Ascension 2016 – complete text
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? 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? We surely 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 modern media, the newsrooms and entertainment world. Polls actually 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 a quiet derision for such claims as we find in the account of the Ascension in Acts.
Perhaps some nominally Christian academics and Christian members of the establishment intelligentsia 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 just a bit more palatable, even if the words “up to heaven” might leave some sense of uneasiness among the enlightened. However, there is a certain problem here for the moderate, semi-believer, for 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 one day in the presence of some disciples.
The underlying problem here is in fact the glorified, risen body itself, and this has always been a problem for the skeptical mind. St. Paul ran into that very skepticism when he preached the Gospel in Athens, the intellectual center of his day. We are told that 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…” Now it’s actually a bit surprising that this scoffing should have resulted when Paul mentioned the resurrection 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.” Indeed. Now what could be something more dramatically new than a man rising from the dead? Why was this new idea so immediately rejected by many Athenians?
But the fact is that these learned men of Athens were totally closed to that particular new idea and event; but why? I would suggest they were so totally closed minded for one simple reason that likewise explains why so many learned people today either totally reject the fact of the resurrection or, like hesitant Christians, want to water down this truth. Even many “believers” want to make the resurrection more palatable by reducing the resurrection of Jesus to some kind of purely spiritual event, perhaps generated by some kind of religious hysteria caused by the catastrophe of the murder of Jesus their Master and Lord. In other words, it’s the product of imaginative wishful thinking compensating for the trauma of the events of Good Friday.
But the root of this skepticism goes deeper yet. This deeper root of this mind set being totally closed to the possibility of the resurrection is a false understanding of what man really is, that is, a false philosophical anthropology. By the time of Paul, the most of the Greek intelligentsia had already rejected the “myths” of their own religions, and they were deeply divided in their philosophical understanding of man’s true nature. Some of these learned men believed that 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 then and now are always radical in their skepticism.
The contrary Greek anthropology was probably more wide spread. To them also a resurrection sounded too mythological and too bizarre. For the followers of Plato, who still dominated Greek philosophy, man was defined simply as a spirit temporarily dwelling in a body, and they viewed the body as a kind of drag on the spirit, a virtual prison, which would at death happily be left behind as the liberated soul rose to a higher existence and reached human perfection separated from the body. Some Eastern religions also promote such ideas about man’s spiritual 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, it’s the materialist vision of man that now seems to have the upper hand, unlike in ancient Greece, although some former Christians have reverted to a purely spiritual notion of man and purely spiritual survival of man without the body.
Christians have never been immune from these various false theories of man. Today, 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 at all literally. Many Christians have adopted this approach to the resurrection, the ascension and the Gospel miracles, and it has caused much confusion in the Church to this day.
Nonetheless, we see that St. Paul 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. For instance, to the Corinthians Paul writes:
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)
Now 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 which 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 to 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, in 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 we have a detail that can help strengthen our faith in this truth; that is, the fact that Paul speaks of Christ’s “glorified” body. An earthly body may not be able ride on a cloud, true, but the glorified body is not an earthly body. Jesus somehow passed through the walls of the upper room; can he not make his glorified body do similar things? It all has to do with the 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 we see 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 sentence defines well what man really is; the creature who glorifies God in his flesh. In this world, man does this by his moral life, his spiritual life, by the proper use of 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 enjoys key aspects of a spirit’s existence, as a free and intelligent being, band thus a creature that can give 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.
Thus does the Ascension confirm the Bible’s unique anthropology and vision of man, which includes the truth that man’s body is created for God and to enjoy God. Jesus has now taken his/our humanity into the very inner sanctum of the Trinity. We are also there even now because we live in Christ as members of his body. One day we will experience the full beatitude even in the flesh that follows from this union with God in Christ. No angel has ascended to this level in God; only the humanity of Christ has this privilege and we have it in Him.
Thus believing Christians never run away from their bodies, never denigrate their bodies, but rather they have them sanctified with God’s grace, so they can be God’s everlasting tabernacle. What irrepressible joy all this brings to the hearts of true believers, and what terrible sadness envelopes people who don’t believe in the risen Christ and thus don’t truly understand man’s true greatness and glory. Infidels can’t even begin to understand the true meaning and implications of the resurrection and ascension for the happiness and joy that God intended for all mankind, from the beginning. May they too, we pray, come one day to this faith and share our joy.