No Biblical event is reported more variably in Scripture than the Ascension of Christ into heaven. Saints Matthew and Mark report that Jesus went ahead of the eleven apostles to Galilee and from a mountain in this northern province ascended into heavenly glory. St. Luke on the other hand has Jesus remain close by Jerusalem and ascend to his heavenly Father from Bethany, a village two miles from the Holy City. Both sites in the Holy Land today ambiguously welcome visitors to shrines commemorating Christ’s return to his Father after a forty day sojourn with his mystified disciples.
Matters get even more complicated when St. John does not tarry at all in having Jesus’ ascend to glory but positions Jesus’ ascent into heaven on Easter Sunday morning. In the fourth Gospel Jesus resists Mary Magdalene’s attempt to embrace his feet warning her, “Do not continue to touch me for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Then Christ instructs Mary to tell the disciples that he will meet them after he goes “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” True to his word, Jesus returns to the Eleven that Easter night in the upper room.
But whether Jesus ascends from Galilee or from Judea, whether his return to Father occurs on the morning of Easter or forty days after, the result is the same. The ascended Jesus Christ bestows upon the Eleven disciples and upon the Church at large the gift of the Holy Spirit. Clearly referring to the Holy Spirit, the ascending Jesus Christ advises his followers in the Acts of Apostles to wait in the city “until you are clothed with power from on high.” Again, an impatient St. John allows no waiting but has Christ hastily return from the Father on Easter night declaring, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then Christ breathes on the assembled disciples and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” empowering them with the heavenly gifts needed to carry on his work.
St. Paul whose letter to the Ephesians is the second reading this Sunday also connects the return of Christ to the Father and the sending of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul sees the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ as the final two steps toward the Savior’s own personal fulfillment, a fulfillment which Christ then disperses to the Church through the Spirit. God the Father exercised his “great might” in Christ by “raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion.” Once Christ’s glorification had reached its fulfilment through the Father’s might, Christ was then empowered to pass this fulfillment on to the Church: “He put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” Just as “in Adam’s fall we sinned all,” so in Christ’s ascension we all ascended. The glorification lavished by the Father on Christ, sitting him at his right hand, is now being continuously handed on to the Church, Christ’s followers, his body, in every generation. The heavenly splendor of the ascended Christ that stunned the disciples in the upper room or at Bethany or at the mountain in Galilee, wherever, is now fulfilling “all things in every way.” Christ’s glorification by the hand of the Father is the promise, in fact, the guarantee, of the Church’s glorification at the hand of Christ. What Christ is now in heaven, the Church will eventually be on earth.
A glance at the daily newspapers or even a moment of listening to the nightly news might lead any believer to question the efficiency of Christ’s bestowal on the Church of the power and might revealed in his Ascension. Middle East turmoil, European, African and Oceanic terror incidents, secularity threatening the world’s marital and family life, diminished piety among the young and old, racial, gender and economic inequalities, misuse of sex, drugs and guns – society’s sins are as endless as they are familiar. A handy pun could allow the Ascension to be easily dismissed as “pie in the sky on high.” Yet the power revealed by Christ’s Ascension is certainly valid, real and effective if only believers would take advantage of the resource available to them and to the world through faith, prayer, charity, the liturgy, the sacraments, the Scriptures, the Church, and the Christian life sincerely embraced. Christianity has altered history before. The message of the Ascension is that it can alter history once again.