The Ascension is a pivotal event of our salvation, linking Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection to his outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Its significance is obscured today, however, because many Christians understand Christ’s mission as focused solely on forgiving our sins and saving us from Hell – rather than on ultimately uniting us to himself in glory. To appreciate the Ascension, we need to rediscover the meaning of Jesus’ declaration: “It is better for you that I go [to the Father]. For [otherwise] the Advocate will not come to you” (Jn 16:7).
If Christ’s purpose had been solely to overcome sin and death, the Cross and Resurrection would have completed his mission. But our salvation is something far greater. It’s an atonement, the reconciling union (or “at-one-ment”) of wayward humanity with the Holy Trinity.
Jesus indicated the Cross was a means to that unity: “when I am lifted up. . .I will draw everyone to myself.” (Jn 13:32, see 3:14-16) He especially stressed his unitive purpose during the Last Supper. For example, he gave his Body and Blood to his disciples and declared, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” and prayed, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” (Jn 15:5, 17:21)
Christ, then, isn’t only the Redeemer who takes our sins with him to the Cross. He’s the Bridegroom who takes us to himself on the Cross as members of his Body and Bride, the Church. Like Adam, he clings to his spouse and the two become one flesh. (Eph 5:28-32)
Forgiveness and resurrection are wondrous gifts, but alone they would only enable us to be eternally in God’s loving presence filled with joy and freed from guilt and shame. Union with God in Jesus brings the infinitely greater gift of participating in the Trinity’s life so that God abides in us and we in him, now and forever.
Catholics call our sharing in God’s life “divinization” or “deification” (the Orthodox term is theosis). This new, divine, and eternal life is bestowed through the New Covenant when we’re baptized into Christ and the Paschal Mystery of his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension to glory.
In this context, we can begin to recognize the Ascension as the completion of Jesus’ saving Exodus. Passing over from this world through death to the right hand of the Father, he is then able to send the Holy Spirit so that he himself can abide in his people. He thereby shares his life with us and is at work in and through us to bring the human race safely home to the Promised Land of Heaven.
By ascending, Christ’s body and soul fully enter and radiate the glory of God the Son. He’s thus exalted in the flesh as the Son in whom the Father is well pleased, the Christ of God who is Bridegroom of the Church, and the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
In his humanity, Jesus participates in the joy of being in right relation to the Trinity through the Incarnation and in right relation to the human race through his loving work of reconciliation. For the sake of this communion in God with redeemed humanity, this blessed peace which is the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan of salvation, he willingly poured himself out for us to the point of death and burial.
As the risen and glorified Head and Bridegroom, Christ is able to offer this saving communion and joy to all those he gathers to himself, becoming thereby the source of their eternal life. This life fills and transforms every person in body and soul, provided they don’t abandon him.
Jesus actually bestows this life, gathers us to himself, and so unites us to the Trinity by sending the Holy Spirit. He needed to ascend in the flesh so that he could descend in the Spirit and come to dwell within us. This indwelling causes us, in turn, to dwell in him. We thus become one Body, one Spirit in the glorified Christ.
While on Earth, Jesus accepted the limits of time and space. His life was brief and he never traveled far from home. A minuscule percentage of people knew he existed and far fewer ever saw him, listened to him, or responded to his call.
At the right hand of the Father, however, Christ in his humanity is able to be at work on Earth continually and everywhere through the action of the Holy Spirit. So, too, he is able to abide and be at work in each of his members, giving us a share in his life and making us his coworkers in God’s plan of salvation.
In this way, his words are fulfilled: “We will come to [you] and make our dwelling with [you],” “Whoever believes in me will do the works I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I go to the Father,” and “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” ( Jn 14:12, 23; 20:21).
In a real sense, then, Jesus’ ascension is our entrance into glory. This is true not only because we hope to follow where our Head has gone. It’s true because united to him we share his glorious and heavenly life even now so that our citizenship is in Heaven.
This communion of the glorified Christ with his pilgrim people enables us to be in the world but not of the world, overcoming temptation and sin in holy lives of participation in his saving work as we await his coming. Jesus sustains us in joy and sorrow as our “anchor” who has already entered the Holy of Holies and simultaneously dwells within us. (Heb 6:19-20)
The precious fruit of the Ascension in Christian life is beautifully described by St. Paul: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27) Offering us that gift is why it was better for Jesus to go and why he sent the Spirit. It’s the reason we celebrate today’s feast. Our Savior reigns! Alleluia!
*The Ascension (L’Ascension) by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]. See Acts 1:9
*The Ascension by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]. See Acts 1:10-11