When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. Acts 1:9
When you hear these words from Acts about the bodily ascension of Jesus into Heaven, how does your mind react to them? Do you kind of flinch like so many skeptical people today who would reduce their meaning to a myth that no longer can be taken literally in a scientific age? You must know that these words would largely be scoffed at in the classrooms of our modern universities, including many so-called
Catholic universities, as well as in the centers of media, newsrooms and entertainment producers. Polls show that college professors and media folk, such as news reporters and opinion molders, have a much higher incidence of irreligion and skepticism than the general population. I doubt that many of these folk would have anything but derision for such claims as we find in Acts.
Perhaps some nominally Christian academics and Christian members of the establishment intelligentsia at large might be somewhat more at ease with Luke’s Gospel description of the same event:
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, raised his hands, and blessed them. As he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.
The absence of the cloud in this text might seem to make the description more palatable, even if the words “up to heaven” might leave some sense of unease among the enlightened intellectuals. However, there remains this problem for the semi-believer, that the same author, St. Luke, wrote both accounts. And so, why, logically, accept one description and not the other? Is it perhaps simply because it’s more embarrassing to have your intellectual peers scoff at the idea of a body going up in a cloud? How unscientific is that! Perhaps one could escape this ridicule simply by getting rid of the body as well as the cloud, and just have Jesus disappearing into Heaven in spirit.
The risen, glorified body has always been a problem for the skeptical mind. St. Paul ran into that skepticism when he preached the Gospel in Athens, the intellectual center of his time, and the philosophical intelligentsia seemed to be somewhat interested in his message until he mentioned Jesus having risen from the dead! At that point we are told by Luke that “When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff…” It’s somewhat surprising that this scoffing should result since Luke had only slightly earlier stated that “all the Athenians as well as the foreigners residing there used their time for nothing else but telling or hearing something new.” Now what could be something more dramatically new than a man rising from the dead?
But the truth is that these learned men were totally closed to that new claim; but why? I would suggest they were closed minded for a reason that likewise explains why people today either totally reject the resurrection as truth or, like hesitant Christians, want to water down the truth, reducing the resurrection of Jesus to some kind of purely spiritual event traceable to some kind of religious hysteria caused by the catastrophe of the murder of Jesus their Master and Lord.
This common reason for being closed to the possibility of the resurrection is their false understanding of what man really is, that is, a false anthropology. The Greek intelligentsia had already rejected the myths of their own religions, and they were deeply divided in their views of man’s true nature. Some of these learned men believed man was pure matter, and had no spiritual soul, so death for them meant the end of man’s existence, period. The idea of a resurrection of a dead body of pure matter seemed nonsense to them, and so they scoffed at Paul. Materialists are always radical in their skepticism.
The contrary Greek anthropology was probably more wide spread. To them it also sounded too mythological and too bizarre. These men followed the ideas of Plato and understood man as simply a spirit temporarily dwelling in a body, and they viewed the body as a kind of drag on the spirit which would at death be left behind as man reached human perfection. Some Eastern religions promote such ideas about man’s true nature to this day, and their influence seems to be growing among many former Christians in the western world. However, in our scientific western world today the materialist vision of man now seems to have the upper hand, unlike in ancient Greece, although many former Christians have reverted to a purely spiritual survival of man and a survival without the body.
Christians are not immune from these various false theories of man. No one wants to be considered unscientific and backwards in his or her thinking, especially members of the so-called intelligentsia. So Christian theologians, clergy and laity can be easily tempted to water down or reinterpret the teaching about a bodily resurrection and ascension as mythic language not to be taken literally. Many Christians have adopted this approach to the resurrection and Gospel accounts of miracles, and it has caused much confusion in the Church to this day.
Nonetheless, we see that St. Paul is not hesitant to affirm the bodily aspects of the resurrection and ascension. He was himself ridiculed in Athens and elsewhere for preaching such things, but he did not back down or change the message to accommodate the scoffers. To thr Corinthians Paul says:
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15: 17-19)
Paul is not speaking here about a mythical resurrection or a ghost body. He is very concrete in his descriptions here and elsewhere, as are the Gospels that show the risen Christ being touched and eating. And when Luke is describing the ascension of the risen body on a cloud, he is writing as Paul’s scribe, not that Paul witnessed this himself, but this is clearly the Gospel Paul is preaching everywhere. This is what the Apostles witnessed and hand down to the Church, including Paul and Luke.
So where do we ourselves stand on this matter of the Resurrection and Ascension? That is the challenge that confronts us in the account of the resurrection and ascension in the Gospels and Acts and in Paul’s Letters. Do we really believe in and hope for this “new thing” that they proclaim has happened in our world, that Jesus was truly raised from the dead and truly ascended into Heaven in his glorified body. Now there is the idea that will help strengthen our faith ion this truth; Paul speaks of his “glorified” body. An earthly body cannot ride on a cloud, true, but the glorified body is not an earthly body restricted by the laws of physics. Jesus passed through the walls of the upper room; so surely he can rise on a cloud! It all has to do with a new kind of body were believing in, that is, a glorified body.
Now Paul says in today’s second reading, “May the eyes of [your] hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones.” (Eph 1:18) There is that word “glory” again, “the riches of his glory in his inheritance among the holy ones.” But we ourselves are the inheritance of Christ, and we in turn inherit his glory in the resurrection. Our bodies too will be glorified in our resurrection. This is the abounding joy of the resurrection for us!
Finally, recall that Paul also says elsewhere “Glorify God in your bodies.” (1 Cor, 6:20) That defines neatly what man is; the creature who glorifies God in his flesh. In this world, man does this by his moral life, his spiritual life, his freedom and intelligence. What a marvel it is that God has created a creature that is both spirit and matter, a bodily creature, but one that lives a spirit’s existence as a free and intelligent being giving glory to God in both his bodily and spiritual goodness and activity. And in heaven this unique creature and image of God will also glorify God in the body simply by being a bodily tabernacle of the Divine Persons for all eternity. That’s the Bible’s anthropology, and thus Christians don’t run away from their bodies, don’t denigrate their bodies, but rather have them sanctified with God’s grace, to be His lasting tabernacle. What irrepressible joy all this is for true believers, and what terrible sadness envelopes people who don’t believe in the risen Christ and thus don’t truly understand man’s greatness and glory, and thus can’t even begin to understand the meaning of the resurrection and ascension for the happiness and joy that God intended for all mankind, from the beginning. May they one day come to faith and share our joy.