But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth. When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. [Acts 1:8-9]
When you read that last sentence from Acts describing 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 tend to reduce their meaning to a story that no longer can be taken literally in a scientific age? You surely know that these words would largely be scoffed at in the classrooms of our modern universities, including many nominally Catholic universities, and likewise in the news media and newsrooms. Polls today, for instance, show that college professors and media people such as news reporters and opinion pundits have a much higher incidence of irreligion and skepticism than the general population. I doubt that many of these so-called professionals would have anything but derision for that description of the Ascension 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 a bit more palatable, although the words “up to heaven” might leave some sense of unease among these enlightened folks. The problem for the hesitant believer, who would be a bit more at ease with the Gospel description, is that the same author, St. Luke, wrote both accounts. And so, why, logically, would one accept the prosaic description and not the other more descriptive one? Is it perhaps simply because it’s more embarrassing to have your intellectual peers scoff at the very idea of a body ascending 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. There were some who proposed that solution very early on in the Church. It was quickly rejected by the Church as heretical.
So 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 actually somewhat surprising that this “scoffing” should have occurred, since Luke had only just stated that in fact “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 fact is that these learned men of Athens were totally closed to that new claim. But why were these intellectuals so closed minded, especially when like our own intellectual class they considered themselves the truly open minded in their society? I would suggest they were closed minded for much the same reason that so many intellectuals and would-be intellectuals today either totally reject the resurrection and ascension as pure myth or, with hesitant Christians, they choose to explain them both by reducing them to purely interior spiritual events traceable to some kind of religious hysteria caused by and compensation for the catastrophe of the murder of Jesus their Master and Lord. Either way, they see them as non-historical stories.
The underlying reason for their being closed to the possibility of the resurrection or ascension being historical, real events, is their false understanding of what man really is, that is, their mistaken anthropology. The Greek intelligentsia Paul encountered had long rejected the myths of their own religions, and they were deeply divided in their understanding 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 irremediable end of man’s existence, period. The idea of a resurrection of a dead body, of pure matter, was nonsense to them, and so they understandably “scoffed” at Paul. Materialists are always radical scoffers in their skepticism toward religions.
The contrary Greek anthropology was probably more wide spread. To these men too, resurrection of the dead was simply mythological and utterly bizarre. These men followed the ideas of Plato and understood man as simply being a spirit, only temporarily dwelling in a body. Indeed, they viewed the body as a kind of drag on the spirit which would at death, thank the gods, simply be left behind as man reached human perfection as a pure spirit. Some Eastern religions promote similar ideas about man’s true nature to this day, and their influence seems to be growing among many former Christians in the western world. They think man again is a spirit trapped in matter, and they see man’s final destiny as total absorption into the One Supreme spirit. However, in our scientific western world today it is the materialist vision of man that now seems to have the upper hand, unlike in ancient Greece, or the far east, even if some former Christians have reverted to a purely spiritual survival of man, like Plato, or the pantheistic total absorption of the religions of the far east.
Christians clearly have never been 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 self identified intelligentsia. So Christian theologians, clergy and laity can be easily tempted to water down or radically reinterpret the teaching about a bodily resurrection and bodily ascension as purely mythic language not to be taken literally. Many Christians have also logically adopted this mythic approach to the resurrection to the Gospel accounts of miracles, and all of this clever demythologization, as they call it, has caused much confusion in the Church to this day.
Nonetheless, we see that St. Paul himself is not at all 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 the 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 ghostly body. He is very concrete in his descriptions here and elsewhere, as are the Gospels which show the risen Christ being touched and eating. And here 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 hard testimony of the witnesses, and thus of the Gospel Paul is preaching everywhere. This is exactly what the Apostles visibly witnessed and then handed down to the Church, including Paul and Luke.
So where, then, 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. Only if this is all factual can it strengthen faith, Paul’s or ours. Paul speaks of Jesus’ “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 the apostles witnessed, and we are believing in, that is, a new glorified body.
Now Paul also 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) All of this has to do not only with Jesus, but with us, with our true destiny. And here we find that word “glory” again, but now “the riches of his glory in his inheritance among the holy ones.” But we ourselves are that inheritance of Christ, and thus we in turn will inherit his glory in the resurrection. Our bodies too will be glorified in our resurrection and we will ascend bodily with Christ into glory. This is the abounding joy of the resurrection and ascension for us! But this joy totally depends on our taking these biblical accounts quite literally, and not just as beautiful myths.
Finally, we must also recall that Paul also says elsewhere “Glorify God in your bodies.” (1 Cor, 6:20) That sentence too 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 actually 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, hopefully you and I will also glorify God in the body simply by being a glorified bodily tabernacle of the Divine Persons for all eternity. That’s the Bible’s true anthropology, and thus Christians never run away from their bodies, never denigrate their bodies, but rather have their bodies sanctified with God’s grace, to be His lasting tabernacle in Heaven as Mary was already his tabernacle here on earth.
What irrepressible joy all this brings to true believers, and what terrible sadness envelopes people who don’t yet believe in the risen Christ and thus don’t understand at all man’s true greatness and glorious destiny. Thus unbelievers can’t even begin to understand the truth and meaning of the resurrection and ascension has for the happiness and joy of believers, the joy and happiness that God intended and makes possible for all mankind, if only men surrender to faith. So we must pray that today’s scoffers too will one day come to faith and share this same joy. Some of those intelligentsia in Athens apparently did this, and we have to believe that there are those among today’s scoffers who will also do so, perhaps if they witness in us, in the way we live our lives, the living truth of the resurrection in action.