Luke the Evangelist, through the Acts of the Apostles and from his Gospel, helps us to situate the biblical narrative of this event after the resurrection of Jesus. A quick reading of these accounts illustrates for us some theological necessities of Christ’s physical ascension (analepsis) into heaven which deserve some reflection. First, besides the idea of having to return to the Father after completing his saving mission here on earth, Jesus had to be seen by witnesses rising into the clouds in a physical shape and form to corroborate the fundamental claim of the resurrection, that is, that Jesus, indeed, rose from the dead in exactly the same material constitution as the one in which he died; that the risen Christ was not a formless ghost or spirit, nor a figment of the disciples’ imagination. In a sense, for Christians, especially in later years, the event of the physical ascension of Jesus functions to solidify the doctrine of the resurrection. Second, the event of the Ascension also marks the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that his eventual departure entails the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (John 16:7; cf. 14:16, 26; 15:26). Therefore, as it authenticates the physical resurrection of Jesus, the analepsis also marks the inauguration of the mission of the Spirit whose decisive inbreaking took place in a dramatic way at the Feast of the Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). As such, the ascension of the risen Christ intensifies the anticipation of the coming of the Holy Spirit who St. Paul speaks, in our second reading, as that “wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of God.” It is the same Spirit that unlocks the riches of God’s glory manifested in the paschal mystery, St. Paul adds.
The third necessity linked to this feast is more pastoral than theological in the sense as it caters to the spiritual needs and hopes of Christians. In his teachings, Jesus repeatedly alludes to a reality beyond the here-and-now; he speaks of an eternal heavenly kingdom as distinguished from the ephemeral earthly one. He also refers to a metaphysical dimension from which he came forth or from which his Father had sent him down to the earth. The Book of Revelation describes such “a location” or “a state of life” as where “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain” (21:4; Is. 25:8; cf. Rev. 7:17). In a sense, without the event of the physical ascension of Jesus, all of these otherworldly references would have remained speculative for the disciples, perhaps, similar in tone to the yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecies and promises of old. But, having witnessed Jesus ascending and slowly vanishing from their view must have poignantly reminded them that where Jesus goes, they too, shall follow. Once in the Gospel of John, Simon Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” He replied, “Now you cannot follow me where I am going, but later you shall follow me” (Jn. 13:36).
No doubt the empty tomb and the physical appearances of the risen Christ had decisively validated Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection, and thus, ratified the divine power which he claimed to possess. Notwithstanding these marvels, however, the disciples would have thought, “so what if our master is powerful and divine… but, we are still left with our unfulfilled hopes and dreams.” Their struggle to believe in his resurrection may be indicative of their lingering frustration owing to their unmet dreams and expectations. In our first reading, the disciples’ query asking Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel” may attest to their abiding unfulfilled longings. The event of the Ascension, therefore, was for the disciples, a compelling visual confirmation of that soon-to-be-fulfilled heavenly promise about which Jesus repeatedly taught. They became convinced that all the baffling loose ends in their lives will, in time, be illuminated and become meaningful. That Jesus was miraculously, physically ascending before their very eyes somehow gave the disciples a moment of “now, I see what he was talking about;” for them, it concretized what was hitherto unembodied teaching. Ultimately, the Ascension of our Lord into heaven served to revive and boost their faith; in fact, our Gospel ends by saying, they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy and they were continually in the temple praising God.”
We Christians of the twenty-first century may not have the privilege of witnessing what the disciples saw with their own bare eyes. But we are nonetheless blessed to have shared in the uninterrupted legacy of their faith that makes us, even now, partakers of the richness of God’s inheritance. Yes, by our human nature, we often identify ourselves with the weaknesses and incredulities of Jesus’ disciples. But by our faith, we also have the possibility of looking through their eyes of faith witnessing Jesus ascending in his glory as he promised. His ascension gives credence to the idea that if the head of the mystical body ascends, so does the whole body. We, the body of Christ, celebrate the analepsis annually not simply to validate our faith in the resurrection of Jesus but also to remind us and bid us see that our temporal sojourn — with its attendant vicissitudes, its joys and sorrows — ascends, so to say, to a transcendent dimension where all the pieces of our existence will one day be transformed into a meaningful tapestry. As Jesus ascends, so does our hopes, our dreams, and our existential questions with him. The Ascension of our Lord into heaven is, therefore, a word of hope for all those who believe.