Reflection & Dialogue: The Ascension of Christ. God is with us in strength. Dialogue on how to express ourselves about God and the divine.
Reflection on this feast of Christ’s ascension into heaven, to the right hand of the Father, presents an opportunity to satisfy our minds and our hearts on questions we may have with regard to the meaning of this ascension historically considered, and its significance for the Christian mystery of salvation. The ascension of Christ in the New Testament texts can be considered in two ways: as, so to speak, ‘historical’ and theological. In the historical sense it is presented as an event visible to human sight. This is how it is presented in the first reading today and in the Gospel of Luke – both from St Luke. While the Gospel text would give the impression that the ascension occurred on Easter Sunday itself, the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles says it occurred after forty days. The text of Acts is really describing the last visible encounter of Jesus with his disciples after his resurrection. Various Gospel texts speak of Jesus appearing to his followers after his resurrection and St Paul (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) lists six such appearances, without specifying any time period. Luke in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives this as forty days. So much for the ascension ‘historically’ considered.
In all the other New Testament texts, as in today’s Alternative Second Reading, the ascension of Christ is considered theologically. The ascension is another aspect of Christ’s resurrection, of his glorification, as partly expressed in today’s second reading: Christ entered heaven itself so that he could appear in the actual presence of God on our behalf. He ascended on high to plead on our behalf as a compassionate high priest. Seated at God’s right hand he gives gifts to his church, all the charisms that are required for its mission on earth. Through his ascension and glorification he is also directing the minds of his followers towards their true home which is heaven, and calling on them to avoid sinful ways.
Language such as “ascension”, implying a “God up there” can be off-putting for many today, and some seek ways of avoiding it. But it is well to recall that such expressions are offset by the Christian belief in God as a spiritual not material, Being. But given the weakness of human language in speaking of the mystery, of the infinite, we can hardly avoid such terms, while recognizing their limitations. Monotheism, whether Jewish or Christian, was from the beginning and will always remain the worship of an unseen God, but nonetheless of a person, a personal God who has revealed his will, his love and his plan for salvation to humanity. We as mortals must conceive and speak of the mystery of this divine Being in frail human speech. This is all variance with certain modern views, which reject the idea of a “God up there”, and invoke newer theological concepts such as God as “ground of our being”, or call for a secular theology, with situational ethics. While earlier “mythical” language in the expression of belief is rightly objected to or rejected and while newer approaches to the expression of our Christian faith are always welcome, the central truths can never be forgotten or set aside.
A final matter for reflection is that the ascension of Christ, which we celebrate, and all that it signifies can only be grasped through prayer for Christian enlightenment.