That first Ascension Day

What is the heaven into which Jesus was accepted on that first Ascension Day? The heaven that will once be all? In the Biblical account an upward movement is unmistakable; according to the Gospels, Christ seems to mount upwards from the earth. Is then heaven the summit of space? Certainly not. The spatial ‘up’ is only a figurative expression for something spiritual. In the sense of the New Testament, though we were to fly to Sirius, we should be no closer to heaven than we are on earth. Heaven is no more in the infinity of the cosmos than it is within earthly limits. “Heaven” is also not what is meant by celestial beauty or peace, though the word does suggest delicate spiritual emotions and things strange and rare in ordinary existence. But the Bible’s heaven is something else.

To understand it, let us skip all approximations and go straight to the point: Heaven is the intimate reserve of holy God, that which St. Paul calls the “light inaccessible” which he inhabits, unapproachable for any creature (I Tim. 6:16). When we meet a person in the street or in a room, he stands there openly before us. We can look at him, photograph him, describe him, and can often guess a good deal of what is going on inside him. Withal, he is more or less ‘public.’ On one point, however, he remains impenetrable: his attitude towards himself, his manner of answering for himself and his acts. For the most part, man is absorbed by corporal, psychological, sociological realities; in other words, by public things. But there are certain moments when he retires into a corner of his being that is closed to others—into his most personal self. No one can violate that privacy; if it is to be opened, then only by opening itself.

This is what happens in love, when a person not only permits himself to be observed, not only speaks about himself, but gives himself in vital exchange. If the other accepts him, likewise opening the way to his most intimate self, desiring the other more than himself, entering into pure contemplation and exchange, then the two intimacies unite in a single community open to both participants, but closed to everyone else. The greater and deeper the person and his experience, the less accessible this inmost realm will be. But what if it is not question of a person, but of God? God, the incommensurable, infinite, simple; essence of truth and holiness? His reserve is absolute. Nothing can even approach it. God is all light because he is Truth itself; all clarity, because nothing can overshadow him; he is the Lord, free and genuine Being to whom all that is belongs—yet inaccessible in his light, mysterious in his truth, invulnerable in his kingdom (I Tim. 6:16). This intimate reserve of God is heaven, ‘destination’ of the risen Lord—and not only of his spirit, but of the whole resurrected Lord in all his living reality.

But how is this possible? God is acknowledgedly pure Spirit (John 4:24). How can he assimilate anything corporal? God is Spirit, certainly. It stands written in the fourth chapter of John, verse twenty-four. But let us not oversimplify! If God is spirit, then my soul must be something else; or if my soul is spirit, I must find another name for God. St. John means the same thing, for when he says “spirit,” like St. Paul, he has the Holy Spirit in mind. In other words, by comparison with the Holy Spirit, body and soul, matter and spirit, person and thing are all “carnal.” Between all these and the Living God lies not only the distance between Creator and creature; not only the distance which divides life in grace from life in nature; but also the infinite gulf between saint and sinner which only God’s love can bridge. Before this bottomless ravine, the difference between earthly body and soul shrinks to insignificance. That God pardons the sinner and accepts the creature into his holy presence—that is the new and overwhelming message of Christ. Once we have assimilated this truth, the additional incomprehensibility of God’s accepting not only created spirit, but also created flesh, no longer seems great. His salutary love is directed not exclusively towards the “soul,” but towards man in his entirety. The new, saved man is founded on the divine humanity of Jesus, and this humanity, begun in the Annunciation, was fulfilled in the Ascension.

Not until Jesus Christ has entered into the intimacy of the Father, is he the perfect God-man. So Jesus left—only in the same instant to return in new form. He entered eternity, into the pure here and now of unshadowed reality, into an existence that is entirely love, for “God is love” (I John 4:16). Ever since, Christ’s manner of being has been that of love. Hence, because he loves us—and that he does is the essence of his sacred message—his going away into the fulfillment of love really means that he is “with us” more fully than ever before.