We see often enough in great adventure films the moment when after the journey has come to an end, the bad guy has suffered total defeat, and all the loose ends are tied up, the hero walks off into the sunset while triumphant music plays. We might wonder why we love these endings so much, perhaps it’s simply a better option than having the hero go home back to the anticlimactic and banal duties of daily life, but they’re certainly commonplace enough. On this feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, it might seem that the Lord’s story ends in just this way. Having defeated sin and death on the Cross, having risen and demonstrated His victory to His Apostles, now He rises on the clouds and disappears, not into the setting sun, but into the perfect glory of heaven’s endless day. It just fits, and maybe we don’t think much more about it. Yet, though this feast of the Ascension might seem each year like a moment in the story of Christ that has little to do with our daily lives, a moment that is fine enough for the Lord, but does not have an effect on us, the truth is, the Ascension is of the utmost importance for every moment of our Christian journey.
In order to say how, we have to understand, what is Christ doing in the Ascension, and what are its effects?
First, what Christ is doing at the moment of the Ascension is completing the work of His resurrection, that is, healing and glorifying our human nature. There are several clues to this. The first is on Easter Sunday itself. When He appears to Mary Magdalene, and she reaches out to Him in overwhelmed joy, He says: “do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Immediately, we understand that the Lord hasn’t finished His work simply by coming back from the dead, but rather, He has more to accomplish. He also implies by telling Mary that she must not hold on to Him precisely because He has not yet ascended, that she is to hold on to Him after that fact, that something about His ascended presence will be necessary for her. We also ought to remember that Jesus has at no point during His life, death, or resurrection, ever left heaven. He is the eternal Son of the Father, so in His divinity, He is always in heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Looking the Ascension this way, Jesus isn’t really “returning” to heaven, but is simply bringing His human nature, the human nature that He shares with us, into the glory of the Father’s house.
This tells us something very important. On the Cross, Jesus suffered physically and spiritually, bearing the wounds of our sin, which has the effect of destroying the power of all sin. On Easter Sunday, He returns to life, which has the effect of restoring our souls to life after forgiveness. Today, He brings His human body and soul into heaven’s glory, which has the effect of raising all of us to the throne of the Father, above the angels. For Jesus did not die and rise to forgive our sins, just so we could go about our lives here on earth in a better way. He did not come to save us just so we could become good people here in time. He had more in mind. He wants us to share in the joy that He has in the Father’s presence, a joy which is echoed in the good things of this life, but which overwhelms them by an infinity of beauty. The Ascension of Jesus Christ achieves for us the glory of the children of God, not just children by analogy or metaphor, but true children, who share in the very nature and being of their Father in heaven. This moment calls us to remember where we are going, and to set our hearts where Christ is seated at God’s right hand, even in the midst of this world. Christ will return as He “left,” yes, but precisely so that He might bring us with Him where He has gone.