catechism maintained by St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church of Picayune, MS.  But, to me at least, even this section of the CCC doesn't address in much detail the essential reasons why Jesus told us it "is to [our] advantage that I go away" except for this paragraph:
 661 This final stage stays closely linked to the first, that is, to his descent from heaven in the Incarnation. Only the one who "came from the Father" can return to the Father: Christ Jesus.538 "No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man."539 Left to its own natural powers humanity does not have access to the "Father's house", to God's life and happiness.540 Only Christ can open to man such access that we, his members, might have confidence that we too shall go where he, our Head and our Source, has preceded us. (Emphasis added.) 541
Thus we learn two solid reasons for the Ascension:  Christ in his incarnate, resurrected glory had to go before us to pave the way for humans to reach Heaven, and by doing so he gave us the grounds for the theological virtue of Hope.

But that still isn't the whole answer.  One could still maintain, (if one wanted to argue with Jesus...not something I'd be anxious to do, but there are a lot of others who seem not to mind), that it still would have been much more efficient and more "loving" if our Lord had stuck around a while longer, rather than leaving everything to his Apostles, in all their fallen humanity, not to mention the rest of us, broken and sinful creatures that we are.

At some point in my inquiry, it finally dawned on me, in what today's social media culture would call a "facepalm moment", that it might be a good idea to see whether the greatest "inquiring mind" in history had taken a stab at this question.  So I turned to the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Sure enough, there it is, in the Third Part, Question 57, Article 1: "Whether it was fitting for Christ to ascend into heaven?"

Pardon me please, for a few moments, while I brag on my patron Saint.  Anyone who is familiar with the Summa can skip this paragraph.  The format of this work is, once you get used to it, absolutely marvelous for equipping oneself for "Q and A" sessions on important theological issues.  St. Thomas first poses a question or proposition, then lays out a series of "Objections" to it.  He then gives a general answer ("I answer that...), before proceeding to dismantle each of the individual Objections, one by one. Actually, "dismantle" is a polite term for it. 

For this Article, "Whether it was fitting for Christ to ascend into heaven?", St. Thomas lays out four Objections, the third of which is precisely the one on the table now:
Objection 3. Further, the Son of God took human flesh for our salvation. But it would have been more beneficial for men if He had tarried always with us upon earth; thus He said to His disciples (Luke 17:22): "The days will come when you shall desire to see one day of the Son of man; and you shall not see it." Therefore it seems unfitting for Christ to have ascended into heaven.
In his Reply to Objection 3, St. Thomas shows that the Ascension was necessary by reason of all three of the primary theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity (Love).  Since it would be rather presumptuous for me to attempt to "explain the explanation" of one such as Aquinas, I'll just paste it here, with some bold sections to emphasize key points:*
Reply to Objection 3. Although Christ's bodily presence was withdrawn from the faithful by the Ascension, still the presence of His Godhead is ever with the faithful, as He Himself says (Matthew 28:20): "Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world." For, "by ascending into heaven He did not abandon those whom He adopted," as Pope Leo says (De Resurrec., Serm. ii). But Christ's Ascension into heaven, whereby He withdrew His bodily presence from us, was more profitable for us than His bodily presence would have been.
First of all, in order to increase our faith, which is of things unseen. Hence our Lord said (John 16) that the Holy Ghost shall come and "convince the world . . . of justice," that is, of the justice "of those that believe," as Augustine says (Tract. xcv super Joan.): "For even to put the faithful beside the unbeliever is to put the unbeliever to shame"; wherefore he goes on to say (10): "'Because I go to the Father; and you shall see Me no longer'"--"For 'blessed are they that see not, yet believe.' Hence it is of our justice that the world is reproved: because 'you will believe in Me whom you shall not see.'"
Secondly, to uplift our hope: hence He says (John 14:3): "If I shall go, and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will take you to Myself; that where I am, you also may be." For by placing in heaven the human nature which He assumed, Christ gave us the hope of going thither; since "wheresoever the body shall be, there shall the eagles also be gathered together," as is written in Matthew 24:28. Hence it is written likewise (Micah 2:13): "He shall go up that shall open the way before them."

