Scripture Readings, May 21, 2023

May 21, 2023

Ascension of the Lord, Year A

Acts 1:1-11

Psalms 47:2-3, 6-9

Ephesians 1:17-23

Matthew 28:16-20

The Ascension is strange. Rather, the Ascension is strange to our limited categories of understanding, which it invites us to break wide open in Christ.

Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to a wide variety of his disciples for 40 days after his Resurrection. We mark that 40th day from Easter this Thursday, to be precise, though most dioceses in the United States, including our own, transfer the feast to Sunday. From the flood at the time of Noah to Israel’s wandering in the wilderness to Jesus’ fasting in the desert, the number 40 tracks throughout the Bible as a period of purification and preparation, but it also tracks as an indication of transition into something entirely new.

All of a sudden, on day 40, as the apostles began to ask Jesus whether now was the time for him to restore the kingdom of Israel, he was lifted up and taken from their sight in a cloud. (cf. Acts 1:6-9) The natural question for us is, “Where did he go?” And, “Why did he not stay with us to reign on earth forever?” The answer is something entirely new.

It is tempting to think of Jesus’ Ascension as a kind of transportation to a distant star, as if Elon Musk could go to join him if he were to design the right rocket ship and set the right trajectory. But the Ascension is not about space travel, it is about the reunification of heaven and earth, and it marks an entirely new chapter in that project.

In the beginning, heaven and earth were one, as Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden of Eden. Sin led to exile from that state of union, and several times over the course of salvation history, God came down to rectify that division and dwell in the midst of our exiled state: at Mount Sinai and the Tabernacle and the Temple. In his Incarnation, God descended to dwell among us as never before. But his mission was not simply to bring a little bit of heaven to earth. We see in the Ascension that his mission was ultimately to bear the earth (our corporeal existence) up into heaven.

“Heaven’s existence,” as Joseph Ratzinger puts it in his book “Eschatology” (234), “depends upon the fact that Jesus Christ, as God, is man, and makes space for human existence in the existence of God himself. One is in heaven when, and to the degree, that one is in Christ.”

Christ’s project is bigger than being in this or that place, coming or going, here or there. It is rather to reunite heaven and earth in a total way. “This is why heaven escapes spatial determination,” Ratzinger continues. (236-237) “It lies neither inside nor outside the space of our world, even though it must not be detached from the cosmos as some mere ‘state.’ Heaven means, much more, that power over the world which characterizes the new ‘space’ of the body of Christ, the communion of saints. Heaven is not, then, ‘above’ in a spatial but in an essential way.”

As St. Paul puts it, in “raising (Jesus) from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,” God the Father, “put all things beneath (Jesus’) 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.” (Ephesians 1:22-23) As Christ ascends, it is as if he takes all creation with him and so becomes “over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:6) “Christ the firstfruits; then at his coming, those who belong to Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:23)

“This enables us to pronounce upon the legitimacy, as well as the limitations, of the traditional images (of heaven),” Ratzinger proposes. “They retain their truth so long as they evoke transcendence over, and freedom from, the world’s constraints, and the power of love which overcomes the world. They become false if they either remove heaven altogether from relation with this world, or if they attempt to integrate it totally into the world, as some kind of upper story. By utilizing many images, it keeps open a perspective on the Indescribable. In particular, by announcing a new heaven and a new earth (in Revelation 21), the Bible makes it clear that the whole of creation is destined to become the vessel of God’s Glory.” (237)

By his Ascension, Christ forgoes the good of governing well in this or that province over the course of history in order to achieve a vastly grander project. He subsumes all into the all of God’s being, and so becomes all to all, “with (us) always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) The Eucharist is the “spatial” place where these mysteries are opened up to us, as through a veil, torn open in the Mass, inviting us to enter, here and now, into the glory of God and the reunification of all that is, in the body of Christ.