Ascension of the Lord

Preached Saturday evening, May 12, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

Whenever we speak of Jesus Christ, we must always keep in mind that the one divine person, the Son of God, is both true God and true man.  In his divine nature, he is eternal and unchanging, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In his divine nature he does not come down from heaven, because he both fills and transcends heaven and earth with his presence. Likewise, his divine nature does not ascend into heaven, because he is always there.

He comes down from heaven precisely by becoming man and being born of the Virgin Mary; so also it is the man Jesus Christ, who ascends into heaven and takes his seat at the right hand of the Father, clothed now with the glory of God.

When he became man, Jesus did not cease to possess the glory that belonged to him as the Son of God, but that glory was not revealed bodily during his earthly human life, except for a brief moment in his transfiguration. Even when Jesus rose from the dead he did not appear in the radiant glory of God, but still as a man in appearance like us, though immortal. When Jesus ascended into heaven this does not refer so much to a physical journey, but a transformation of his humanity; for Jesus to ascend meant that his humanity was completely transformed, even bodily, by the glory of God.

The Acts of the Apostles, in describing the event tells us that a cloud took him from their sight. In the language of Scripture, the cloud represents God’s glory.

 The Lord’s Ascension into heaven also marks the end of the time in which the man Jesus appears visibly upon the earth. He will not be seen again publicly until his return in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Jesus is hidden from our sight, however, not so much because he is removed from the world, set aside in some secret hiding place, but because he is exalted, even in his visibly, bodily life, to share fully in the glory of God. He is now hidden, in his humanity, the way that God, in his own nature, is hidden; He is hidden from one particular time and place, not so as to be separated from us, but so as to be present, in his humanity, in all times and places. In another Gospel he says, Behold, I am with you always, until to the end of the age. (Mt 28:20)

Pope St. Leo the Great, in the 5th century preached, “What was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries [or ‘sacraments’].” (Sermo 74, cited in CCC 1115) The inheritance of the sacraments is the visible correlative of Jesus’ Ascension, the manner in which he continues to be present among us in a visible fashion.

A cloud both reveals and conceals; the light of the sun passes through the cloud, though at diminished intensity, but the disc of the sun, in full glory, is hidden from view. The sacraments are a bit like the cloud that hid Jesus from sight; they both reveal and conceal; they let his light pass through in a measure that we can endure in this life, but they keep us from being overwhelmed by his full glory. The sacraments allow us now, in our earthly condition to share in Jesus’ glorious life, without being overwhelmed.

In one of the Prefaces of the Easter Season, the Church prays, “With the old order destroyed, a universe cast down is renewed, and integrity of life is restored to us in Christ.” (Preface IV of Easter)

The old order is the order of the universe marked by sin and death that we see around us. It has been destroyed not yet completely, but it has been marked out for destruction because a new transformed order has already begun in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. There is a continuity between the old order and the new, just as there is continuity between Jesus’ earthly life and his life at the right hand of the Father; there is continuity but that continuity passes by the way of the Cross.

The new transformed order already fully exists in Jesus Christ and in his Blessed Mother, who has also been assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven, and perhaps some other saints, such as St. Joseph; the new transformed order has been established in the saints in heaven who wait now only for the resurrection of their bodies; the new transformed order has already begun in us through the forgiveness of sins and the life of grace that has restored us to ‘integrity of life’ even here and now.

The sacraments, and especially the most Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, are the point of contact between our life here in this world destined to destruction and the new transformed order of Christ’s resurrection; the sacraments are the point of contact between Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of his Father, and us here upon earth.

If I might use a contemporary technological image, the sacraments are like God’s interactive ‘computer program’, but this program does not connect us with mere informational content and training, but with the very life of Jesus Christ, given to us through the Holy Spirit.

This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way you have seen him going into heaven.

The cloud of the sacraments has for the time hidden Jesus from our sight; when he returns, the cloud will disappear and Jesus will be visible in his glory.

Or as St. Paul puts it: You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. (Col 3:3)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.