Thirdly, in order to direct the fervor of our charity to heavenly things. Hence the Apostle says (Colossians 3:1-2): "Seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth": for as is said (Matthew 6:21): "Where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also." And since the Holy Ghost is love drawing us up to heavenly things, therefore our Lord said to His disciples (John 16:7): "It is expedient to you that I go; for if I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you." On which words Augustine says (Tract. xciv super Joan.): "Ye cannot receive the Spirit, so long as ye persist in knowing Christ according to the flesh. But when Christ withdrew in body, not only the Holy Ghost, but both Father and Son were present with them spiritually."
Well, gee, why didn't I think of that? 

As a final thought, in my research I found a homily given to the monks at the Benedictine Archabbey of Monte Cassino during Second Vespers on Ascension Thursday in 2009 by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, which I also found illuminating (and which bears a distinct Thomistic air, something that should surprise no one familiar with the theology of Benedict XVI):
The liturgy today invites us to contemplate the mystery of the Lord's Ascension. In the short Reading from the First Letter of Peter, we were urged to fix our gaze on our Redeemer who died "for sins once for all", that he might bring us back to God; he "has gone into Heaven" and is at the right hand of God "with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him" (cf. 1 Pt 3: 18, 22). "Carried up into Heaven" and made invisible to the eyes of his disciples, Jesus nevertheless did not abandon them. Indeed, "put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit" (1 Pt 3: 18), he is now present in a new way, within believers, and in him salvation is offered to every human being independently of his race, language or culture. (Emphasis added.)
(You can read the entire homily here.  It's very short and, like everything written by Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, well worth the time.)

Reflecting on these lessons from two theological titans, one who is already a Doctor of the Church and another who I pray someday will be, it seems the whole thing comes back to the central point of Salvation History.  I've heard many people ask, "Why did God let the Fall happen to begin with?  He could have stopped Adam and Eve from sinning, and then we'd all still be in the Garden. Why did he have to let them turn away, and make things so difficult for us?"  In essence, that is really the same question as "Why didn't Jesus just stay on Earth and convert the whole world?"

The answer, which lies behind the explanations presented here, is that God created us to love, not to be puppets.  Love is an act of the Will, and unless a person has Free Will, he cannot love.  Thus, if God's Creation was to have any meaning at all for us creatures, he had to give all of us, starting with our First Parents, the ability to reject him, to turn away from him in sin, as well as to accept his love and his free gift of faith, and point our lives toward him and the promise of eternal life in heaven.  Similarly, had Jesus stayed on Earth after the Resurrection and done the work of the Church all by himself, there would have been no need for the things that make us true Children of God: Faith, Hope and Love.  And that would be pretty boring, don't you think?

Thanks for reading.  Laudator Jesus Christus!

*You may notice that Aquinas' quotations from John 16 are slightly different in wording from the quote I inserted above.  In the Summa, which was of course written in Latin, St. Thomas used the Latin Vulgate Bible, while I used the Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition.  Whoever translated the version of the Summa that appears on the website appears to have used the Douay-Rheims Bible, which was the first English translation of the Bible. (Yes, it preceded the KJV by about ten years. You can look it up.)


  1. Excellent, Frank! I would also commend to you the wonderfully thoughtful Epilogue to Pope Benedict XVI's second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy. PBXVI focuses on the surprisingly joyful response to our Lord's Ascension, which he views as being fundamental to a correct understanding of the event. This section of the book made quite an impression on me when I read it. Here's a very short quote that gives some of the flavor of the discussion:
    "... the disciples do not feel abandoned. They do not consider Jesus to have disappeared far away into an inaccessible heaven. They are obviously convinced of a new presence of Jesus. ... They know that “the right hand of God” to which he “has been exalted” includes a new manner of his presence; they know that he is now permanently among them, in the way that only God can be close to us."

    Glad to see you're writing these blogs. I like them a great deal!

  2. Excellent post, Frank. It provides a lot of important background and insights into the Lord's Ascension then I ever had before. I also appreciate Steve Strickland's noting Pope Benedict's writing on the Ascension too. Very interesting and helpful. God bless.